How to Save Time Grading and Give Better Feedback as a Professor: Semester, Assignment, and Feedback Design

The biggest struggle I hear other tenure-track faculty at teaching-oriented institutions articulate is the amount of time it takes to teach 2-3 times as many courses as you ever did–most ones you’ve never taught before!–while establishing and maintaining your research agenda.

To succeed at a teaching-focused institution, you must develop courses and assignments that best equip students to meet the learning objectives you or your department have set for them. Yet spending more time grading does not always correlate with more student learning.  Use the questions below to think about how you can give your students the most effective opportunities to develop the course skills and the most relevant, efficient, and targeted feedback to improve them.

How to Design Your Semester to Grade more Efficiently

The first place to look when thinking about strategies you can use to grade more efficiently is at your semester design. Answer the questions below to see if your graded assignments are well-balanced (in number and type) to allow your students ample opportunities to demonstrate mastery of (or at least progress toward) the course’s learning objectives.

  1. How many major and minor assignments have you assigned per term?
  2. How many students do you expect to enroll?
  3. Do you have ample amount of time between assignments for you to reasonably grade them, and for students to act on meaningful feedback? For instance, think twice about assigning a final draft due one week after the “rough draft.”

How to Design your Assignments to Grade more Effectively

The second factor to consider in how to grade more effectively is in how you’ve designed your assignments. Answer these questions to see if the assignments are really the best ways of assessing students’ progress toward mastery of the course’s learning objectives.

  1. Do you scaffold the major assignments, and give students low-stakes, in-class opportunities to practice these skills before their deadline? Doing so is not only more conducive to long-term learning, but it also usually results in better quality of work.
  2. Do you give students opportunities to learn what mistakes they make and self-correct? For instance, I have had success in publishing answer keys to homework assignments in language classes, asking students to correct their work in a different colored pen, and then asking them to write down the common errors they made. They learn to identify their own mistakes and take measures to avoid making them in the future.
  3. Can you grade low-stakes assignments wholistically, offering a “check,” “check-plus,” “check minus” system?
  4. In writing-intensive classes: can you devote some in-class time to peer review activities? Here, you must give students concrete and limited questions to answer, or else they will end up copyediting. Email me for two of the assignments I use most commonly. You must end the class with a “debrief” session to give students time to process what they learned, and you must also require students to reflect on and incorporate their peers’ feedback in their final product.

How to Match your Grading Method to Student Feedback Needs

I have found that by far, most important variable that instructors most frequently overlooked when considering how to grade more effectively. Often, they assume that written feedback is the gold standard. Use the questions below to explore whether there are other alternatives to grade assignments to give students better feedback.

  1. Can you change the format of your written feedback to reduce the time you spend? For instance, on language exams, I used to cross out each mistake and write the correct answer. Now, instead, I circle errors, and indicate an error “type” (s/v for subject-verb agreement, T for tense, sp, for spelling, aa for adjective agreement, etc.) Not only do I save time, but students actually get better feedback when I write less. They can see, at a glance, the most common type(s) of errors they made, and they have the opportunity to correct the error themselves.
  2. Can you use a rubric? For writing courses, I divide my rubrics up into main areas (argumentation, organization, evidence, etc.) and sub-areas, giving point values for each sub-area. When I’m done marking the paper, I highlight areas where students should spend most of their revision efforts, which gives them instantly digestible feedback on how to improve.
  3. Can you accept assignments electronically, and type up comments? That way, you can copy and paste the same comment on multiple students’ papers. Or, you can use a tool such as TextExpander, which allows you to set up a custom keyboard shortcut for any length of formatted text. If you find yourself routinely writing explanations about comma splices, or even emails telling students to refer to the syllabus, TextExpander will save you precious mental energy.
  4. Can you give oral feedback? If you have an iPad, consider accepting electronic assignments, marking it up (with an Apple Pencil, if you have an iPad Pro) in iAnnotate, which also allows you to record a message that gets embedded in the document. Anecdotal evidence suggests students respond more positively to feedback given orally (they perceive it as more constructive and less critical), so they might be more likely to implement your suggestions. See this article on The Chronicle of Higher Education for more tips.

What ideas do you have about designing your assignments, your courses, or your feedback type to give better feedback? Let me know in the comments below or by email!

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