What could I do with my class if I didn’t have to grade so much?


(image link: http://ahundredaffections.com/2014/03/31/the-bane-of-my-teaching-existence/ and the associated blog comment captures the mood)

The title of this post is a question I ask myself every time a pile of student work comes across my desk.  It is also a question that plagues many other instructors.  Others agree. It’s not that we don’t believe in grading, or that we don’t think its valuable for students, but there is so much! Doing something new or innovative often equates with more work for me. Does it have to be that way? What do I have to do to view the problem from a different perspective?  What are the implications for faculty development?

A Short Story

I met with a department last Fall semester to discuss participation the ALT Lab Brown Bag Lunch faculty development program. I was built into their faculty meeting. Although I was welcomed, it was made very clear to me that their time is extremely valuable. I was given 10 minutes according to the agenda. As a side note, I am NOT a salesman. I don’t “sell” my services mainly because (1) they are part of my job and (2) I see my work was a collaborative partnership not a service as such. However, when given only 10 minutes one finds himself giving a pitch.

I began with a question: What could I do if I didn’t have to grade so many papers? I followed it up with a saying something like: “Grading and assessment are part of my teaching responsibilities, but I’m tired of grading mediocre work: work that students haven’t taken ownership of; work that they see as mere check boxes, mere points. In fact, I hate it. My new philosophy of teaching is to only do things that make me happy. So, I’m not going to grade papers any more. I’m going to figure out how to get better thinking and work from them and simultaneously reduce my grading load.”

Eyes widened. One instructor practically yelled: “Tell us how!” We spent the next 40 minutes talking about the how.

The Point

How well do we as faculty developers help instructors see themselves within the goals and initiatives that we are trying to advance? To what extent do I genuinely speak the language that faculty speak? Do I empathize? How well have I positioned myself to respectfully challenge? Do I create and cultivate “thought partnerships” to use a phrase from a colleague of mine?

I am at a university that has one foot in research and tries to keep the other foot in maintaining a commitment to quality teaching. Research, Service and Teaching….and teaching often comes last yet tends to take up so much of the time. It doesn’t bode well for cultivating progressive attitudes toward teaching.  I work to help faculty discover and do what makes them happy. It’s often an issue of rethinking the way we were taught and our teaching patterns.

A Few Ideas on Grading (Make them your own according to your context)

First, read this and this.

Second, consider some of the following ideas. I have embedded variations of these ideas within my own instruction, and I continue to adjust and experiment. In every case, however, I try to focus on a core principle (thinking goal) and figure out how it may function within my instructional situation. Also, even though I maintain a high standard of rigor, I do so with compassion knowing that my students need guidance. In other words, I’m flexible, but maintain high standards.

Convince us to read your paper. 

  • I have got a lot of traction with this activity. Early on in my career I got really tired of papers that were written the night before often characterized by a poor attention to well disciplined and crafted work. I also got really tired reading papers that didn’t address some significant and interesting topic. So, I require students to write a ONE page argument that convinces the reader (me and one’s peers) to read their paper based on two criteria: the topic is interesting and significant. This is attached to their research paper as a preface of sorts. Prior to writing this short argument, the class has to operationally define what constitutes interesting and significant. They also must explicate the parts of an argument including how to outline their work so that the reader is convinced to invest their time to critically engage with the paper.  I scaffold this assignment with smaller assignments and activities in class that better prepare the work. If the reader is not convinced, then their main research paper will not be read. It has really helped improve the topics students research, the organization of their arguments, and the preparation they put into writing their research papers. Student blog posts have proven a valuable medium in this assignment for three reasons: (1) concise writing, (2) peer access and review, (3) ability to highlight specific intellectual moves for the entire class to see and evaluate. Here are a couple examples: Example 1 and Example 2. I am not claiming they are excellent or poor; rather they are examples of minds in action.

What did you do to pursue excellence?

  • This is another question that I require addressed before I will read any substantial assignment. My goal is to have students demonstrate that they have strategically taken advantage of every resource available to help them do the best job that they can. I am not asking or expecting students to be excellent writers…I’m not. I’m not expecting them to be intellectually sophisticated…again, I question my own sophistication. Rather, I DO expect that they utilize their support resources. By strategic I mean that they are to plan, take action and avoid procrastination. This activity is usually written, but I have been experimenting with video and podcasts. It accompanies the assignment they are turning in. I format it  for easy and quick reading. I usually ask that they address the following categories: Key question; Thesis; Record of library visits and document searches (this can be a screenshot of their search history or a list of sources they consulted); Record of the times they visited the writing center; Record of who read their paper/assignment with comment references; A statement addressing what they did to meet the criteria for an excellent mark and how they prevented from making mistakes that are present on previous work; A statement of the intellectual skills they have worked on or accessed as they worked on the assignment and how they plan to use those skills in other work in my class and other classes. This sounds like a lot of writing, but I don’t have to read it all. Rather, I place students in small groups for a particular task and I then hold short “interviews” with students about this work. If I have any doubts or questions, I read relevant sections. The idea here is that they are doing the intellectual work necessary to be successful rather than relying on me to tell them what their thinking is worth. Finally, I prefer to see this limited to two pages maximum.

