How to Minimize Grading and Maximize Learning

Grading is one of the aspects about teaching that I don’t think we’ll ever figure out completely—at least most of us.  I always started every year with a system of inboxes and outboxes and plans to get everything graded and returned quickly, yet it fell apart within weeks—if not days.  Multiple choice quizzes—especially when we can use computers or cameras to grade them for us—are one solution to the grading burden. However, as my chemistry-teacher colleague realized, the quick solution for us is also the shortcut for students.

To get them to think, we need them to write. If we’re going to ask them to write, we owe it to them to read their writing. The insights we gain from that writing will help us become better teachers and develop better relationships with our students. We’ll get to know them as individuals and as thinkers. We will see holes in our lesson plans and strengths, too.

Although my teacher-friend was concerned about the time it takes to read each written response, the student’s time spent reading and writing the response deserves our attention. Not only do we have a responsibility to check for understanding and clarify misunderstanding, it shows our students that we value their time (and them) when we take the time to read and respond to their work.

Here’s one solution.

Develop a simple single-point rubric that will work with most text-based writing assignments.  No matter what subject or grade level you teach, your rubric should cover the basics of good writing: focus, organization, and conventions.  Start with something very basic:

An effective response answers the question in an organized paragraph with a clear claim. It includes relevant, specific evidence from the text and explains how that evidence supports the claim. It follows the conventions of standard written English.

Post the rubric on your walls, talk about it with your students, practice using it.  You can focus on certain parts of the rubric with each writing assignment.  This week, we’re focusing on how to cite evidence from the text. Give credit for trying on the first attempts. Use the best examples as models.  It will take some time at the beginning—for both you and the students—but you know what they say about procedures like this, go slow to go fast. By working your way through the process slowly at first, you’ll be breezing through quality writing within a month.

Once your students have a good understanding of the rubric, use it for class work and for short response writing on tests. You’ll know what to look for and so will your students.  If they meet the criteria on the rubric, give them a check; exceed it, they get a check plus, and if they’re not there yet, a check-minus. You can adjust the value of these symbols to meet the expectations of the assignment, but your check mark should always equate to 85% of the points available. I let the check plus equal 100% and a check minus is worth 70%.

There will be times, though, that you may not feel comfortable awarding 70% of the points to a super-sloppy assignment.  You can come up with another symbol for 50% or offer students a chance for a do-over, where the highest possible grade is a check.

You’ll also find that even within this same rubric, you can increase expectations.  “An organized paragraph” might start out meaning simply that the paragraph has a topic sentence, body, and concluding sentence.  Once students have mastered that, you can post a list of transitional expressions and explain that now “an organized paragraph,” includes transitions that show relationships between ideas within the paragraph.

The simplicity and flexibility of this system make it a win-win for students and teachers. With every word students write in response to text, they are becoming stronger writers, better readers, and more competent thinkers.  With each response you read, you’re realizing how much your students are capable of and what you need to do to get them where they need to be at the end of the year.  Writing in response to reading will get them there.  Give it a try!

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