Skip to main content

Grading Writing Assignments in Less than a Lifetime

Posted by on Friday, August 15, 2014 in Commentary, Events, Resource.

by Nancy Chick, CFT Assistant Director

One of the greatest stresses experienced by new faculty (and not-so-new faculty) is the amount of time spent on effective teaching. Parkinson’s Law—the notion that a task expands to fill the time available—seems more true for teaching than many other responsibilities. During Wednesday’s Teaching at Vanderbilt orientation for new faculty, I met with 18 faculty members in A & S humanities departments, the Divinity School, and Blair School of Music for a brief session on making our most time-consuming teaching activities more effective and more efficient.

Unsurprisingly for these disciplines, the new faculty cited grading as the greatest challenge to managing our time for teaching. Essays and essays exams are key assignments in our courses,* and–as one participant noted–grading a single, five-page paper can take 30 minutes or more, if we let it. (This is Parkinson’s Law at work.)  Several participants mentioned using a timer to set limits on “the time available” for grading each essay.  An excellent idea!  During that bounded time, though, what are some strategies for making it most effective?

Randy Bass encourages us to parse how we think about what our students are learning (1999, p. 8). We primarily attend to “content-knowledge,” or the concepts, texts, theories, and information of our field. However, “method-knowledge” involves the processes required in understanding and doing the field. During the conversation with new faculty, I drew our attention to the relevant “method-knowledge”–the student processes leading to the product of the essay and our processes in producing the graded essay–as a site for time-saving strategies.  For instance, having students write a cover letter or other framing piece articulating what they did well, where they struggled, and where they continue to struggle (in response to clear criteria, such as a rubric) not only helps them self-assess their own work; it also helps us better identify what they understand (or don’t) and directs our attention to specific issues while grading.  Notice the effective efficiencies here:

  • A rubric clarifies for students what a good essay does and streamlines our grading by a) communicating expectations to students before they write and b) giving us a document with those expectations already spelled out, making our commenting easier.
  • A cover letter (or author’s note, or annotated assignment sheet) encourages students to revisit the guidelines and expectations for the essay and facilitates metacognition (students’ thinking about their thinking), which increases the chances for deeper, lasting learning and helps us focus on specific issues in the essay and in our commenting.

We shared other strategies to more effectively manage the teaching (and grading) of writing in our classes, but more importantly, we considered how attention to “method-knowledge” or process can improve “content-knowledge” or product, which makes our grading more effective, more intentional, and finite.

Related Resources

  • The CFT guide on metacognition offers other strategies and approaches that improve student learning and our ability to assess their learning.  (The cover letter, above, is an example of metacognition.)

You may also schedule a consultation (one-on-one, or a workshop for your department) on rubric construction, digital grading, or other strategies with CFT Assistant Director Nancy Chick.  Call 322-7290 to set up a conversation, consultation, or workshop.

* One faculty member assigns no writing, so I suggested thinking about any other major assignments or activities that involve out-of-class time and a significant process. Since these strategies are ultimately about the processes of doing the work, they can be adapted to a variety of assignments.


Bass, Randy. (1999). The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem? inventio, 1(1).

Photo Credit: Casey_S via Compfight cc

Leave a Response