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.