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Ask Professor Pedagogy: Grading Efficiently

Posted by on Friday, April 19, 2013 in Commentary.

Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.

Dear Professor P.,

I’m currently serving as a Teaching Assistant for a large course where I’m responsible for grading lots of different kinds of assignments:  quizzes, exams, homework, and essays. My fellow TAs and I are feeling overwhelmed about how much time this grading is going to take. After all, we’re graduate students with our own research and coursework to complete, not to mention personal and family responsibilities. How can we make grading as efficient as possible, so that we have enough time to meet all of our other obligations?

Grappling with Grading

Dear Grappling with Grading,

First of all, you and your colleagues are right:  grading well is time-consuming and challenging. That being said, there are lots of things you and your fellow TAs can do to make grading more efficient.

Strategy #1:  Make your grading criteria and expectations clear to students.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  “But Professor P, I’m just a TA for this course! I don’t write the syllabus or decide what criteria to use for grading assignments!” It’s true that most TAs aren’t in a position to decide these aspects of the courses they help to teach. Chances are, though, that somewhere in the syllabus, your professor has outlined the general expectations for written work, and maybe even provided specific criteria for individual assignments. If your professor has not done this, consider talking with him or her about it. See if he or she would be willing to develop some grading criteria to share with the students, or at the very least, with the TAs. Making sure that all the graders are “on the same page” about what they are looking for in assignments will help to provide consistency and fairness in the grading process.

At first glance, this strategy may not seem like it will make grading more efficient for you. However, if your students have a good grasp of what’s expected on assignments, they’re likely to turn in better work, which makes grading easier and less time-consuming. Furthermore, you’re less likely to have to spend time during class or in office hours explaining the assignments, because students will already know what you’re looking for.

Strategy #2:  Use a rubric

rubric is simply a way of breaking an assignment down into specific components that you want to assess, and then deciding how you will measure students’ performance on those components. (If you’re unfamiliar with rubrics, take a look at this website – it features many different examples of all kinds of assignments in various fields.) Now, if you’re lucky, your professor may have already developed some grading rubrics that you can simply adopt for use in your own grading.

If, however, your professor doesn’t use rubrics, you may want to consider designing some of your own that you and your fellow TAs could use for the major assignments in the course. I can already hear your objections:  “But, Professor P, we want tips that will save us time! This rubric stuff sounds like it will take a lot of time to create!”It’s true that creating a rubric the first time around is tough, and can be time-consuming. Still, I’m suggesting it here because although they may take extra time on the front end, rubrics almost always make grading quicker and more efficient later on.

Using a rubric means you’ve already thought through some of the most important aspects of the assignment before you start grading, which means you don’t have to do it later in the process when you’re more likely to be stressed and tired. However, because rubrics do require some work, you’ll probably only want to use them on larger assignments like papers or presentations, and not on smaller assignments like quizzes or homework (I’ll address those in strategy #3.)

Strategy #3:  Practice “light grading” for smaller assignments

Although using rubrics can help you be more efficient and consistent in your grading, it’s too time-consuming to develop a rubric for every single piece of work your students turn in. Instead, consider using “light grading” (check plus/check/check minus; 0 points/1 point, etc.) to assess smaller assignments like quizzes and homework. This way, you can still give feedback to students and check for their understanding without having to spend a lot of time grading.

Other ideas

Here are some other strategies you might try to make your grading more efficient:

  • Skim through a pile of quizzes, tests, essays, lab reports, etc. to determine the range of responses to an assignment. Doing so will help you identify the strongest and weakest work on this assignment before having to assign corresponding grades.
  • Place work into broad categories of grades (upper half and lower half; top third, middle third, bottom third; A, B, C, D, F) before moving to a finer—and final—determination of grades. Making broad distinctions first will pave the way for making finer distinctions more efficiently and will help you to maintain consistency across papers, exams, etc.
  • Divide papers into small batches. When you reach the end of each batch, give yourself a small reward (a piece of candy, a brief walk outdoors, etc. – whatever works for you!). Focusing on grading the next batch of 5 papers feels much more manageable than thinking about grading the whole set.
  • On homework, quizzes, and tests, grade horizontally (i.e. one question, problem, or page at a time). You’ll “get into a groove” where recognizing errors or flaws will come more easily, and also ensure grading consistency from question to question, problem to problem, etc.
  • Summarize comments for each individual student rather than commenting on each mistake.Students cannot always correct every mistake they’ve made or attend to every area for improvement that you notice; sometimes it’s too overwhelming!  By focusing your attention on patterns of strength and weakness in students’ work, you can help them build on what they’ve done well and improve in the areas that were lacking.

Remember, even though grading can be overwhelming, it’s also an important way for you to communicate with your students about their work in the course. So, if you can, try to see grading as an opportunity rather than a chore. For more ideas about grading student work, check out the CFT’s teaching guide on grading.

Good Luck!

Professor P.



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