This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Megan Faherty.
As a high school teacher, I hear this refrain all the time: “I love working with students, I enjoy planning, but ugh! The grading! I hate the grading!” I hear this from my colleagues, and I say it to myself. I don’t think anyone got into teaching because they love grading. For many of us, if we could get the massive pile of papers to grade under control, we would enjoy our jobs a lot more. Over the last five years, I have made several mental shifts that enable me to make grading a reasonable if not beloved part of my job.
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Shift 1: If you don’t have time to grade it, students don’t have time to learn from it.
I’m going to say it: Assign less work.
Not because the work isn’t valuable; because the feedback is even more valuable.
I know that to many teachers, “Assign less work,” sounds like, “Don’t do your job. Be bad at your job. Choose yourself over your students’ learning.” I definitely felt that way when friends and relatives told me this in my early career, in the days when I would lock myself in a room during family Christmas celebrations to grade papers. How dare they tell me how to do my job, when they had no idea what it was like! This was what I had to do for my students to learn!
But teacher work-life balance versus student learning is a false dichotomy. What’s good for teachers is what’s good for students. What’s good for teachers is a workload that enables us to return work with feedback promptly without spending all our personal time grading; and what’s good for students is to receive that feedback in a timely manner so they can learn from it. Assigning less work, done well, is actually better for student learning, not worse. In choosing to lighten my own workload, I’m also choosing to be a better teacher and increase student learning.
This is the biggest and most essential mental shift I’ve made about grading and workload in my career. It requires that we ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this assignment? In the debate about homework, this question is frequently missing. I don’t know any high school teachers who assign homework because we believe students need homework. We assign homework because there’s not enough time in class to do everything; because students work at different paces and can’t all finish a task in class; as preparation for an in-class activity; or, the most common reason, because students need to practice a skill.
We assign homework because we believe it is necessary for learning. And there is certainly value in repetitive practice for student learning. However, practice is most valuable when students receive feedback, and have the chance to use that feedback in their next attempt at that skill. If students get that feedback after the next assignment, or after the next assessment, or a few weeks after the unit ends – they can’t learn from it. When I consider assigning work, I need to consider the purpose and, especially if the purpose is practice, if I can grade the work in time for students to learn from the feedback. If not, I need to find a different way to give students practice and feedback, probably in class itself.
If I don’t have time to grade it, students don’t have time to learn from it. So I need to know, realistically, whether I have time to grade something, which is why shifts two and three are necessary.
Shift 2: Put grading on your to-do list when you assign it.
I made this shift a few years ago, before I had a consistent to-do list system in place (which happened when I joined the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club). At the time, I procrastinated grading anything until there was a deadline (the end of a grading period or approaching parent conferences). Then I had to sort through my grading folders to list everything I had to grade – and those lists were overwhelming.
It suddenly occurred to me that I should consider whether I actually had time to grade something before I assigned it (shift one). And in order to do that, I had to put grading on a to-do list when I assigned it, not when I collected it or when a deadline was approaching.
When I give an assignment, the work I’m creating for myself is in the future. I might plan the assignment one week; create and give it to students the next week; and have it due a few days after that. In the weeks between when I conceive the assignment and when I collect it, I am constantly creating more grading work for my future self, without conscious awareness of the work that’s already waiting for me.
I started an ongoing list of what I had to grade, adding assignments and assessments when I planned them, rather than when I collected them. This not only helps me be aware of how much work I have waiting for me in the future, but also how much work I’ve given students. If I’m planning a new assignment, I check my ongoing grading list and ask myself, “What’s already out there that I’ll need to grade? Will I have the time?” With this system, I have stopped piling work on my future self without realizing it. Instead, I make conscious choices about what to assign based on the value of the assignment for students’ learning AND whether I actually have time to grade it.
Shift 3: Grade the way that works.
Like shift two, this is about being more aware. In this case, it’s about being aware of the work habits, days, and times that enable you to work efficiently.
