10 Tips for Efficient Essay Grading

Essay Grading

For me, grading essays is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching high school English (see my top 10 here). I don’t have a problem with deciphering handwriting or subjectively evaluating a written piece. I have a problem with the incredibly long hours I dedicate to the (sometimes thankless) sport of essay grading. I teach 1 advanced placement and 4 college prep English classes, which average 30 students per class. I know that many teachers have it far worse than I do, but I have to work very hard to keep my head above the essay-filled water! While we’re talking essays, you should totally check out the newly revised Essay Architect Writing System.  Here are some of the tips I have gathered along the way to make the essay grading a little more manageable:

1. Stagger deadlines: I teach 2 American lit, 2 British lit, and an AP language course. To make my life a little easier, I try to create long-term plans that insure that my classes will not have essay deadlines on the same week. Sometimes deadlines collide and I regret it later, but as we all know the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry. I’m not sure if I could do this as effectively if I taught the same subject all day. It drives me a little crazy when my classes get off from each other, but maybe with some thoughtful planning, it could work out.
2. Find a happy place:  I have to have a place where I will be most comfortable and productive.  It is a place where I won’t be too comfy and fall asleep, too distracted and lose my train of thought, or too ill-prepared and struggle for the right pens and paperclips.  It seems like every year my happy place changes. One year it was my home office. Another year I loved the big wooden table in our scarcely used library.  This year has found me (probably too often) at Starbucks cozied up with a venti skinny mocha, extra espresso shot.  Where is your essay grading happy place? I think it is time for me to find a new spot.
3. Develop a rubric: There are many great ideas for rubrics floating out there, but you have to select something that clearly outlines your priorities and policies.  I require students attach the rubric to every paper so I can just circle some areas that need work and save time on note writing.
4. Require proofreading:  I do not have time to grade papers that don’t capitalize the beginning of a sentence or accidentally write form instead of from. I find that requiring students to get papers proofread in advance helps to catch those small things.  I usually have students attach a draft with proof that 1-3 people proofread and made suggestions and we have a little chat about finding competent proofreaders. One of my goals for next year is to look into how to save some trees on this step with google doc editing.
5. Set a timer: To help keep me on a pace, I set a timer for 4-7 minutes depending on the paper and my preferences. When the timer goes off I know I need to make final remarks and move on. I just started this one this year and so far it has been helping a lot.
6. Sort papers: This one causes quite the controversy in my own head, but I use it occasionally when I really need to get psyched up to read papers. When I am having a rough time getting started, I will sort them with a couple of the students who usually excel in writing on the top, the less successful in the middle and the middle of the road at the end.  When we are talking timed-write I sort by handwriting, making sure that the tough ones don’t all end up at the end when my eyes are already falling out.  The controversy here is found in the worry that I will unconsciously pre-judge a paper giving it an unfair advantage or disadvantage based on the initial sorting.  I try to only use this technique when I need that extra push to get started.  I’d love to hear your opinion on whether or not this is legit or totally messed up.
7. Create a key: Create a key so that students know that RO means run-on, IC means incomplete sentence, CM means needs more commentary, etc.  Post that key in your classroom and give students a handout copy to keep in their binders.  This will save a ton of time in comment writing.
8. Grade the whole stack: We all do it.  We get into a paper stack and we start the bargaining.  “If I grade 5 more, I get to check Facebook, then if I grade 2 more, I can watch 10 minutes of my show, etc”.  Sometimes this is absolutely necessary, but I think that staying in the essay grading mode without breaks for a whole class helps grading go by faster and is arguably more fair to all students as I am in the same mind set for all papers.
9. Require self-assessment: I ask students to grade their own papers according to my rubric and attach the rubric to their paper.  This gives me some insight into their metacognition and helps students think more effectively about how the paper will be graded, causing more corrections before turning it in.
10.Create feedback notes: This adds a little bit of work in the short-term, but helps me tremendously in the long-term.  When I am grading papers, I make a note of common successes and errors.  Then, when I give back papers, I go through things I loved and areas of improvement on a powerpoint quoting students anonymously.  Students look through their papers as we talk to see if they had the same successes or areas of growth.  For many, this forces reflection on my comments and helps to make the correction or continue the success in future papers, thus making papers-to-be easier for me to grade.

