July 12th, 2013

Too Many Papers to Grade? Two Solutions


I mostly teach basic technical writing, and I face the same problem that confronts many of us who teach writing. It’s hard enough getting students to do the assignments, and almost impossible to get them to do a first draft. But writing takes practice, and if you require students to practice, that leads to an inevitable mountain of papers to grade. At my college, the trend is toward bigger classes and fewer course hours in English. This makes giving students the chance to practice all the more important, and providing the necessary feedback all the more challenging. I’d like to share a couple of solutions I’ve devised that help me deal with both these problems.

I try to have students do at least one draft before they hand in a graded assignment. Some of my students refuse. They don’t do anything if it does not generate a grade. Arguing that submitting a draft and getting feedback will likely yield a higher grade doesn’t work. The joy of doing nothing trumps the possibility of a better grade.

Even accounting for refusniks, this approach often leaves me offering feedback on two pieces of writing for every graded assignment, and that’s a lot of work. Here’s my solution. I tell students that if their draft is an A-level piece of work, I will put that grade on their draft and give them a choice: they may keep that grade or do the formal assignment in the hopes of earning an even higher grade. (At my college grades are numerical, with anything 80 and over considered an A grade. Students with an 84 might feel they could do even better. A student with an A- might be willing to work for an A.) All the other drafts are returned with feedback but no grades. Those who do not submit A-level work must do the graded assignment.

With the bar set high—A-level or do more work on that paper—I see students putting a lot more effort put into their draft papers. This isn’t true of all students, but of more than I expected. I almost always get some A-level work. If a student shows me that he or she can write an A-level incident report on the first go (after my brilliant lectures, of course), then I don’t need to see the student do it twice to believe it. This reduces the amount of work the student must produce and the amount of grading I must do.

Additionally, or as a stand-alone alternative, I sometimes allow teams of two to do the writing assignment. This is my second solution for reducing the time I must spend providing feedback and grades. The team approach yields some quality drafts even if offered without the A-level carrot. Two students working (or arguing) with each other over how to do an assignment seems to produce a good number of well-done pieces of work. I restrict this to teams of two. In larger groups the work is not always divided evenly among members.

I have tried other, blunter approaches to force students to do drafts. For example, I tried setting up a rule that no graded assignment could be submitted if a draft had not been submitted first. The approach was not successful. Students didn’t devote much effort to the drafts—they handed in any piece of crap (the technical term) just to meet the requirement. This actually increased the amount of time I spent grading. Commenting on poor writing is more time consuming than commenting on well-done work. Besides, it’s a punitive approach, which the students recognize and resent.

One of my courses this semester has more than 100 students (broken into four sections for students from two different disciplines). Two reports plus a number of other writing assignments are required in the course. The two reports mean 400 papers to grade if each student does a draft and revised final report. Add the other assignments, not to mention work in other courses I deliver, and I have more grading than I can handle. Offering the A-level carrot yields a more realistic amount of grading, especially combined with the team approach.

Although I speak to this from an English teacher’s perspective, I have no doubt the approach would work for pretty much any discipline. If you are facing similar grading loads, and I am certain I am not alone, then you might give these approaches a try.

Reprinted from Too Many Papers: Two Solutions, The Teaching Professor, 26.6 (2012): 8.

  • Daniel Scharfman

    I have two sections of a class, with an average of 20 students per section. Not the same as your, but it does get tedious to grade reflection papers, final papers and other gradable items.
    One approach I adopted is to divide the research paper into multiple parts: 10 sample MLA assignment; 2) topic and three resources; 3) review of the literature; 4) outline; 5) rough draft and 6) final paper.
    I found that by breaking down the paper into these sections improves the quality of the final product. One bonus – similar to yours – if the rough draft is good, I tell them to resubmit as the final paper. The last assignment is to provide a one page summary to present the last day of class.
    Second, each assignment is due on different weeks in the quarter, with the final paper due week 9 of the quarter.
    One additional bonus – anyone who submits a piece early earns a few points of extra credit – makes it easier on me.

  • Another strategy is to divide each section into groups (for instance, A group and B group) that turn work in on alternate days or weeks. It could be tricky to keep track of multiple sets of due dates. But perhaps less tricky than getting all of the work turned in at once.

    One problem with allowing the "draft" to count as the final if it's good enough is that that may encourage students to try to "get it right the first time" which can undermines the whole writing process that assigning a draft in the first place attempts to promote.

    But when we have too many students to teach outright effectively, there are not going to be any perfect solutions. So we have to "compromise." That is, we have to make trade offs to at least teach as effectively as possible for the given circumstances. So in that spirit, thanks for sharing these working solutions.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

  • Barb Scantlebury

    My solution to grading papers is just to set aside a specific time and buckle down and grade them all. I have tried over the years to find a short cut but to no avail !! I find too, over time, one becomes very adept and so the grading session goes really quickly.

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  • Geoffrey Beane

    Peer review can help cut the workload down. Assign a writing task for the first half of the class, then use the second half of the class for the students to review each other's writing. I also use an online tool (called writerkey.com ) to do what barb says… just buckle-down and do it. this tool allows me to leave formative feedback faster than i coudl through traditional means. it has built-in rubrics and objectives (and is aligned to state standards as needed/desired). I was able to build my own rubrics too. It has peer editing and writing conferences in it and also keeps an ongoing student writing portfolio. the students get their papers back int he same tool and as they roll over my feedback, the tool automatically adds-in additional instructional resources. the feedback i give is also tracked and i can then see how students performed on an assignment. I can tell who needs more help and on what. It also has draft revision analysis tools in it so I can see how much effort students have put into drafts. It even has a similarity index that can be used to check writing for plagiarism!

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