In my AP Psychology class, students do a project that used to conclude in 10-15 page papers. I would get this stack of 60 long papers at the end of February and make a plan that if I graded just three per day, I would be done in 20 days. Totally doable! Perfectly reasonable! Then I would procrastinate, skipping a day, skipping another day, skipping all the days, because there was always more urgent work to do. Eventually, I would sit down on a Saturday in April and start grading, five at a time. Grade five, start a load of laundry. Grade five more, make lunch. Grade five more, make a phone call. A whole weekend of this, and I was done. I would return the papers months after they were turned in, and every day in between, I felt guilty that I wasn’t following my totally doable, perfectly reasonable plan to grade them faster.
I needed someone else to get me out of this rut. I described this problem to someone, saying, “Why can’t I just follow my totally doable, perfectly reasonable plan and grade them in 20 days?” And this very wise person said, “Why do you beat yourself up about this? It sounds like you have a great system to grade them all in one weekend. That works for you. Why don’t you just do it that way?”
Wow. It is not an exaggeration to say this was a life-changing conversation.
I started to pay attention to what works for me, and let go of how I thought I should work. I had proved I would never grade three papers a day, so I gave up on that. I set aside a weekend shortly after the papers were due, and returned them months earlier than I ever had. (I’ve since adapted the project to something that doesn’t take so long to grade — because I never returned the papers in time for students to learn from the feedback.) I realized I do not grade efficiently on weeknights — I’m too tired and cognitively burnt out. Something that takes me two hours to grade on Wednesday night, I can grade in one hour on Saturday morning. So I don’t even try to grade on weeknights anymore, since I know it’s not an efficient use of my time (unless there’s something I urgently need to return to students).
And how do I know I can grade the assignment in one hour versus two hours? I time it. This is the only way to follow through on shifts one and two — to know how long it actually takes me to grade-specific assignments and assessments. If I have two sections of AP Psychology, I need three hours to grade a set of tests. When grading history essays, the first takes me 20 minutes, but by the 5th, I average six minutes per essay. Knowing these times, I can be realistic about when I’ll be able to return the work (shift one), and I can be realistic about how much work I already have on my to-do list (shift two).
These are the habits that work for me: no grading on weeknights; grading in big blocks of time on weekends; grading large items in sets of 5 with breaks between. These habits might not work for everyone, so find what works for you. Maybe weeknight grading works well for you. Maybe you can get up super early and work efficiently. Maybe you can do what I can’t, and consistently grade a few projects a day until they’re done. Whatever works for you, go with it, and don’t waste any energy feeling guilty or comparing yourself to another teacher.
Shift 4: Reduce guilt by being honest about your grading timeline.
Being honest with your students, your colleagues, and yourself about your realistic grading timeline can reduce the guilt you may feel for how long it takes to grade, and it has the added benefit of making the work we do visible to our students.
Early in my career, when students asked when a test, project, or assignment would be graded, I lied. “I’m halfway through the pile, so in the next couple of days,” when in reality, I hadn’t started. “I’m almost done, I’ll probably finish tonight,” when I had hours of grading left. I suppose I felt I had to live up to a standard set by veteran teachers who could return tests the day after giving them, or I just didn’t want to own up to my procrastination.
Then I had a graduate school class in which the professor told us the same lies. She could have been directly quoting me, in fact. She was constantly promising to update our grades and never did. It was so very frustrating. I realized I had been doing the same thing to my students.
So I started being honest with students, at first simply because I knew the lies were annoying. But as I got used to being honest in this way, and adopted a more organized approach to my to-do list and grading, I discovered the larger benefits of this honesty.
I no longer felt guilty about not having something graded immediately.
When students ask when something will be graded, I now say, “I have those essays on my to-do list for Saturday morning.” Or, “I hope to start grading that this afternoon, but there are 2 other items on my list first, so I can’t make any promises.” Or, “I grade late work on Thursdays, that’s when your grade will be updated.” I have a system, I know my system works, and I know I can follow through on these statements. So I feel zero guilt about not grading that particular item immediately. Nothing is hanging over my head, because I’m not procrastinating — I’ve simply planned to grade that at a later time.
These honest statements can also help students understand our work more realistically. Students often want their tests or late work graded immediately, without realizing all the demands on our time. Telling them, “Those tests will take me three hours to grade. I work best when I can do the whole set at once, so I’ll grade them Saturday morning,” helps them understand the actual time commitment of our work, and why they won’t see their grades immediately.