What are your tips and tricks for efficient essay grading?   I’d love to add to my list and save myself some sanity as we go into the next semester!

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  1. This is the aspect of teaching Senior English that I struggle with the most (even after 21 years). Thanks for addressing it, and providing some really helpful tips. I particularly liked the one about getting at least 3 people to proofread the work before submission. I’m definitely going to be trying that one next year. I spend a LOT of time correcting/highlighting simple errors that should have been picked up earlier.

    When I have to mark a set of papers, I often do a ‘pre-read’ (just quickly read over the whole paper, not correcting anything or writing any comments) and put them in a rough order. Then I mark from the bottom up, taking my time to comment and correct. At this stage, I often take rough (often not PC) notes to help me formulate a more comprehensive and constructive final comment. I find it takes me a LOT longer than 7 minutes a paper, though.

    Where I find I get into trouble, is that our students are permitted to have 2 drafts checked (and given feedback) by the teacher prior to submission – so I not only have a massive pile of essays to mark, I’ll have twice as many drafts to check and give feedback. It’s exhausting – and I only work one day a week (I teach 2 classes – each class has a 3 hour lesson with me once a week). Heaven help me if I ever go back full-time. :-)

    • Goodness gracious! That sounds like a TON of grading, but it sounds like you have a great system to handle it! I would sink if I spent that much time on all 150 of my students. Sending good teacher vibes your way. ;)

  2. I also sort papers. I find it helps me get started if I know that the first few in the stack won’t take as long to grade :)

  3. Your frustrations echo my own! I teach 9th grade, and I have found that students must be taught that proofreading step.
    I have started using proofreading as a first step of the grading process.I do this with capitalization, possessives, agreement, passive voice, present tense verbs, third person pronouns, etc. I call it musical chairs… and I have a rubric for peer grading and a method:
    1) author of paper reads his/her own paper and finds specific error and corrects in red ink. These errors count 1 point each.
    2) change desks (2 -3 times for each skill) and grade a different peer using a PENCIL; errors found now count two points.
    3) author goes back to his/her own paper and acknowledges mistakes or erases errors he/she feels are NOT errors.
    Now when I take up this typed essay, I have many of the errors marked for me in red ink (or pencil) and students are learning HOW to proofread. Many students seem to be improving in their ability to find their own mistakes and a much more applicable teaching of grammar, mechanics, and usage!
    I still grade hours, but comments are focused more about the writing. Thank you all for the tips; it helps to know that I am not ALONE!

  4. Two other tips: I grade 5 the day they come in so that I don’t put them off for too long, and I give comments (without a grade) on the first draft and then fewer comments (mostly circles on the rubric) in the final draft, and lastly I’ve tried to work on getting my students to become better self-editors which helps me in the long run.

  5. I, too, teach AP Lang and struggle with the amount of time I spend grading the numerous essays. Being a Reader has helped me become faster, but I learned that the kids learn most from my comments (I’ve also done the post wrap PPP). One thing I do that has really helped… A stamp. Through vistaprint (it was free) I had a self inking stamp made with my most common comments. Talk about cutting my writing time!! Your post gave me lots to think about. Thanks!

    • I have to get on that stamp business; thanks for the pro tip! I want to be a reader someday, but the timing just hasn’t worked out yet. I’m sure that helps a TON with grading more inline with the College Board’s expectations.

  6. I just (at 2:00 this morning) finished grading the last of 66 revisions, and I wish I had come across these suggestions earlier! I LOVE your idea for self-assessment! My students are ESL (intermediate to advanced), so this might be more challenging for them, but I would love to try it.

    My students are allowed a first draft and a revision. Before I grade the first drafts, I do a quick read-through and sort the papers into check-minus, check, and check-plus piles. I mark the check-minus stack first. This not only helps me get through the “worst” ones first, but also gives me the option of returning the draft to the struggling students earlier than other students so they have more time to revise and a better chance to improve their writing.

