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Finding hidden pockets of time in your grading: when more is less and less is more

This is the third article in this series on finding hidden and unexpected pockets of time to write within your tried-and-true teaching practices. By paying more attention to what we do when we teach, we can spend less time teaching and more time writing without sacrificing quality feedback. Last edition, I wrote about how to streamline student feedback; in this article I will focus on streamlining how you grade student work. In the next and final article of this series, I will explore several ways to enlist student help in meeting your own writing goals while providing a role model as a scholar.

It is the Friday at the end of the term. You have assigned a final cumulative project or weekly reflective journal from each student, which may be submitted online or as a physical product. The clock is ticking, and the final grades are due on Tuesday at 5:00 p.m.  As the list of online submissions goes on and on, or the stack of papers slips off your desk, you ask yourself, “What was I thinking when I assigned this big project?” Is there some way to avoid this kind of stress and anxiety at the end of the term?

Adopt the head space that “more is less” and “less is more”. On the one hand, more efficient grading practices means less time spent grading; and, on the other hand, the less time you spend grading, the more time you have for writing. Try some or all of these practical steps.

The more often you grade student work with numbers rather than letters, the less time you spend calculating student grades at the end of the term. You are expected to give students a final grade at the end of the term, a form of summative feedback.  Think about how much time it takes to determine that final grade. If you use letter grades all term, you will have to read across the gradebook to assign the final grade. Yet, each letter is not exactly equal. Some assignments were shorter; others were longer and more complex.  A “B+” on a 250-word book review is probably not the same as a “C+” for a research paper. How do you account for those differences?

Use numbers instead of letters to assess student work. When you use number grades, you can vary the weight for different types of assignments (list of references, 10 points; critical essay, 40 points), and then add up those numbers for the final grade. I have found that calculating the final grade is far faster and easier if all my assignments are given a numerical grade, not a letter grade.

Make your total points over the term add up to an even number. Make sure all your assignments add up to 100 or 1000 points overall. One assignment may be 20 points, another 40, another 30, etc.  Then, it is easy at the end of the term to see where the final grade falls on a 100-90 =A, 89-80 =B, or 1000-900=A, etc., scale.

Offload some of the grading responsibility to students. How does this work? Some parts of an assignment may be unambiguous.  Such as,

Yes No
Pages numbered.
Title included
In docx. Format
600-word limit
Headings- APA format  


Total points: 5

These unambiguous items may be placed in a list with checkboxes in the front of the assignment: “yes” means it is evident, “no”, of course, means it is not evident. You may have fussed over these unambiguous criteria in the past and felt you needed to comment on each of them, but this method takes care of that. I might cut and paste these checkboxes to a page at the beginning or end of the paper (or, better yet, have students do it). When you offload this kind of assessment to peer readers, the students themselves, or teaching assistants, you are alerting them to the criteria as well as not having to do it yourself.

Require students to read, reflect on, and summarize their work before they turn it in. This works very well with reflective assignments like journals, observations, laboratory notes, and field notes that are typically difficult to grade. Requiring students to read, reflect, and write about their own work is not only extremely efficient but also a marvelous learning opportunity. The efficiency for you lies in how much time it takes to read and grade 25 journals with 30-100 pages of entries over a term equaling a reading load of over 750-2500 pages versus 25 one-page reflections. The learning opportunity for students is that they are required to use their own ideas, as documented in the field notes, to reflect on how their work fits into the course. Here are a couple of ways to require student reflection on work they have already done.

  • Have students use a highlighter on only those entries they want you to read. Limit the number of highlighted sections. You can even have them write about why they selected those sections in the journal itself.
  • Have students select two or three quotes from their own journal or field notes, write out the quote, and cite their own writing. Then, as a final step in the assignment, have them compose a one-page reflection on what their quotation means in light of certain course goals.

The “more is less and less is more” principle in grading focuses on initially spending more time adjusting your grading practices and less time grading so that you have more time to write and less time to stress out.

Other articles in the series:

Feedback on student work: a sinkhole or an opportunity: Finding time to write
Finding time to write: Important, yes! Impossible, no! Reviewing your student assignment practices
Why weave your writing into your teaching?

Dannelle D. Stevens is a professor emerita, faculty in residence for academic writing and facilitates the Jumpstart Academic Writing Program at Portland State University Portland, Oregon. Her degree is in educational psychology from Michigan State. Through working with national and international faculty on the complex tasks associated with balancing teaching, writing and publishing, she developed the key ideas in her fifth book, published this year, Write more, publish more, stress less! Five key principles for a creative and sustainable scholarly practice. She conducts workshops and coaches faculty on writing and career-related choices that lead to a successful career in academe.