This honestly is also important in dealing with my colleagues, and with myself. When we work on a team, and we all have the same item to grade, we can feel guilt or a sense of comparison with our colleagues about how quickly they grade and return the work. When I share my realistic grading timeline with my colleagues, I eliminate those feelings. I’m saying, “This is my system, it works for me. Grade when it works for you. No need to compare.”
When I’m honest with myself about my grading timeline, I create free time for myself that is actually mentally free. If I know I won’t grade those essays Tuesday night, I don’t even bring them home with me. I don’t spend the whole evening thinking about the essays in my bag, and how I should start them. I don’t let that thought ruin the time I’m taking off from work that evening. Instead, I plan a time to grade those essays, and the rest of the time, they are off my mind.
Shift 5: Plan backwards from a goal.
Most teachers are familiar with backwards design for planning curriculum – begin with the end in mind. The same principle is helpful when approaching your grading, especially when you have a large backlog or a deadline approaching.
As a young teacher, constantly overwhelmed with planning, preparation, and grading, I looked forward to my vacations with joy and relief. I would finally be able to catch up on work! I would have all of the spring break to grade, so I would make a real dent in the pile! I literally planned on using my vacation time to work, and I thought that was normal.
Now I look back at that attitude shaking my head. Who taught me I should use my vacation time to work? How did I come to believe that was normal? This attitude of toxic productivity was in the air. We need a serious cultural shift in our profession regarding this expectation.
One December I set a goal: I wanted to have no grading to do over winter break. I wanted my vacation time to be … vacation. At the time, it seemed like a bold and ambitious act. Now, I know it is the norm we should all expect.
My strategy that December was the first iteration of my current to-do list system. I now keep an ongoing list of grading, but when I have parent conferences, the end of a grading period, or a vacation coming up, I still use this backwards approach. First, I make a complete list of everything I have to grade before the deadline – both the work that is already turned in and everything that will still be turned in before the deadline. Next, I number all the items on my list in the order I should grade them, and list the days I have before the deadline. Finally, I assign each item to the day I will grade it, being realistic about what I can finish in a day, taking into account weekends, meetings, and other events. I start by putting the last items on the list on the last day before the deadline – often something due that day that I can quickly grade in my prep, like a quiz. I worked backwards from there, filling in items in the order on my list. I try to give myself a cushion halfway through, a day with a very light list, in case I get behind.
Of course, once this plan is made, I have to actually stick to it. But I find that fairly easy to do, for several reasons. One, I’m very motivated by the specific goal – having a break free of grading, or completing my end of semester grading early so I can plan the next semester. Two, I’ve already made all the decisions about what to do next. I don’t debate with myself about what is most important to grade first, or whether I should try to grade one more item that day. I don’t procrastinate. I know that to meet my goal, I have to stick to the plan, so I do it.
Three, drawing on shifts 1 and 2, I plan in a way that enables this approach, especially for the last day before the deadline. If I’m trying to complete all my grading before winter break, and there is a major project or test that day, it’s not realistic to have it graded immediately. So whenever possible, I avoid having large items due the day before a deadline. There are several ways I approach this:
- For winter and spring break, which typically occur in the middle of a semester where I teach (not at the end of a grading period), I may finish a unit the week before the break, giving me a week to grade that assessment. In the last week, I either teach a small unit that won’t have its own assessment, or I start a new unit that will continue after the break. This has an added advantage for students, who often have many assessments on the day before a break, so I’m not piling onto that.
- If I have to give a test on the day before a break, I will make it multiple choice only (or another format that can be graded very quickly). I vary my assessments throughout the year, so I’m definitely okay with sticking to multiple choice twice a year in the interest of having a true vacation.
- For the end of grading periods, it may be unavoidable to have a large assessment, such as a semester exam, come in shortly before the grading deadline. One approach is to move the part of the assessment that takes a long time to grade (such as the essay portion of an exam) to an earlier day, giving myself a grading cushion. On the actual exam day or last day of class, I schedule a part of the assessment that is quick to grade, such as a multiple choice test, or a discussion, presentation, or performance task I can grade in the moment.
