We have to have a strategy to minimize time spent grading. Whether we like it or not, as high school teachers grades are of the upmost importance, as our students’ GPAs will directly impact their futures after graduation. This can be a heavy burden for us to ensure we are being fair and providing plenty of opportunities for students to show us their understanding. But how can we do that without overloading ourselves and spending HOURS working after school ends to keep up with the never-ending pile of papers to grade?
I am really passionate about having an equitable classroom that provides every student, regardless of ability, background, learning style, etc., with a multitude of ways to succeed and show their understanding. At the same time, I am also REALLY passionate about teachers maintaining a healthy work/life balance, as we are arguably the most underpaid and overworked profession there is. So when it comes to grading, I work off of two key principles:
- Always return graded work back the day after I collect it so that I can provide students (and myself!) immediate feedback to learn from.
- Never take work home to grade.
You may be wondering, how are both of these things possible?? Well I am here to tell you how I was able to accomplish both of these goals all 6 years I was teaching in the classroom full time.
First, simplify your grading strategy.
If you have the luxury of setting up your gradebook however you want, The first step to accomplishing these two principles is to SIMPLIFY IT.
Break it down into 2 categories only. Call them whatever you want. I typically called mine Major/Minor. Weight these however you prefer – I had to follow school policies that dictated 60% of a student’s grade be summative assessments, so that’s where mine came from.
This 2 category system allows you to grade way less overall, while still assessing students fairly. With only 2 categories, you never have to worry about having enough grades in each category to fairly assess students. It also made it so that a few bad grades would never totally ruin a student.
I put all summative assessments (tests, quizzes, projects, lab reports, research papers, etc.) in one category and all formative assessments in the other. Within these categories I would weight things different point values (Ex. A bell ringer = 5 pt minor grade while a lab = a 50 pt minor grade). Students REALLY understand this system and the simplicity of it well, which made it easier for them to understand how different assignments affected their overall grade.
I also loved when meeting with students or parents how easy it was to show where issues were arising – either within their minor grade average (assignments I graded almost entirely for completion/effort) or within their major grade average (assessments graded for accuracy).
Additionally, students that were bad test takers weren’t punished by this grading policy. There is room in the major grade category for LOTS of variety in summative assessments to balance out with tests.
I taught over 900 students during my 6 years as a full time teacher and never once thought a student ended up with an unfair letter grade at the end of the year. And as an Enneagram 1, fairness is everything to me!
Second, eliminate ALL homework unless ABSOLUTELY necessary.
This is HUGE for minimizing the amount you have to grade AND for increasing your students’ work ethic when they are in your class. So many of our students are balancing SO MUCH – jobs, caring for younger siblings, multiple sports and other extracurriculars. They don’t have a ton of time outside of class. It is also WAY easier for students to cheat when you aren’t monitoring them, so if you want your homework to authentically assess them, it may not actually be doing that 😳
I’ve found that because my students see that I really respect their time outside of class, they really respect mine IN class. They work harder for me while they are in my room because they know they will only have homework for me if they don’t get it done in class.
I can monitor everything they do in my classroom, too, to make sure they aren’t cheating and are really trying their best! This frees me up to grade the majority of my assessments for completion.
That’s right! The majority of all my minor grades are completion grades. This is 10,000x faster than collecting and grading everything for accuracy, and I feel confident doing this since I am all over them while they are in my class to make sure they are trying their best and doing their own work. I can then spot check grade an entire class in under 1 min, and then immediately go over and provide feedback to learn from our mistakes. It’s a win-win for everybody!
Then, whenever I do collect an assignment for accuracy, I have the time and energy to really grade it well with feedback that is both meaningful AND immediate.
What about students who need homework for reinforcement? I always have optional extra practice available to give them to work through or for me to do with them in tutoring, I just don’t grade it.
Third, use bell ringers DAILY and stop grading everything else.
If you are like me, you don’t want to spend all of your planning period or free time grading. But you DO want to know where your students are on a daily basis and to be able to check in with them. This is where bell ringers come in!
If you’ve been around here for more than 5 seconds you’ve probably heard me talk about my bell ringers (I call them Prime Times®️ because I think the first 5 minutes is the most important part of class) because I LOVE THEM!
- It ensures I check in with each student DAILY.
- Gives structure and routine to start every class period.
- Students get used to coming in and immediately working.
- It gives you a few minutes to take attendance.
- It can inform the direction the class period goes based on where students are.
- Allows you to address misunderstandings before moving on to new content.
- I can provide immediate feedback to students, and identify who I need to give individual attention/remediation too ASAP.
- I can collect a class’s and grade them in under 5 min, (so it’s easy to do during the class period when you have a min here or there – I don’t grade ANYTHING else during class time ever so I can be monitoring and asking questions).
- Frees me up to not need to collect anything else that class period and if I do grade something, just grade it for completion.
I think this will be ESPECIALLY important during distance learning. It’s going to be so hard to authentically assess students from afar, which is why I think it’s even more important (for your sanity and their’s!!) to majorly decrease the amount you grade this year. But if you want to be sure you are checking in with students daily, do a bell ringer!
Fourth, when you do need to collect and grade, USE A RUBRIC!
Okay, okay, but at some point you will actually need to collect and grade some things. So what do you do?
Here is why I love them:
- Yes, they take a bit of time on the front end to make. But once you have them, you can reuse them forever and ever. You can also often make small adjustments and rework them for a variety of assessments. When making, start by creating the categories (rows) you want to assess. Then set 4 standards/benchmarks (columns) that students can reach. I do Excellent, Satisfactory, Needs Improvement, and Unacceptable. You can see an example by downloading this free resource here.
- SO FAST to grade with a rubric because it narrows you down to categories to work within.
- It’s really visual for students and you can give them it in advance so expectations are clear. This eliminates a LOT of confusion later on if they wonder why they got the grade they did, because you gave them the target beforehand!
- Simplifies your grading but still allows a lot of room for differentiation.
- Helps to make grading abstract/creative assessments more concrete and fair.
- Makes it so easy to grade multiple drafts (say for a lab report) if you start with a rubric.
When in doubt, rubric it out! 💃🏻
BUT on those occasions when a rubric just won’t apply and you have to collect it, I recommend:
- Segmenting your grading section by section. For example, if grading labs, grade EVERY students’ hypothesis, then ALL the graphs, then ALL the analyses, etc. You will be amazed by how much faster you can grade when your brain only has to focus on grading one thing over and over. I even do this for tests. If you own any of my curricula, you will see that ALL of my tests are organized by concept, so I can chunk the grading up and just grade one concept for every student at a time.
- Scheduling assignments to be due when you know you can actually grade them, so you can still meet the goal of the 1 day turn around time. For example, I would never assign a project to be due in one class the same day I have a test in another, because that would be way too much for me to do in one day. I will also choose 1-2 days a week to stay at school until 5ish so that I can knock out all of the grading I need to do before heading home.
Do you use rubrics or bell ringers? If you haven’t, what is holding back? I urge you to consider making a change to how you grade – even if you are reading this in the middle of the year – to help both you AND your students!