Friday, January 11, 2013

Time Saving Tips for Adjuncts Overwhelmed with Grading

In a couple of weeks, I will again be running a teacher development workshop for our adjuncts teaching Intro to Philosophy. Due to some funding/budget issues, it looks like our overworked adjuncts will be even more overworked with more students in their sections this term. Furthermore, because Intro to Philosophy fulfills one of the core requirements at our institution, instructors must require students to write 3500 words of finished writing (not including exams). That means that instructors cannot rely on exams but must assign papers and grade them. Therefore, I've decided to focus our teacher development session on time saving grading tips. I will recommend the use of rubrics and short written assignments graded on a check/check minus/check plus basis, which are two of my main time saving devices. I know that there have been previous posts about this on this blog and I will make sure to transmit some of that advice, but I wanted to make an open call to our readers and contributors for other suggestions. How do you save time when grading papers?


  1. If you need to write comments on papers and you're quick with a keyboard, stop writing those comments by hand. It is better to do the following:
    (1) Write circled numbers near whatever part of the paper you want to comment on;
    then (2) create a list of comments on your computer (corresponding to the circled numbers, obviously) and return that to the student.

    If you are a fast typist, it's easier and neater than writing things out by hand. If you are willing to invest a small amount of money in a program like TextExpander (, you can save loads of time by creating shortcuts for your most frequent comments, many of which are likely to be the same or similar in intro-level classes.

  2. I want to register a partial dissent to Anon 12:02 above. I agree completely that it is quicker to type comments than to hand-write them, and I love TextExpander - great piece of advice there.

    But I have found that the unlimited space offered by typing comments electronically, whether in a document or in the margins using MS Word's track changes & comment functions, actually works to *increase* grading time, not decrease it. One disguised benefit of grading using handwriting is that there are limits on the amount of space you have to comment. So this forces you to become economical with your prose. If you have unlimited space in which to write and you're a quick typist, you may fall into the trap of thinking that you can write lots of comments for students (which may or may not be read in their entirety) in a very short amount of time. But writing lots of comments is inevitably time-consuming, and typing them electronically seems to promote writing *more* comments, not less. I don't claim that this is true for everyone, but it certainly is true for me.

    I recommend writing an expansive, detailed rubrics and writing things like "See Rubric Box 3-A" in the margins for common comments. A small bit of written feedback is fine, but I am going to hand-write all such comments in order to enforce limits on how much feedback I give. Finally, I would include a line like "I also offer detailed individualized feedback on assignments upon request" in the syllabus or assignment guidelines to make it clear that students can talk to you or request expansive written comments on their work if they want it.

  3. Perhaps this is obvious, but particularly in large introductory courses, limit the number of topics or prompts that students can write about — no more than two topic options for any given assignment, say. Beginning students struggle to identify topics in any case, and grading generally goes faster if you have a large number of papers on the same topic(s). The grading is also fairer, in my opinion, if you grade all papers on topic A together, all papers on topic B together, etc.

  4. For us non US readers, could you describe the "check/check minus/check plus" method a bit more?

    Some thoughts on providing comments to the student:

    Use a set of one letter shortcuts for comments in the text and hand out a generic "translation table". E.g. F = factual error, A = ambiguity, ... A drawback: students might experience this as a less personal response.

    I have not used TextExpander but it sounds similar to the freeware Texter for windows,

    I share the worry of anon 1:29 PM that opting for typed comments can end up draining time due to length. I find it useful to consciously set myself a word/letter limit and/or time limit for writing each comment.

    If allowed, write only very short comments and complement that with a special visiting hour where students are free to come and get further feedback if they want.

  5. Following on from the last comment, I'd also appreciate it if you could explain (or link to) what you mean by a 'rubric', preferably with examples. To me a rubric is something setting out what students should do (e.g. 'answer three questions').

  6. Hi Ben. I am Anon 1:29 PM from above. We have similar understandings of what rubrics are, but in addition to the understanding that you laid out, many instructors refer to a set of grading standards for evaluating student work as a "rubric". Here, for example, is a philosophy paper rubric which appears (from the URL) to belong to Douglas Portmore:

    My rubrics are more detailed than Portmore's; where he only describes what an exemplary and an unsatisfactory paper would look like, I try to set out what I take the differences between "exemplary," "proficient," "developing," and "unsatisfactory" student papers to be.

  7. Part of what helps for me is getting in the right frame of mind. I try to remember that commenting on papers is not about me - it's about the student and the student's work. In particular, what I write should not (in my mind or theirs) be a justification for the grade I assign. And, in terms of saving time, the truth is that even the best students can fruitfully work with only two to three suggestions in terms of improving writing. There is no reason to try to cover all the ways that a student can improve - it's not good for them or for you.

  8. Thank you everyone for the great feedback!

    (1) Rubrics: Here is the rubric I use.

    (2) Check/Check plus/Check Minus: Here is the handout I give to students to explain the grading and what I expected from those assignments

  9. In case anyone finds it helpful, here's a rubric that I've used before:

    One effective way to use a rubric like this is to highlight the relevant cell in each row (e.g., highlight the "Satisfactory" cell in the Argumentation row) and return that highlighted copy to the student. I find that after reading a paper, I can rate the paper on each criterion fairly quickly. Once I've highlighted a cell in each row, I can assign a grade fairly quickly. I can then focus my comments, as Becko says, on helping the student improve a few key things, rather than justifying my grade.

    Also, there's no need for TextExpander or similar software. If you're using Word or (I think) OpenOffice, you can define your own autocorrect abbreviations. Go to Options or Preferences, find the Autocorrect settings, and add your own abbreviations (e.g., 'devargdet' => 'Develop this argument in more detail, please.'). Word will automatically expand your abbreviation as you type.

  10. Thanks to those that shared rubrics. These are very helpful. My department requires us to complete a standard cover sheet on all essays which is a little like this (e.g. rating the essay on several criteria) but nowhere near as detailed in spelling out what those grades mean. Perhaps it's worth me developing an accompanying explanation sheet.

  11. I, too, have used the numbering system referring to a separate sheet where I give expansive comments, and have found that sometimes it leads to me writing more than I otherwise would. So now, instead of handwriting (because most of my students' papers are turned in online now, in digital and their preference), is use the "comment" function on a word processing program or a PDF. This also tends to enforce shorter comments, as the more you put off to the side of the page the more cluttered it gets, and becomes hard to read. This way I try to make sure it's readable by having fewer comments (or, if there's something I really need to say, I'll highlight a sentence or two and then highlight the comment off to the side in the same colour, so they know what the comment corresponds to).


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