- Another approach for the end of grading periods is to accept that I’ll have a large assessment to grade on the last day, but use my system to ensure I have literally no other work to do. Everything else is graded, the first few days of the next semester are planned, or my classroom is all packed up, and I’m ready to grade those essays the minute students start turning them in during the exam period.
A key aspect of making the backwards approach successful is the order I assign to items I need to grade, which brings me to the next mental shift.
Shift 6: Do the worst thing first.
This is my overall cure for my tendency to procrastinate — whether it’s grading, housework, filing my taxes, or other tasks. When I find myself feeling stressed and guilty because I’ve been procrastinating, there is almost always one specific task I am dreading more than anything else on the list. Once I’ve done that task, I don’t feel the need to procrastinate the rest.
I apply this to my list of grading, both in a day-to-day sense, and when I make my upcoming-deadline list as described in shift 5. Of course, I can’t grade something before it’s due. Taking the due dates into account, I choose the 1-3 items I know will be toughest to grade or will take the longest, and those get numbered 1, 2, and 3. If there’s a difficult item coming in later, I put that on my to-do list the day it’s due. Usually, these priority items that I’m most likely to procrastinate are big sets of essays or student writing, projects with very subjective grading, or items I know students will have struggled with.
I’ve found that this is the opposite of what some of my colleagues do. They’ve told me that with a big list of grading to catch up on, they start with something small and easy, to feel an immediate sense of accomplishment. I definitely understand that approach, but I think grading the worst thing first actually fulfills that need even better. The sense of accomplishment, relief, and freedom I get when the toughest grading task is out of the way fuels me to tackle the rest of my list.
Shift 7: Reduce dithering about points and decision fatigue
Improving your efficiency when grading is about making decisions quickly and accurately. You want to apply points or the rubric consistently for all students, with a minimum of subjectivity, which also makes grading quicker for you. Once again – what’s good for teachers is good for students.
For me, dithering over points is the biggest time-waster when I grade. I have often felt torn between wanting to give accurate feedback when students are missing something or not meeting a standard, and a reluctance to give a low grade. I’ve developed several strategies to reduce this kind of dithering.
Use rubrics with clear thresholds
A rubric with clearly defined thresholds between levels can make grading decisions much more efficient. Many rubrics use modifiers like rarely, sometimes, or mostly to define the levels, but these are still subjective and open to interpretation. Whenever possible, I want my rubrics to have objective thresholds, such as correctly analyzing 3 of the 5 documents, or using in-text citations with fewer than 3 mistakes.
A threshold doesn’t have to be a number. Suppose for a short answer question in history, the student needs to accurately summarize an argument from a document in their own words. If they do that, they get the point – whether their phrasing is awkward, or they chose a different argument to focus on than most students, or their interpretation is surface level. I might make these comments on the student’s answer to help them improve, but there’s no need for me to ponder if the argument they paraphrased is good enough for full credit. They did it or they didn’t. Objective thresholds enable me to make quick decisions while grading, and also enable students to better understand the rubric, their score, and how to improve.
Use fewer points or fewer rubric levels
Assessing work with fewer points or fewer rubric levels improves both reliability and efficiency. I have an assignment in my AP Psychology class that always took me hours to grade. Students apply the different theories of psychology to their own behavior, and each theory was worth 4 points. With such an abstract task, student answers vary wildly, and I spent time – way too much time – pondering if each answer deserved 2 points, or 3 points, or 4 points… with half points, I had 9 options to choose from! Not only did this assignment take way too long to grade, but by the time I got to the last few assignments, I had no idea if I was still assigning points the same way I did for the first few.
Then I changed to counting each theory as 1 point. This means I have 3 options to choose from, making it very clear what score each answer earns – either the answer is completely wrong (0 points), partially right (0.5 points) or completely right (1 point). I cut the time it takes to grade this assignment in half, I am certain I grade all the assignments the same way, and students have a clear understanding of what their scores means, rather than wondering what the difference between 2.5 and 3 is.
In the same way, my writing rubrics for history essays have only 3 levels – none, partial, and proficient. For example, a proficient thesis statement is analytical, defensible, and gives a line of reasoning. If the thesis is missing any of these aspects, it is a partial thesis. I can indicate which criterion a student’s essay is missing, and they know exactly what to change to get proficient the next time, rather than trying to parse the differences among typical rubric language like minimally, partially, and mostly. This approach creates a win-win-win situation: quicker grading, more reliable grading, and clear feedback students can understand and use to improve.
