Managing the Grading Caseload…During a Pandemic

Would you be surprised if I told you I had a hard time sitting down to write this blog post? Grading, or even just talking about grading, is not really at the top of my list right now. But, even in the best of scenarios – wearing real pants, drinking nice coffee, in a clean and dedicated workspace, and all caught up on grading except for those fresh stacks of essays – I would likely still procrasti-do-all-the-laundry-and-hey-might-as-well-darn-these-socks-while-I’m-at-it-amirite before I spilt ink on that first paper. Now, it’s an even greater struggle as we manage the changes in our own home lives while troubleshooting technology for ourselves and with our classes, trying to keep and motivate our students, and worrying how everyone is dealing with everything outside of the classroom, too.

The Rock carrying a comically large bag: "Moving out? Nope...Just a teacher taking home some papers to grade.

And yet, as ever, the work of grading essays looms. But as much as I have to cajole myself into diving into a new pile of papers, I’d be lying if I said it was all drudgery. I have definitely silently or not-so-silently raised the roof at my desk when I read a student’s insightful observation about an enjambed line, when I could tell in a final draft that the student was really paying attention to that lesson on quotation sandwiches, when the parenthetical citations were pristine and even that hanging indent was on point! In these best, quiet grading moments, we see our students, and we get a chance to tell them what we saw – the work that still remains, sure, but also the work they did to understand that difficult concept, the effort they put in to make sure that everything looked just right, the thinking and growing and learning that is still in progress. While grading may literally be putting grades on papers and in gradebooks, the process is and means more than that. Ken Bain in What the Best College Teachers Do puts it this way: “[G]rading becomes not a means to rank but a way to communicate with students” (153). Many things have changed very quickly this term, but the grading, more or less as we have always known it (give or take a learning management system), is still there, both as a means of touching base with our students and communicating our reactions and expectations, and as very real labor.

Grading Yoda sez, "Grading papers I am. Grading machine I have become."

Corresponding with the team about how to handle this topic, it became clear that we needed and wanted to explore not just ways of managing the important work of grading generally, but ways of thinking about how to handle our grading load in this strange and stressful time specifically. First, how can we more efficiently do the grading that we need and often actually want to do? What tips, what strategies, what grading hacks? And, looking at the last half of the semester, what can we do to rethink or reconfigure our plans to make the space to be more kind and forgiving to ourselves? As we’re working so hard to be flexible with our students, are we also being flexible with ourselves, our plans, our expectations?

Grading Hacks

The Internet is full of articles about how to grade more efficiently – “Ways to Cut Your Grading Time in Half”! “How to Escape Grading Jail”! Let me summarize the literature for you – you can do lots of different things, some things with technology or some things without technology, and not all of these things will work for all of us, but there are many things to try. The advice is diverse and general, and while I will offer some suggestions and direct you to some sites below, what really interests me is what you all are doing to adapt your grading practice to this particular moment (leave your best grading tips for us below in the comment section!).

One author, Nicki Litherland Baker, has an interesting take if only because it helps us see our grading work in another light. In an article titled “‘Get it off my stack’: Teachers’ Tools for Grading Papers,” Baker uses something called activity theory to observe that “teachers’ comments follow predictable conventions, making feedback a specific genre” (40). In this formulation, the work of grading is essentially writing, so as grader-writers we need to approach it in the same ways we encourage our students through their own processes – by breaking it up into manageable chunks, by forcing ourselves to begin and put time in even on days we’re not feeling particularly inspired, and by motivating ourselves with intrinsic and extrinsic rewards (43). Sometimes we can forget how much like our students we are! Especially now, when there are lots of other important things on our minds, we have to think about how we can scaffold our process to set ourselves up for success. So what can we do?

Embrace what technology can do. Technology is hard. A couple of times a day, any given day, I get an email from a student about a link that’s not working, an assignment that is locked, or a slow ConferZoom connection. But for all the tech issues we have to navigate, there are unique things that we can do online. In my discussion boards, I ask my students to respond to a prompt and then ask them to reply to one of their classmates’ insights, and I often give them the choice of responding with text, or with a meme or GIF (one of many great ideas from Flower Darby, co-author of Small Teaching Online). I miss seeing my students’ facial expressions and reactions in the classroom, but a well-chosen GIF or meme is worth a thousand words. It’s also really easy to grade — if they left a meme, I know they’ve been back to the discussion board and are keeping an eye on the conversation.

