Grading Hacks: How to Cut Your Grading Time in Half

by Jade Caines Lee

I am the feedback queen. No, I mean it. My family and friends all know I put my opinions in suggestion boxes, I give specific compliments to our restaurant server (“I really appreciate how you checked on us consistently . . . Thank YOU!”), and I always wait on the phone after a customer service call to give my opinions to the mysterious automated voice (“On a scale of one to five, how satisfied are you . . .”). I just can’t help myself.

And it didn’t stop there. As a public school teacher I was obsessed with giving feedback to my students, whether I was teaching elementary, middle, or high school. I cared deeply about learning, and I wanted to make sure my students received frequent, detailed, and timely feedback.

But I also wanted a personal life. A full and exciting life that did not resent the stacks of marble composition books that held weeks of unchecked journal entries. So, after my third year of teaching, I decided to do things differently. I implemented some tips I learned about ways to save time when grading. But it wasn’t easy. I had to first address certain assumptions I held related to grading:

Assumption #1: Grading all the time just “comes with teaching.”

In other words, if you want to teach you should kiss your evenings and weekends goodbye. Obviously teaching and assessing are highly correlated, but excessive grading is not just an embedded part of the teaching profession. I don’t know many professions where the assumption is that you should care more about your job than your own life (especially given the pay!). I don’t THINK so . . .

Assumption #2: If you are a good teacher, you should be okay spending a lot of time grading.

This assumption is related to #1 but has a distinct connotation. If you want to be an excellent teacher you shouldn’t have a problem giving up your evenings and weekends. Ummmmm, yeah. . . I don’t think so! Teacher stress and burnout is real, and if I wanted to be a career educator, I had to toss out this assumption quickly!

Assumption #3: Feedback equals grading.

This final assumption was the hardest to debunk. Early in my career, I thought that when I disseminated grades, I was giving feedback. Nope. This was just simply not always the case. Giving a student a B- on a final project alone is not feedback. Feedback is written and/or verbal explanations of what the student did well and areas for improvement using clear criteria. Once I learned this, I realized how often I was giving grades without clear criteria or any explanations of performance. Yeah . . . WAY too often.

Once I tossed out these assumptions I was able to implement some tips, or “hacks,” that significantly helped me lessen grading time.

Hack #1: Only grade one or two proficiencies per assignment.

Hypothetical case study: Mr. Green teaches fifth grade and has planned a science experiment where students have to write a lab report. His primary unit objective is for students to understand the scientific method. Therefore, the grading criteria for the lab report focused solely on the scientific method. He ignored any spelling and grammar errors he encountered.

Ignore “mistakes” if they are not the focus of your assessment. I know, I know . . . it’s easier said than done. But collaborating with your students and families to express how the lack of feedback doesn’t mean everything is perfect will help you make this transition.

Hack #2: Require students to submit drafts for peer feedback.

Hypothetical case study: Ms. Brown teaches seventh-grade English language arts and has planned a nonfiction writing assignment as the culminating unit assessment. Instead of having students turn in the final, two-page assignment once to her, she will instead require students to submit their first draft to a peer. The peer will use the grading criteria to assess the paper and give written feedback on the assignment. The students will revise their draft and submit the final, along with the first draft and peer feedback, to Ms. Brown.

This hack is a time-saver because the peer revisers (with proper instruction) will have done some of the heavy lifting for you by identifying areas of concern. As a bonus, the peer revisers get more familiar with the grading criteria in order to improve their own paper and the students get an opportunity to revise their work.

Hack #3: Have students systematically grade their own work.

Hypothetical case study: Dr. Black teaches eleventh-grade physics and has planned an end-of-unit project where students have to demonstrate their understandings of force and gravity. Before she begins teaching the unit, she disseminates criteria for the project (a checklist/rubric). Students use these criteria to guide their steps throughout the project and must submit the completed checklist/rubric alongside their finished project.

Same idea as Hack #2. By the time Dr. Black sits down to grade, she has spent considerably less mental energy on each assignment and will significantly reduce her grading time.

Hack #4: Vary up assignment types and formats.

Hypothetical case study: Mr. Gray teaches middle school visual arts and has a set of standards and competencies that guide his curriculum. He designs assessment tasks that are unique and varied. Students can demonstrate their mastery in multiple ways beyond paper-pencil assessments.

Not every assignment needs to be a report or paper and not every assignment needs to be written in complete sentences (let bullets and outlines be your friend). Moving beyond traditional paper-pencil assessments will significantly reduce your grading load.

These hacks may not be rocket science, but they are nice reminders that there are ways to make grading easier and less time-consuming. I can attest to the fact that they worked for my middle school students, and I STILL use them today with my graduate students. And while you are basking in all that precious time you saved, remember to take care of yourself. Your students’ success depends on it!

Dr. Jade Caines Lee

Dr. Jade Caines Lee specializes in educational assessment and evaluation. Jade spent a year and a half as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and almost 10 years as a K-12 public school teacher. Also, she has worked as a researcher for several organizations, including the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing at UCLA and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Education, Affiliate Assistant Professor with the Joan and James Leitzel Center for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Education and Affiliate Faculty in the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.