Use mastery grading
A mastery approach also helps me streamline my grading decisions. Feeling bad about students earning a low score was a huge source of my dithering over points: “You completely misinterpreted this document – but if I give you the 0 credit you have earned, this assignment will tank your grade.”
It was a long evening spent grading the first primary source analysis assignment in the first year I taught AP European History that forced me to find a new way. The students’ assignments were just terrible – they misinterpreted the document, they conflated the argument with the purpose, they had no idea how to contextualize it. I was coming up with scores in the 20-40% range, and I knew how students would react to that; I didn’t want to trigger a response of giving up. Plus, it took me forever.
I realized I needed to accomplish three goals with the assessment of this assignment: I needed to give students accurate feedback, including how far off their answers were, so they could improve; I needed the students to take that feedback seriously and pay attention to it for the next assignment of this type; and I needed their early attempts with these new advanced skills to not damage their grades long term – I needed their grades to improve as their skills improved. So I created a system I call mastery grading. I grade each primary source analysis assignment accurately, and that means students often get very low scores on the first few. But each new score on the same assignment replaces the previous score, so as students’ skills improve, their grade goes up. The initial score lives in their grade until it gets replaced, so students take it seriously and actually use my comments when working on the next assignment.
This system frees me from worrying about how students will be affected by a low score, so I can grade more efficiently. Any grading approach that allows you to give accurate feedback while also providing for grades to reflect improving skills can do the same.
Keep notes for future you
During or after grading an assignment, project, or test, I will often take notes for myself for next year, not only about how it went overall, but also specifically about how I graded it. Even if I used a rubric, I might have notes about how I applied the rubric or what students misunderstood about it. I either put these notes in the item itself, as comments in the Google document, or I add them to a running document I have for each class I teach, called Grading Notes. Keeping these notes reduces the potential of decision-fatigue when grading, because I make the decisions once, and next time I just have to check my notes, rather than making the same decisions over again.
I keep notes on the following aspects of grading and assessment:
- How many total points the item is worth
- Lists of acceptable answers for content based questions: i.e., all the possible causes of a war that students could use in a short answer question
- Common mistakes and misunderstandings students had, and how many points I took off for each (and how I will correct for them next time)
- Details about how I applied a rubric: i.e., with my rubric for a thesis statement – on a specific essay prompt, I might specify that the line of reasoning must include a, or must go beyond stating b
- Frequently used comments: With almost all student work being digital after the year of COVID, I do most of my grading in Google Classroom, so I type comments. I take advantage of the Comment Bank feature in Classroom. Since I don’t want every comment I use for every assignment to appear all year, I keep a list of frequently used comments for each assignment in my Grading Notes document. I can then copy and paste the whole set of comments in Classroom when grading that specific assignment, once again making grading both faster and more reliable.
These are our choices.
When we are overwhelmed with work, my colleagues and I have often looked to our administrators to solve the problem. Reduce our workload, we would say, take tasks off our plates. And there is no doubt that in many schools, unnecessary, time-sucking tasks are imposed on teachers.
However, we also make a lot of choices that affect our workload. That means we have the power to create better work-life balance for ourselves, without waiting on administrators. For me and many teachers I know, the fastest way to put a big dent in our workload is getting grading under control. In the last few years I have done that, not by reducing the quality of my assessment and feedback, but with these mental shifts that change how I approach assigning and grading work. These changes have ultimately improved the quality of the assessment and feedback I offer students. And aside from creating a system of mastery grading, these are all changes I made myself, without help or permission from administrators. We can make different choices and create the balance we need ourselves.
I am in my 17th year of teaching high school social studies, including world history, European history, and psychology. As a teacher, I am committed to creating a safe, inclusive, and challenging learning environment for all of my students. I love helping students discover they can do more than they think they can. As the curriculum facilitator (or department head) for social studies, I am committed to helping my colleagues achieve sustainable work-life balance while also improving as teachers, and I am excited about the opportunity to extend this work through Truth for Teachers. In the free time I protect by getting better at my job, I love to knit, travel, do home improvement projects, and spend time with family and friends.