Simple Steps To Grading Papers Without Losing Your Mind

Simple Steps To Grading Papers Without Losing Your Mind

Picture that classic image of a stressed, exhausted teacher, sitting at their desk.

I’ll bet there’s a huge pile of grading, waiting impatiently for their attention, carrying with it the hopes and expectations of dozens of clamoring students. The repetitive tedium of grading must rank among the chief reasons why teachers leave the profession, and it certainly seems to be a major cause of stress and procrastination. I’ve been in this same boat, and I’d like to offer a few tips for relieving some of this burden and making your grading quicker, easier and more helpful.

How To Grade Your Papers Quickly and Efficiently

  1. 1

    Make It Count

    Colleagues of mine have guessed that up to half of all homework assignments are a complete waste of everyone’s time. They’re busywork, neither engaging the student nor realistically practicing the material. One memorably put it this way: “A chimpanzee can do a hundred gap-fill exercises; it takes a student to actually use the language.”

    Consider which of these categories your homework assignments fall into:

    1. There’s ‘Controlled Practice’ (gap-fills, multiple choice, closed (yes/no) questions, etc), which is only the first part of the practical learning phase of language acquisition. It should take merely a few minutes, and exists to make sure the student has understood the concept and can recognize if a mistake is being made.
    2. Then, far more importantly, there is ‘Free Practice’, which requires spontaneous, independent use of the material; examples include composing dialogues, letters and paragraphs, openly discussing a topic, and answering open (not yes/no) questions.

    For me, if the majority of your homework assignments are Controlled Practice, and particularly if they test the same basic response over and over, then you’re doing your students a disservice. This is partly because…

  2. 2

    Homework Erodes Our Students’ Private Lives

    We accept that part of the evenings or weekends will be taken up with homework, but even though that’s true, I’m determined to use it as efficiently as possible. Do you remember being stuck in your room, slogging through unpleasant and repetitive material, when you could have been at the movies, or playing in the snow, or taking someone special on a date? I assign only that work which I am certain will usefully reinforce our class work; anything else is punishment, and there are a dozen better ways to show your displeasure than by deliberately eating up our students’ personal time.

  3. 3

    Grading Should Be Recorded

    If you haven’t built a continuous assessment system then please consider doing so. Once it’s in place, grading feeds directly into this process and provides lots of useful data which can be gathered over the whole semester. You can track your students’ progress, identify areas where they’re struggling, and tweak your course content to suit their learning needs.

    Organize a spreadsheet for your grading, either by hand or in Excel(or one, and then the other). Decide on specific areas to focus on, including some of the following:

    • Spelling
    • Grammar / Use of structure
    • Punctuation
    • Vocabulary choice
    • Structure / Cohesion / Flow
    • Pertinence (i.e. Did they answer the question?)
    • Research and Citations
    • Level of digression or ‘waffle’
    • Level of plagiarism
  4. 4

    Find The Right Time

    I would gladly march to persuade schools to pay their teachers for grading time. Those schools which refuse to do so are showing a dispiriting lack of respect. Grading after class has huge advantages over grading while teaching. Even if the students are quietly working on something - preparing a presentation, reading, or editing a paper - you could usefully be patrolling, answering questions and keeping everyone on track, rather than sitting at your desk and grading. However, I quite understand the need to find quiet time for this task, and during class time is often our only option. The same is true of lunch time; in which other profession are employes expected to carry on working when trying to eat a meal and catch up with colleagues?

  5. 5

    Isolate Focal Points

    Unless you’re grading the work of complete superstars, you’re likely to have a lot of correcting to do; only the naïve (and this goes for teachers and students, both) would expect every single mistake to be corrected. Instead, focus on language points which were taught recently, which will be the focus of an upcoming test, or have been giving particular trouble.

The Method: a Breakdown

So, you’re faced with a huge pile of grading. Here’s how I recommend you begin:

  1. Brew some strong Chinese tea. (That’s just my way, but oh boy, does it ever work!)

  2. Grab your grading sheet. This has everyone’s name on, and acts as a record of their results through the semester. Even if it ends up in a computerized spreadsheets, I start off by hand, just for ease of entry.

  3. Alphabetize the assignments by surname. This immediately tells you if anyone’s work is missing, and also lets you know how far down the class you’ve already gone; it acts like the ‘progress bar’ on a software installation.

  4. Grab a green pen. No, not a red one. Studies have shown that red ink is intimidating and saps confidence. Green looks like advice; red looks like admonishment.

  5. Take deep breaths. Don’t let this odious task make you angry. You’re more likely to respond punitively to your students’ mistakes if your blood is up. The mistakes are there because of a lack of practice or attentiveness; they’re not trying to make you angry. It’s mistaken, not malicious.

  6. Apply your symbol system. I underline the problems I’ve selected for this grading session. If the sentence or paragraph has none of these issues, I give it a nice, big check mark. If the point being made is a good one but is lacking in some way, I give it a check mark with a squiggle next to it. If the point is not well formed, I give it a squiggle only. If there’s a pretty serious problem, I give a squiggle next to a cross, and if the student has missed the point entirely (or has plagiarized the whole paragraph, for example), only then do I inscribe the classic ‘wrong’ cross. No ones like seeing them, and I try to use them sparingly.

    Naturally, checks and squiggles aren’t enough on their own. For each of these, unless the mistakes are purely linguistic (spelling, grammar, punctuation) and will simply be underlined, I add a comment to justify my symbol. These are between one and ten words long, and are in addition to a quick comment at the end.

  7. Decide your grade. Your school will almost certainly have a grading system (A = 90, B = 80 or some such), and if so, you should observe it. If this doesn’t apply, decide a grading system at the beginning of your professional life and stick to it. I’m firmly of the belief that to gain an A-grade should be a rare and wonderful thing. I lack the space to lecture the British education establishment on why, given that an A-grade required 87% in 1995, it should still require 87% in 2014 (and not somewhere in the high 60s), but you get my point. This is your opportunity to impose and maintain high standards for your students, and I urge you not to try to curry favor or enhance your own reputation by giving into the temptation to manipulate these figures.


When inherently connected to your semester’s work, made part of a rolling, continuous assessment system, whittled down to a small number of focal points and enabled by an efficient set of symbols, grading need not lead to despair.

Keep an open channel for your students to ask about your comments - doing so ensures fairness and equality, and actually saves grading time, as it’s often quicker to show them a quick example than to write out the whole thing on their paper. Hopefully these methods will save you time and stress, and help you to better serve your students.

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