Canvas has a lot of time-saving and grading-specific capabilities already built in, too. You can, for instance, set up your gradebook to drop the lowest quiz score, leave audio feedback in the same place you leave a written comment, and, when you’re grading an assignment, you can directly message students who haven’t submitted without leaving your gradebook. It also has a rubric feature to help you grade assignments more efficiently. I started using Canvas rubrics more this year and though it takes time to set them up, they do help me stay focused while grading. I like that I can put my own words into them so the comments really sound like me and that I can still add comments if I need to/cannot help it, but if I set up my rubric well enough in the beginning, I often don’t need to add anything else. I also like that students can use the same rubric to evaluate each other’s work during peer review so there are no surprises about what we’re looking for. Being really clear with myself and students about expectations also cuts down on the grading time.

This is a sample peer review rubric that both I and the students used to evaluate an essay draft. There are rubric categories with comments with frequent comments/areas of concern, and there is also space for additional comments from me. This student had a solid draft, and so all of the required elements are in green, but if they were missing parts or needed to work on different areas, they would be in red, so it can also be pretty useful visual tool for what students need to work on.
This is a sample peer review rubric that both I and the students used to evaluate an essay draft. There are rubric categories with comments with frequent comments/areas of concern, and there is also space for additional comments from me. This student had a solid draft, and so all of the required elements are in green, but if they were missing parts or needed to work on different areas, they would be in red, so it can also be pretty useful visual tool for what students need to work on.

And no matter what you’re using to provide feedback on essays (Canvas, Turnitin, Word, GoogleDocs), you can create a “commenting library” where you can save time by keeping your most common notes to copy and paste alongside helpful links/resources you can connect your students to directly. At the end of this post, you’ll find a few links about these Canvas grading options that you might try out to make your grading more efficient.

Get by with a little help from your friends. One colleague, now retired, used to email gems she found while grading – fun and funny sentences that she encountered in student work. These emails made the often very solitary work of grading feel a little less so, and put a little pep in my grading step. Email/text/zoom (if you aren’t zoomed out) your teacher and writer and grammar friends when you’re making your way through a stack. Better yet, treat it like an extrinsic reward – grade 5 papers, and then take a break and have a 2-minute virtual dance party with your work besties.

And you know who else you can share this work with? Your students. Bain writes that “some of the best professors ask students to assess themselves. One frequently used model requests that they provide evidence and conclusion about the nature of their learning” (163). While it is not feasible for every assignment, I think this type of reflective assignment could be especially valuable in this context, a space for students to think about what they have overcome and what they have accomplished under extraordinary circumstances.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. We’re living and working through a pandemic. Give everyone some slack, including yourself. This can take on different forms. It might mean prioritizing some grading over others. In her comment to this post, for instance, Janelle shares how she gives automatic points for a draft turned in, but also gives constant feedback throughout the writing process – assigning points quickly to be able to spend more time commenting and communicating meaningfully. For me, not sweating the small things means adopting “Okay” as a mantra. You need an extension? Okay. You forgot to document that required source and want to fix it now? Okay. You mean, dear student, that you recognized the work that needed to be done and are actually trying to do it and turn it in to me? Okay! At the end of the day, especially if the assignment is still in my grading queue or in progress, especially during a pandemic, I say “okay,” and move on to the eleventy billion other things I have to do without agonizing over it. Bain observes that flexing “power over grades” through deadlines might just be counterproductive to learning (154). He isn’t saying to get rid of deadlines altogether, but rather to evaluate whether our attitudes and policies and practices actually facilitate learning.

Grading Flexibility: “Triage”

At Academic Senate this week, during a roundtable on the college’s approach to COVID-19, one word that came up often was “triage.” The college has been sorting through the problems and concerns and addressing the most pressing needs first. In the week we shifted to teaching online, I know that many of us triaged our own work. We stopped what we were doing to learn the technology, help situate our students, and put together a module or two before even thinking about grading again. Now that we’re at mid-term, maybe it’s worth pausing to take stock, to see if there are any adjustments we might make to give us a little more space to breathe.

