When I tell people I teach writing, they often ask, “How do you get through all that grading?” The implication seems to be that it must be awful, arduous, boring, painful both mentally and physically, (insert other derogatory terms here). I usually say, “I really love reading student writing.” This is true. I don’t think you become a writing teacher unless you genuinely enjoy hearing/reading student voices. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to spend hours on end reading and responding to their work. And, I realize that response doesn’t help faculty members in disciplines outside of English who might turn to me for tips on how to accomplish what can seem like a daunting task, especially when there’s probably little love there. They might ask, “How do you get through all that grading,” but they really mean, “How do I get through all of my grading if I incorporate more writing into my class?”
Responding to student writing is a theoretical and pedagogical area that has for a long time been a large focus in composition studies. A favorite and oft-cited work is Nancy Sommers’ “Responding to Student Writing” (CCC 33.2). And while I’d love to recommend the article, as well as others in the area, I think that when most faculty ask me that question, they’re looking for some boiled down tips, not a theoretical discussion. So, I present here, five tips for more efficient grading. Some of them are probably fairly obvious. But they work for me, and I’ve been reading student writing for 12 years. These tips can help, even if (or especially because) you don’t have the love.
1. Go to your happy place
I mean that literally. Go somewhere you know you can get work done – your favorite coffee shop, the library, your office. Wherever. I absolutely cannot grade in my house. But if I go to a coffee shop, I can usually knock out a big batch of papers fairly quickly.
I don’t ever read more than five papers in a row. I need a break to refresh. For me, they blur together after five. So I do other types of work at the same time. I read five papers, then I make lesson plans for an hour. I read five more papers, then I respond to email for twenty minutes. Moving my mind around in various ways help me see all of the student writing as fresh.
3. Focus, focus, focus
I don’t mean to be focused. I mean to focus only on the most important concerns you have in the writing. I pick three or four things to comment on, and I limit myself to that. For instance, my first-year students’ recently wrote arguments of definition as feature stories. I looked for (1) how well they defined the concept, (2), how well they applied the definition and found examples of it, and (3) how well they met the criteria of a feature story. That’s it. You can’t look at everything if you have 50 papers to grade, and really, your students will be overwhelmed if you comment on too much. So you look for what’s most important – fulfilling the criteria of your assignment, the objectives you want them to meet, the skills you want them to achieve – and comment on those (and only those!).
Set a stopwatch (on your iPhone clock app, of course) and read the first paper in the stack. Did it take a lot longer than you expected? Then set a timer (iPhone clock app, again) for the amount of time you think it should take you to read the paper, and read the next one. Keep half an eye on that timer, and try to meet it. You can do this without sacrificing the quality of your response. All the timer is meant to do is keep you focused; you can’t daydream and your mind can’t wander if it doesn’t have time!
5. Do not edit
Unless you’re teaching basic writing, line editing is not your job. I’m not saying that grammar isn’t important – of course it is. But you’re not using your time wisely if you line edit. Keep a list at the top of the first page of the student’s paper in which you list trends you see – run-on sentences, comma splices, tense agreement – but limit the list to three things. Your student will find it overwhelming to see a list longer than that. Tell your students to use the list to read-up in their handbooks, to go to the Writing Center, or to come see you during office hours. This will take you a lot less time and will be more beneficial to your students than seeing marks all over their text.
Have some other quick tips for responding to student writing? Please, leave a comment!