Workshop Recap: Effective Grading and Minimal Marking (11/19)

Our semester rolls on as we held the third of four faculty professional development workshops dealing with Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) teaching and planning strategies. If you missed our workshop last Thursday on Effective Grading and Minimal Marking, read our recap below to learn about strategies that not only can save you time in the grading process, but will help to produce better student work. Follow along with the PowerPoint and Handout.

WAC fellows Pamela Thielman, Drew Fleming, and Emily Crandall led an informative and diverse workshop that covered many aspects of the grading process, from planning assignments and grading structures in advance to how to reduce the sometimes-daunting paper load once those assignments have been turned in.

Emily began by outlining that the most effective grading requires two steps: 1) planning before the assignment is given, and 2) practicing efficient marking techniques once the papers come in. We identified a variety of kinds of “higher-order” concerns (those dealing with content, organization, argument, evidence, and other “big picture” issues) and “lower-order” concerns (those dealing with spelling, grammar, citation style, sentence structure, word choice), and noted how students will respond to whatever we as instructors mark on their paper. So, if we mark twenty lower-order issues on a page but only one higher-order issue such as organization or argument, it’s likely that students will only focus on those grammatical issues in revision, rather than the oftentimes more important problem of organization.

Emily then discussed how laying a good foundation before the papers come in can be beneficial to the instructor after the papers come in and it’s time to grade. Scaffolding an assignment into its constituent parts and other good assignment design practices are crucial at this step, as is transparency in the grading criteria. By letting students know what we’re grading for (either by using a rubric or by having class discussions about expectations), we can expect better results.

Drew then built on Emily’s points by going into detail about how scaffolding an assignment into smaller parts can ensure that you are spreading out the grading workload over the course of the semester. You can also address student issues earlier in the process as you catch them, so that the final product has already gone through a number of revision steps and is therefore a more polished paper (and therefore easier to grade!).

Peer review is another useful tool to alleviate the grading load, because you are “outsourcing” some of the assessment process onto the students. We included a number of peer review templates in the handout for this workshop, which as Drew pointed out are crucial to a successful peer review, giving the students structure and specific criteria for which to grade.

Finally, to help remember what it’s like for our students to receive a paper filled with tons of red ink corrections, we watched a short video made by students at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA, that really hits home the effect that our grading can have on our students. Even though we are often trying to be helpful, we forget that students often take our markings as negative criticism, and that it discourages them from wanting to revise and do better. Faculty in attendance seemed to get a lot from this video that reminds us of the power we have when we grade.

In this respect, we’re reminded that our role as instructors when grading a paper is not just to evaluate the students, which is the traditional role of grading, but also to communicate with our students and to motivate them. We should think of ourselves more as a coach than a judge, since the goal of writing a paper should not only be for students to convey what they have learned, but to improve their writing and organizational skills over the course of the semester. As their writing improves, so too does their mastery of course material, and so we should remember to take an active role in helping that progression.

Finally, Pamela covered a variety of specific strategies for minimal marking, a process that seeks to reduce the overall amount of marking on students’ work while increasing the potency of specific comments and annotations. In other words, write more less often. She stressed that as instructors, we shouldn’t feel the need to necessarily have to do all of these minimal marking techniques, but to pick and choose as suits the assignment and your style.

For low-stakes assignments, Pamela recommended either no grade or check grading. As we’ve covered in previous workshops, simply getting students to write helps them in the learning process, and so we don’t need to grade everything we assign. She recommended also putting the pen down on your first read through a student’s paper. This way, rather than feeling the need to mark every misplaced comma or subject/verb disagreement, you can concentrate on bigger picture issues. Then, at the end, we can comment on global patterns of error in lower-order concerns.

We also discussed selective line edits, for those instructors who want to make sure that they are pointing out specific lower-order problems. Rather than covering an entire paper in markings and corrections, consider only doing one paragraph, or one page. This way, the student sees their mistakes but is not overwhelmed by them, and the onus of correcting falls on them. Frequently, when we mark a student’s paper up completely, the student will only make the corrections that we suggest! This encourages the student to take it upon themselves to identify their errors.

Finally, as Pamela noted in her blog post last week, use any color pen except red!

Above all, we stressed supportive responding that not only assesses the student’s work, but motivates them towards revision and communicates new ideas or questions to them. Asking questions in margins or end comments is a great way to both communicate and motivate students further without “giving them the answer.”

Join us for our last workshop of the semester, “The Creative Classroom” on December 10, 2015, in Namm 1005. WAC Fellows Emily Crandall and Julie Hollar will cover ways to incorporate non-traditional and technological assignments and activities into the classroom that combine with writing assignments to make class time dynamic, varied, and fun.

Putting Down the Red Pen

red ink pen

If you have been exposed to even a moderate amount of WAC pedagogy, you have probably heard this advice: when you mark student work, use anything other than a red pen.


On the surface this seems reasonable, after all, no one likes to see their paper dripping red ink like a poor, wounded animal. But after a couple of hearings you may find yourself asking, as some of the City Tech WAC team did recently, is this just an old teachers’ tale? Is there evidence to back up the assertion that student reception of the same marks, grades, and marginal comments can be affected by the color they are written in? It turns out there are a number of researchers out there trying to answer these questions.


One 2012 study published in The Social Science Journal set out to test whether the use of red pens by instructors was viewed negatively by undergraduate-level students. Researchers Richard L. Dukes and Heather Albanesi provided participants with one of four marked and graded essays. These were actually just two essays, one at an A- and one a C+, in which the identical comments were either rendered in blue or red. Students were asked to assign their own grade to the essay and to assess the comments on particular values. While students tended to grade similarly and to rate the instructor comparably on for knowledgeability and organization regardless of the color of the comments, students who read essays marked in red were significantly more likely to rate the instructor as less nice and having less rapport with students.