Oral Arguments

  • How often do students study their own work? Do they study it with the mind to speak to any part (ideation, significance, argument, sources, alternative perspectives, connections, limitations, next steps) coherently? I know this is a tall expectation for students who do not have background experience doing such things, so I help them learn it. I am confused when I am asked to critically critique (study) a student’s paper who has not studied it himself. I provide students with a brief guide addressing some of the aforementioned parts. I meet for 2-3 minutes with individual students when the others are in peer assessment groups or on some other task. They have to speak to the log of their paper coherently. If they fail, they have to go back and study it, which leads to a better product.

The combination of these three activities have reduced my reading load because learners have invested more time working with peers, visiting my office hours, and consulting other institutional support resources like the writing center and our library.  By the time students turn in their final drafts, I shouldn’t have to read them because I know the work that they have done to prepare the final composition. I read them, of course, but I do not have to spend an enormous amount of time making comments, interpreting intent, and so forth. Rather, I read selectively to make sure they have seriously accounted for editing suggestions.


4 thoughts on “What could I do with my class if I didn’t have to grade so much?

  1. Great ideas for helping the students think critically about their work, this is something I would like to consider for my class, particularly after reading the publication that Jon Becker posted on Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). How did you manage assigning grades when using these activities?

    1. I agree that the article Jon shared is fitting. It’s a challenge we all face and, to some extent, will continue to do so. I tend to let my students know that all the work they do is for a larger purpose (e.g. intellectual development, content mastery, self-exploration), and that I will never give them busy work. Consequently, I do NOT grade every thing they write. I prefer random sample grading. Moreover, when I grade, I grade for one or two criteria/purposes at a time. I’ll focus on structure, or accuracy of their conclusions, or the logic and/or significance of their questions, and so on. It prevents me from getting too caught up in spending so much time commenting. I only comment thoroughly when I require that students reflect on and address the comments. The grades I assign are largely dependent on the size of the task. If they are regular homework types of tasks, then they get ‘credit’ or ‘no credit.’ Credit means they have completed the assignment sufficiently and to 100% accuracy. If that is not met, then they receive no credit. Such a stance has really improved the quality of their homework/smaller task assignments. Furthermore, I don’t always collect the smaller assignments, or when I do I only read a few to highlight particular strengths and challenges so that I can bring them to the whole group for consideration. If a student receives no credit, but the assignment was complete, then they have an opportunity to correct with a reflection attached explaining the reason(s) for the error. As for larger tasks/assignments, I tend to scaffold the rubrics to focus on one or two criteria. I would like to always follow my aforementioned method of credit or no-credit, but students really have a difficult time with that. So, for every major assignment we spend a short time outside of class (e.g. discussion board or blog posts) developing a focused rubric. I find that they take more ownership over what an “A” or “B” means when they are part of the process. A rubric with too many criteria is overwhelming. Finally, there are always two major categories of criteria: objective and reasoned. The Objective category addresses things like format, page length/word count, and proper citation methods. The larger assignments MUST pass the objective criteria first or the paper/assignment will NOT be read and, therefore, receives a “no-credit” or zero mark. If the objective criteria are met, then the paper will be read and judged according to the rubrics we have constructed. In one sense, I’m grading less, but in another sense I’ve distributed my workload. Does this make sense?

  2. First, I’d like to commend you on a well written blog post. I love your ideas for engaging students for the purpose of owning their work. I think these ideas are great, and I wish more of my professors had asked me to do these things.

    My challenge for you is this: what would your ideas look like if we applied a digital lens? In digital environments, we add images and hyperlinks to support arguments; these can be mapped and visualized with little work on the part of the instructor, however, they can be very telling about the quality and the depth of the argument.

    For example, in your absolutely fabulous post, Enoch, you included:

    1. An illustration (properly sourced) with a caption that explained why you added it
    2. A hyperlink connecting this work to your previous/other work
    3. A hyperlink to a colleague’s work
    4. At least three hyperlinks to additional resources or references
    5. Two example links

    Wow. That’s an awesomely connected post that clearly took you some time and thought to put together. Now, for your post I just went through and clicked on all your links, but in a classroom setting and as the instructor I could produce spreadsheets and maps of this information to reflect back to the student…or better yet, they could evaluate their own digital connections for you – I believe this is an area we should discuss further as we begin to move more of our assignments into digital spaces.

    For a good but short resource on digital age assessments, I like If you are interested in a more in depth resource for my approach, you could consider checking out Davies (2010).

    Thanks for a great lunchtime read!

    1. Excellent point. I would also like to apply similar ideas (in both modes) to the large lecture class. Thanks for the great thoughts.

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