    • I taught ESL when I first started teaching, and I’m inspired by your story as I know how much work you are doing. It sounds like you are doing an amazing job and totally earning this vacation!

  7. Your suggestions are terrific! I, too, sort in the same way you do. I found early on that it’s too depressing to leave the struggling writers for last, and putting them first deflates my resolve for plowing through the remainder. Might I ask a favor? I’m a first-year English teacher…might I persuade you to share your rubric? I’m still feeling my way along, and I feel like I improve with every set of essays I read. Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m not doing the best I can for my students because of my inexperience. A little guidance from a seasoned veteran would help immensely.

    Thank you for the post. It’s very informative and motivational!

  8. I teach eighth grade English as well as American Lit. Like you, I have spent countless hours grading essays. This year, I was fortunate to move my classroom into a computer lab. Aiming to incorporate the computers in a positive way, I had each student purchase a flash-drive. At the beginning of the semester, I taught them how to set up their drives, create folders, etc. The students type all their essays on the computer and I can use the editing features of Microsoft Word, which saves me tons of time! I also download and attach the rubric to the end of their papers. It amazed me to see how excited they were to go to the computers, pull up their grades, and read my comments. I make certain we allow for five minutes of class when the flash-drives are returned to complete this feedback process.

    • That is awesome! I’m so glad you are finding ways to create efficient feedback in a digital world.

  9. I have found that printing labels for hard copies, or cutting and pasting the rubric on each electronic submission (as in EDMODO or GOOGLE DOCS) saves time because you can check the areas that apply QUICKLY. It’s more flexible than a stamp because it can be changed easily for specifics. It often helps to color code the key so you, and student editors, can use highlighters on specific errors without having to write notes. Each domain assigned a color, i.e. punctuation errors yellow, spelling errors pink… Our state rubric is based on 4 categories that always apply no matter the assignment. They are
    Content-___ pts
    Organization___ pts
    Voice___ pts
    Conventions___ pts
    Subtotal____points = ____% Missing ______ -___ points
    TOTAL: ______________
    Based on a 4 point scale; 4 mastered, 3 significant errors or missing elements, 2 errors detract from the overall meaning, 1 not mastered. Once totaled and converted to a percent, I deduct points for following specifics such as missing citations or following directions.
    Be sure to decide on specific terms or conditions you believe must be included as essential to this standard, so you can quickly score the content, which takes the longest to score.

  10. I use Rubistar to make my rubrics. It’s free and I can save it and make changes from year to year.

  11. Christina Schultz
    June 25, 2014 - 11:18 pm

    I just completed my first year teaching and I can’t believe how many hours I spent grading essays! It’s amazing how long it takes to give feedback that will inspiring students to think critically about their writing!
    The main reason I wanted to leave a comment however, even 6 months late, was I was relieved to hear tip #6. I too pre-sort my essays with the consistently good writers at the top. I wasn’t sure if this was the best technique (ethically speaking), but my students consistently complain that I am a “hard grader” and I felt that it was an easy way for me to set a curve of some sort for the class. Thanks again for the tips, I found them quite helpful!

  12. Great tips! I’m not teaching now ( I live overseas) but I taught 6-7 grade Language Arts for many years. I’ve used many of these useful tips to save time and energy since I often had 130 or so essays turned in at the same time. One thing I’d like to add: whenever I came across a particularly delightful or insightful word, phrase, thought, or sentence, I would highlight it. Students enjoyed getting a paper back with a visible positive reinforcement, especially when some papers were so poorly written that I sometimes thought to myself, “Maybe I should just highlight the name at the top of the page!” I told my students that I would sit next to my little schnauzer, soda and m&ms in hand, to grade the essays. I once heard one student tell another one, “Mrs. S. is going to need a lot of m&ms to grade your paper.” Sometimes students would me a bag of m&ms when they turned in their paper. I miss those middle schoolers!

  13. Outstanding tips , Thanks for sharing.

  14. Try Managbac or Turnitin? Good websites
    I also teach a variety of courses like English Lang and Lit to the IB diploma programme, A Level Literature, A Level Language and university level language courses.