Cover of Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do

Bain gives us what I think is some good criteria for grading triage in a chapter looking at how the best college professors approach grading, or assessment, and evaluation. The most outstanding teachers, Bain tells us, take a “learning-based approach” instead of a “performance-based” one. In the latter, “students’ grades come primarily from their ability to comply with the dictates of the course,” but in the former, the professor asks a fundamental question: “What kind of intellectual and personal development do I want my students to enjoy in this class, and what evidence might I collect about the nature and progress of their development?” (152-53). For triage, while keeping CORs and SLOs in mind, we might ask questions like: Do I have any assignments lined up that are performance-based, and what can I do to make them more learning-based? Where are my students now in terms of SLOs? What assignments would best serve the goals of the class and my students’ learning, right now? How can I make assignments that are high value for student learning but easier on the grading? What assignments will give me the best opportunities to communicate with my students about how to move forward?

Discussion Questions

  • How do you communicate with your students through grading? How can you make sure you’re being compassionate and constructive while being efficient?
  • What are your best grading strategies? What are your grading hacks? What keeps you motivated through those stacks of essays?
  • What grading triage, if any, have you done, or thinking of doing?
  • How have you been flexible with yourself in terms of your plans or expectations for the semester? Where might you be more flexible?
  • What are your best examples of learning-based assessments?

Thoughts? Join the discussion below. And we hope you’ll join us for a virtual meeting during college hour on April 30!

Some Helpful Resources

Resources from the Workshop on Zoom

Here’s the article we mentioned at the beginning:

5 thoughts on “Managing the Grading Caseload…During a Pandemic

  1. Janelle Arafiles

    Currently, I do not have grading to do. However, I am serving as a resource teacher and tutor from a distance. Both positions allow me the opportunity to give feedback on student work. Through Zoom and messaging, I am able to offer positive remarks regarding their strengths as well as constructive criticism on the most important weaknesses. Zoom allows my students to see my expressions and hear my voice. I feel that helps them to understand my heart for their success. When I was physically in the classroom, I gave handwritten feedback on drafts. Students were given some time to review my comments and marks. Then, I would open up immediate conference time if they desired clarification. If students were waiting to conference with me or didn’t have questions, they would work on an independent language assignment. This fifteen/twenty minute slot was quick, effective, and personal. Students knew I cared and intentionally focused on their growth. In an online format, I would want to open up Zoom conference time on a regular basis.

    Regardless of the avenue of instruction, I aim to limit my constructive criticism to three main points. I found that this helps students to lock down on major issues as they continue to draft. Once one or more of those points have been mastered, I am free to add a new goal of mastery. I’ve also found this to be more motivating for learners because they view their personal writing goals as more attainable.

    My grading system for essays is flexible because I focus heavily on the growth over drafts and content. Mechanics could draw people up or down, but the thought is what truly counts. Rough drafts were given automatic points simply for being turned in. I gave constant feedback and guidance for each step of the writing process. In a log, I made quick notes about how students improved (or didn’t improve) until the submission of the final draft. At the end of a unit, I asked students to reflect on what they felt they mastered, what they did better, and what they needed to improve. Overall, the goal was to make students feel responsible for their own learning and become aware of their abilities and needs.

    Hats off to everyone who had to do triage this term! You’re amazing. My heart went out to you to every day of transition. For myself, an online course undergoing triage would boil down to essays, resources (Google slides, links, etc.), threads with a two response minimum, and extensive availability on my part (via Remind and Zoom). When easing into such a sudden change, less is more. From there, you can figure out how much your class can handle and how much is truly worth grading.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. composingpossibilities

      Hi Janelle! Thanks for joining this discussion. I love how you emphasize the importance of your impressions and your voice, and the power of Zoom to help us get that in a fully online environment. I found over the last couple of weeks that I was really missing those quick, face-to-face check-ins with students, and so over the next couple of weeks, I’m asking students to meet with me to discuss a revision project over Zoom.

      The revision project is one part of the triage I did. My composition students turned in their first essay during the last face-to-face class meeting; they turned in the second one while we all were pivoting online. During all of those changes, I know that many students turned in work that they weren’t completely satisfied with, and I wasn’t satisfied with how much contact and instruction I was able to do, so I decided to give us all a second go with it with a kind of developmental portfolio project. I had my first zoom revision conference today. As I asked the student what he thought he should work on, he automatically told me that grammar was an issue. But when I I looked back at his paper and the comments I’d made, grammar wasn’t in those “top three” constructive comments at all! It struck me that certain kinds of comments are so drilled into our students, and that being able to talk with them to help them focus on substantive changes is so important. I was so grateful for Zoom and screen sharing and all of it today.


