Rethinking our Relationship with Grading: An Invitation to Reflect and Make the Time

Megan Pietruszewski

Clemson University





Grading is not most instructors' favorite part of teaching. It can feel easy to postpone grading when lesson planning and responding to student emails seem more urgent, perhaps even more so in online modalities. However, we know that grading and providing feedback (although the two are not synonymous) can help students learn. As Linda Nilson (1998) says in Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, "Grading is a task you may view with dread and disdain, but it provides essential feedback to your students on their performance and to you on your teaching effectiveness" (p. 195). The following tips are an invitation for instructors to investigate our relationship with grading further and, hopefully, find a little more peace and regularity to our grading practice to help foster student learning.


Tip 1: Schedule Grading Time Just Like Scheduled Writing Time, Virtual Office Hours, and Other Meetings


Many prolific academics suggest carving out dedicated writing time. Nilson (1998) recommends providing feedback as quickly to students as possible, explaining, "students can't learn from your feedback on a piece of work they've long forgotten" (p. 200). Likewise, Glenn and Goldthwaite (2014) point out the importance in returning student projects as quickly as possible.


Consider setting grading deadlines for yourself like authors face manuscript deadlines. Try returning student papers within a week or two, and consider telling students when they can expect feedback; they're probably curious, and it can hold you accountable. You may also try to find a grading companion. Schedule a grading session with a colleague. You could meet over Zoom to check in, set goals, and reconnect at the end of the session (similar to an online writing group). Something about knowing someone else is showing up to grade can help build accountability and motivation.


Tip 2: Start an E-Book of Feedback


Consider the assignment's larger goals and start compiling common comments you write on

student projects into this document. Two key considerations: make sure these comments center around the assignment's learning goals and specific to the individual student.

I teach writing classes, so I have template comments about organization, audience connection, genre conventions, and more. Along with using rubrics, you can use these comments to clarify rubric criteria and add additional resources. Put these comments into one large electronic document to quickly search. The key here is to individualize comments to the student, as when comments appear to be "rubber-stamped" from one student project to the next, the student may find the feedback less helpful and harder to interpret (Sommer, 1982, p. 152).


Another benefit of compiling these feedback comments is that it allows instructors to study our grading comments when paired with an inquisitive mindset. We can learn throughout the process, as the earlier quote from Nilson (1998) shows: "Grading is a task you may view with dread and disdain, but it provides essential feedback to your students on their performance and to you on your teaching effectiveness" (p. 195). For instance, if students struggle with paragraph organization, it's a cue for me to re-evaluate the unit and see if there were enough resources on paragraphing. If not, it's an opportunity to build this instruction into future units throughout the semester and subsequent semesters. Developing these templates of feedback is not only reactive (i.e., responding to student work) but reflective and proactive (i.e., how can we study our teaching and make improvements for the future?).


Tip 3: Consider the Project's Goals in the Context of the Course, and Go in with a "Feedback Plan."


There's not a one-size-fits-all approach to giving feedback. Each assignment may require different feedback, and we should provide feedback with an intentional plan. What is the purpose of this feedback on this assignment? For example, a draft will require different feedback than a final paper (Sommers, 1982). Not every draft may require detailed, annotated comments; drafts may need a reader response where we are "registering questions, reflecting befuddlement, and noting places where we are puzzled about the meaning of the text" (Sommers, 1982, p. 155). Commenting heavily on commas or topic sentences may not be the best use of time if, in a draft, we want students to consider the main argument, organization, and use of evidence: these aren't finalized in a draft. However, if students need to learn proper paraphrasing and citation rules that scaffold into future assignments, we should comment on these skills because students will apply them to future projects.


What do students need to learn from this project? What are the most important things they need feedback on right now? We can ask these questions with an eye toward future projects and go into grading sessions with a plan.


Tip 4: Learn About Grading and Providing Effective Feedback


Instructors may provide feedback the same way we saw our professors provide feedback, but our grading and feedback training shouldn't end in graduate school. We can explore the literature on grading and providing feedback in our specific disciplines. Writing studies is fortunate to have scholars who have studied grading and feedback practices (see some of the references listed in this article). For example, although written many years ago, Larson (1966) has a very good explanation for an approach for grading student essays: without making notes, first read the paper quickly to understand the topic and note the strengths and weaknesses; reread the paper again more slowly to make marginal comments which focus on paragraph-level concerns; and finally, reread the paper again to write an end comment about how the paper has met the "substantive, structural, and stylistic problems posed on the assignment" (p. 154). Instructors can make note in their class list of a student's strengths and weaknesses on an assignment to track improvements over the semester.

One pivotal article that changed my understanding of feedback is Grant Wiggins (2012), "Seven Keys to Effective Feedback." This is a helpful article to start with and discuss with colleagues.


Tip 5: Explore and Practice Mindfulness


Most of us have probably heard about "mindfulness." Mindfulness is an interesting concept to explore around grading because it asks us to intentionally stay in the present moment and "also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them" (The Greater Good Science Center, n.d.). Mindfulness has been connected to faculty writing productivity (Boice, 2000). What would it look like to show up to grading rooted in the present moment and with less judgment of our thoughts when attention wavers? There are many mindfulness resources freely available. A good starting point is the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.


Timely grading and effective feedback facilitate learning. Organization, time management, and mindfulness reframe the task of grading from an obligatory necessity to a purposeful activity focused on advancing student learning.




Discussion Questions


1. What is your current attitude or mindset towards grading? What’s the most challenging part, and what's the easiest? Why might this be?


2. How were you trained (or how did you learn) to grade and provide feedback to students? If you had to make a list of “best practices,” what would they be?


3. Explore the scholarly literature surrounding grading or feedback (maybe specifically in your discipline). How has your understanding of feedback changed? What can you apply to your own grading routines?



References


Boice, R. (2000). Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus. Allyn & Bacon.


Glenn, C., & Goldthwaite, M. (2014). The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing (7th Ed). Bedford/St. Martin’s.


The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. (n.d.). What Is Mindfulness? The Greater Good Science Center. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition#what-is-mindfulness


Larson, R. L. (1966). Training New Teachers of Composition in the Writing of Comments on Themes. College Composition and Communication, 17(3), 152–155. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/354432


Nilson, L. (1998). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Anker Publishing Company, Inc.


Sommers, N. (1982). Responding to Student Writing. College Composition and Communication, 33, 148–156.


Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16.


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