    I loved your ideas. I sort too. I think its entirely fair, as the handwriting or quality will be judged anyway. And I am human too :P

    I change my grading spot too. I love visiting a local library to do this and set an appointment for right after so that I am pushed to finish the work at hand. A coffee shop always works.

    I can never for the life of me, overcome my procrastination. That is the reason I am here instead of grading papers.

    • So good to see I’m not alone in my methods…or my procrastination! I hope you are having a great back to school season!

  15. Great blog! Your struggles echo with all of us fellow English teachers! I am fortunate enough to teach Honors Literature and Language Arts to eighth graders at a charter school. The curriculum is much more advanced, and so is the grading! In my Honors Lit class, I don’t have as many essays to grade. I mostly spend time grading analysis questions. On the other hand, my Honors Language Arts class is much more rigorous. State standards allow me to assign one essay a week in order for students to learn and practice the writing technique they learned.

    I have found it most beneficial to grade while students peer edit. The day a rough draft is due, I have students peer edit one another’s paper. Papers are passed around to three classmates. Each classmate has a different color pen (the cycle goes: first pass- blue, second pass- red, third pass- black; I have students write rough drafts in pencil, so black pen isn’t a problem!) I usually grade in purple or green. After peer editing day, I grade the essays that night, and skim over each essay and write any comments I have. I them return rough drafts the next day with my comments and a test rubric.

    A test rubric is the rubric I use to grade the paper, and I fill it out as a grade. This show the student what they could of received if they returned their rough draft and what they can improve on. After returning the essays, they go home, revise their essays, and then turn them in. I do peer editing, and grade rough drafts ahead of time so I am not ‘double grading’ essays when they are turned in.

    I also have students write the names of who peer edited their papers, and I watch the students as they peer grade. Peer editing is worth 30 points per session in my class ;)

  16. I love your suggestions. I teach 4 sections of 12th Grade AP lang and I’ve had to really re-imagine how to effectively evaluate. I think one think I’d add is don’t feel the need to “grade” everything your students write. They need to write far more often then a single teacher can evaluate. I’ve spent a lot of time on peer-feedback, (like you alluded to in peers proofreading) and even some peer evaluation in some instances with decent results. You (or any AP lang teachers should join the #aplangchat on twitter. It’s every other Wednesday (typically)..

  17. I have started not grading every essay for everything. Whatever language focus we had been working on in class was the only thing I graded for that essay. So if we were working on sentence structure, I ignored things like misspellings or incorrect use of a homophone. The same goes for other components. If we worked heavily on thesis writing, that’s where I spend the majority of my feedback time. This helps my grading time and it also gives the kids feedback based on skills we have been working on in class. I teach middle school, so I know that’s a horse of a different color from senior English. But I think focusing on what we have been learning makes the feedback more meaningful. For the next essay, whatever I focused on in the last essay is still considered, but not as heavily as what we are currently working on.

  18. I use a stamp with our rubric and ratings. My proctor stamps them all so that I just circle the number rating.
    Another idea: put a number beside the area that you want to make positive or corrective comments. Then write your comments (coded) at the bottom of the paper. It avoids creating the mess on their hard

  19. Hi,

    I just came across this post on Pinterest.

    #3 I have genre specific rubrics which much be stapled on top of all their drafts.

    #4 We have certain proofreading items that MUST be done before it gets to me. When I start to read the final copy (the only one I read), the second simple spelling error/non-capitalized word I come across and the paper is history. A big fat 0 until it’s fixed.

    #6 I too sort. I sort typed and not-typed, and the kids who I figure will do best on top. The rest I don’t sort. I too do this because I don’t want to get depressed right off the bat. ;-)

    #9 I have the students grade their paper using the rubric I will use, but circling grades (each item is a 4 point possibility) in pencil, and I will use red pen.

    I teach 7th grade, 1 section of ELA and 4 sections of SS. I think I would probably drink heavily if I had to correct the number of papers you do!

  20. I talked my district into Turnitin.com and it has totally changed the way I do things. Oral feedback is possible. It has built in rubrucs….a grammar checker. My grading time has been cut in half.

  21. Go with Google Docs. Add-ons such as Doctopus and Goobric are timesavers.

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