Objectively, in an educational setting being nice is not as important as being knowledgeable. However, student-teacher rapport is an important and valuable thing and if a small adjustment like changing the color of a pen makes a difference it is worth considering. And a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 suggests a further reason for putting down the red pen: object priming.


Simply put, object priming proposes that when an object becomes closely associated with a concept then it has the potential to influence behavior. So, if an instructor associates red markings with harsh correction, he or she is more likely to make harsh corrections while using a red pen. The 2010 article by Abraham M. Rutchick, Michael L. Slepian, and Bennett D. Ferris includes the results of an experiment in which participants were given a writing sample to grade and either a blue or red pen with which to do so. Participants with red pens marked more errors than those with blue pens. The researchers hypothesize that this is a possible example of object priming, although they have plans for further research to confirm or disprove their theory.


Whether or not you are convinced by the object priming theory, a growing body of research suggests that students, instructors, or both can be negatively influenced by red ink. Choosing a different pen color is just one way that you can make the grading process more positive for all involved. For more instructor-focused tools to improve the grading experience, join us for the Effective Grading and Minimal Marking workshop this Thursday, November 19 at 1pm in Namm 1005.

End-of-Semester Grading Strategies

It is that time again! The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and you can almost taste your favorite summer treats. (Watermelon! Mister Softee!) But before you can kick off your shoes and put your feet up for a bit, you’ve got to turn in your grades for the semester.

If you were at the WAC workshop way back in October, you may have already put in place some time and labor-saving strategies like assignment scaffolding, peer review, and rubrics. Even if you did incorporate some or all of these ideas, you may still be facing a pile of papers. Here are some helpful WAC principles that can help you get through your grading and on to summer fun:


  • Focus on higher order concerns                                                                                              Spelling and grammar are important, and we don’t want to minimize that, but in most cases they won’t be the focus of your course. Consider line editing only a portion of a formal written assignment (one paragraph, one page) and using your time and energy to comment on higher order concerns like thesis statements, quality of argument, good use of evidence, logic, organization, and understanding of course material.


  • Develop a key                                                                                                                                          If you are going to be making a lot of markings on written assignments, consider developing a set of symbols and a key to streamline the process. Many of us use paragraph symbols, carets, and other proofreader’s marks, but feel free to expand your repertoire and use any symbols or markings that work for you. You can write up a simple key and attach it to each student paper so that they can easily follow your notations.


  • Rubrics                                                                                                                                                     It isn’t too late to develop a rubric! Even taking a few minutes to sit down and articulate what you are looking for in an assignment can help make your grading process swifter and easier. You can create a grid with elements to check off as either present or not present, a number scale, or anything that reflects your thinking about what constitutes excellent, good, fair, and poor work on a given assignment.


If you want to read more about minimal marking and effective grading the WAC way, you can find a recap of the workshop here, which includes a link to resources.

Happy grading!

Tackling the Paper Pile

Spring Break has come and gone. Every instructor had their wish list of things to get done during break, when suddenly not having to prep for teaching freed up what seemed like days of free time. And yet…if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t get through all of that wish list. Now that school is back in session, that big pile of midterm essays you collected before break is on your desk, staring at you, (still) waiting to be graded.

Many of the principles that we espouse with WAC philosophy require advance planning before the semester begins, as they deal with assignment design and syllabus organization. But there are things we can change and implement mid-semester, and one of these is the approach to grading.

We covered much of this in detail in our minimal marking workshop last fall, but let’s revisit just a couple of the most important points that can help alleviate some of your grading woes.

1. Focus on higher order concerns

When we try to catch every grammatical and usage mistake that our students make, we can end up with an overgraded paper. The student will see their paper full of corrections and suggestions and will do one of two things: 1) get overwhelmed and just ignore everything, or, 2) only make the corrections that you’ve marked and then consider their “revision” done. Neither of these are optimal. We want our students to read and seriously consider our comments on their papers, and we want them to take the initiative to improve their writing. Consider only marking one important, content-based error per page. Choose the one thing that the student could do that would vastly improve that section of their paper (it’s likely not fixing that run-on or semicolon usage). And write out your comment/suggestion in a full sentence that doesn’t leave the student wondering what you mean.

When students can handle higher-order mistakes, their lower-order mistakes often improve alongside.

2. Consider offering a revision option

If you don’t already have a draft built into your assignment, consider allowing your students to revise their final paper for a higher grade. This might seem like you’re creating extra work for yourself, but in reality you can mark the first version they hand in less, saving some of those comments for the final draft. Just pick one or two issues per page to comment on (and then consider a global comment at the end such as “there are many issues with your subject-verb agreement throughout”). There’s no point in making tons of corrections to the student’s writing if they’re not going to revise and hand it in again, anyway. Students do not read our corrections and then say “OK, next time I’ll remember not to split my infinitive.” We all know that unless they have an immediate incentive to revise, students won’t do it. So let’s give them that incentive. Grade the papers they hand in fairly but honestly; don’t give a C paper a B. The students will be motivated to revise and improve.

These are two relatively easy ways to help us mark less and allow our students to have some autonomy over their education. It’s not easy – the urge to fix that comma splice is sometimes uncontrollable, especially when students hand in a garbled first draft as their paper! But when we step back and realize that our students have the ability to be good writers who often need a few big pieces of advice, rather than many small ones, to bring their writing to the next level, we help both them and ourselves.