  2. Wendy S

    Jan, thank you so much for this post. I really love your compassionate approach to your “okay” method, and your helpful tips about rubrics. I had never thought to use a rubric in Canvas for peer review. Do students actually get to determine the grade for their classmates? I see that it is worth just 5 points, but still, I’m curious about how that works out. Are students generally pretty nice about it?

    One point you brought up that stuck with me was that change in mindset about grading. When I first started teaching in grad school, my 22-year-old-self hated grading. I’m ashamed to admit that if a student didn’t turn in an essay, I felt relieved. Less grading for me. Obviously, these practices were inequitable, but they show how I think a lot of teachers feel. In the last few years, my grading load has contributed to high levels of stress, so I tried changing my mindset about it. I don’t hate grading, I LOVE it. Fake it til you make it style. I’m happy to report that though I do not LOVE grading, I do enjoy it sometimes. Jan, you mentioned that there are those times where you find something really amazing that a student did or wrote, and you feel so excited to see them learning, so proud of their hard work, so inspired by how brilliant they are. These are the moments that can make grading fun, so when I sit down to grade, I try to stray from that deficit minded approach of “let me find all the things this paper is doing wrong” and instead look for the places where the student is showing growth, is showing they did the reading, is showing they learned how to construct a clear topic sentence. I find that when I do this, I tend to give better feedback that is focused more on helping them say what they want to say, in the way they want to say it, rather than me just telling them to do this or that (which I still do, but am trying to get better about). I also appreciate Janelle’s comment about focusing on three goals of mastery. I sometimes get carried away trying to point out too many revisions (especially now that we are online and this is the main way I can get feedback to them vs in the classroom where I could review common errors and jump around the room helping them as they wrote), so this is a nice reminder that limited that feedback to shape around three goals not only helps me stay sane, but helps student grow incrementally. So, thanks for that reminder Janelle!

    In terms of techniques, one thing that really helps is knowing my limit. I know that I can only grade around 12 essays a day max, depending on my mood and day. Some days, I have to do a little less. Other days, I can do a little more. I know that if I try to go much past that, my comments get very dry and my tone gets frustrated. I know that if I start to feel that, I need to stop and start again tomorrow because I don’t want my current mood to affect my feedback. I use a reward system too. Grade 3, get a snack. Grade another 5, go for a walk, grade another 3, eat dinner.

    I also offer the option of doing face to face grading, like Adrian presented during FLEX days. Last semester, I had about half my students do face to face, while the other half wanted Canvas feedback, and that made the grading load feel way more manageable. I’m just trying that out again after this online transition, offering one on one zoom grading conferences, but I haven’t had many students sign up yet. We will see how it goes.

    One issue I am really struggling with is revision. Right now, in my 1a/91 classes, I have them write three drafts of every essay. The first one gets peer reviewed, then they revise, then I read and give feedback on 2nd drafts, then they revise, then I read and give less feedback on 3rd drafts. Honestly, it is a little much. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas for really getting students to engaging in the writing process and in the revision process really deeply, without putting so much grading strain on myself. What I’m thinking of trying next semester (to avoid confusion changes this semester) is peer reviewing the first draft and leaving a lot of time between drafts so we can work on revisions in class in more short, one on one moments, and then give feedback on 2nd drafts and give students the option of revising a third time to replace the grade on the 2nd draft. This way, student still get lots of revision opportunities with my guidance, but the students who take revisions seriously right off the bat don’t’ have to write another draft. Those who do need to keep working on them, can. I’ll keep thinking it through, but if you have any other ideas for still emphasizing revision without added grading, I’m all ears! Jan, I’m not sure what you have planned for Thursday, but if we could spend a little time talking about grading in regards to revision, that’d be awesome.

    My best examples of learning-based assessments at this point, besides essays, are the discussion posts (which take the place of what we would have discussed in class that week). I have one discussion each week per class (so English 1a/91 student have two discussion a week), and this is the only place I feel like we are still a learning community. My 1B class in particular has really shaped that space into a positive learning space. I require them to do a 500-word post, plus comment on two people’s posts per week. They really jump into discussing the readings, what they liked, what they didn’t like, they ask questions, they open up. It is beautiful thing. I get to asses in these discussions what is being learned, what they are struggling with, what was unclear in the readings, what I need to spend time explaining in my own discussion post, what was unclear about my essay assignment sheets, and what they need from me. I usually pose 4-7 questions for them to answer. Half are about the readings (analyzing them or applying the concepts to their lives), one is usually some kind of affect question, one is usually about their essays, and one forces them to go back to previous discussions to look at my response post or their classmates’ responses. I find that I get to check in on so many aspects of their learning by carefully constructing effective questions. Here are the questions I posted for discussion last week (for ENG 1B), for example:

    1. Checking In: Now that we are over halfway through the semester, how are you feeling? How do you feel you’re doing in this class and/or other classes you’re taking? How was your Spring Break? Did you do anything fun? What was the most fun or relaxing thing you did during the break?

    2. Since we don’t get to talk in a large group outside this discussion to get to know each other better, I thought this would be a good place to ask your classmates ONE question, something you’d like to know about them that will continue to create a positive learning community in our online class. For example, you could ask where your classmates see themselves in ten years, or what their best memory is, or what TV show do they think changed the world, or what is one part of their life they hope to change or grow in the next 3 years, etc. So, each of you will write one questions you want to ask your classmates. Keep the questions appropriate for the classroom, please.

    This week, aside from doing two longer responses to your classmate’s posts regarding the readings, I want you to also answer at least 3 of your classmates’ questions. I know some of you might be rolling your eyes, but I really do think that continuing to grow together in our online classroom community will help ensure success, because the more you get to know each other, the more comfortable you’ll feel in this environment.

    Please continue to return to this discussion post to review your classmates’ answers. I want you to get into the habit of returning to previous discussions to make sure you get to see what everyone wrote and what I wrote that might clarify questions you had.

    3. So, with that being said, please return to Week 8 discussion and read my post (should be at the bottom of the thread…or at the very top). Write a short response to what I wrote (a few sentences). You can include questions, parts you agree/disagree with, parts your found interesting and why, parts that sparked any kind of thought or response.

    4. What was it like for you writing your mini essay? What was difficult or easy about it? Had you ever written something that dived this deep into analyzing something before? Which part of your analysis are you most proud of? What do you think is the purpose of an assignment like this?

    5. After reading “Beginners,” “What Cousin Taught Us About the Body,” “Poet at Seventeen” and “Adjectives of Order” in reader p.159-165, which poem did you enjoy the most and why, and which poem was the most difficult for you to understand or relate to and why?

    6. After reading “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother On Drugs” (p. 167 in reader), what do you think this poem is about? What is Natalie Diaz after with this poem? Even though Diaz DID have a brother who was an addict, you never want to assume the speaker of the poem, the “I” is the poet. So, what are the speaker’s feelings about their brother? How do you know? What is one line of the poem that you’d like some help understanding or analyzing? Type it here and your classmates (or I) can help you with your analyses in their comments.

    7. Read Essay #3 Assignment Sheet, if you haven’t already (attached to the discussion and on Week 10 module) and let me know what questions you have about this.

    Looking forward to continuing this discussion on Thursday! Thanks



  3. Kelly

    I enjoyed this post so much! Like Wendy, making “okay” the mantra is an idea I *deeply* appreciated. I think one strategy for being constructive and compassionate that I have been using is to pivot away from this-is-good-this-is-good-but-this…. Our colleagues at the California Acceleration Project did an exercise with us where we had to find something good in every paper we read and say that good thing without a BUT statement that follows. It alerted us to how often we were using that structure, that students totally recognize and dread. So I just kept thinking about composition goals: what is here that is a good foundation to build on. So I find my comments these days are things like “The part where you did XXXX is a great foundation for the next stage of this paper. Take that idea and build around in this way.” A lot of times that means that I can also say something like, “And then with that clear focus, you don’t even need that paragraph 2 that goes away from the best parts a bit too much.” So then, even my criticism is coming from a place of what is working and just trying to shore up that. I am looking forward to discussion tomorrow!


  4. Pingback: Rethinking How Students Meet Course Outcomes – Part 2 – Composing Possibilities

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