Quicker Ways to Grade Writing

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Jun
  • 02
  • 2005

During lunch today, I rattled off a few suggestions to a student teacher who is facing having to read 4 batches of essays this weekend to get caught up. And I thought they might be kind of useful suggestions to remember, so here they are.

Here are what I see as some good alternatives to the thorough reading and commenting that so often prevents teachers from evaluating writing (by no means is this an exhaustive list and I certainly didn’t invent a single one of these ideas):

  1. Categorical Feedback: With correcting pen in hand, read each essay for grammatical and syntactical errors, taking the time to focus on the repeated errors rather than circling every little mistake. This gives the author an idea of a category of mistakes to watch out for and correct in the future without getting bogged down in every single thing s/he did wrong. Works Well For:
    • ELL authors who need to concentrate on a specific aspect of their language acquisition;
    • any author who needs to show improvement on a specific set of skills from paper to paper.
  2. Logical Feedback: With correcting pen in hand, read each essay thoroughly for logical errors, focusing on the use of quotations to support arguments, flow of ideas in each paragraph, and transitions from paragraph to paragraph, from idea to idea. Works Well For:
    • average writers who have a fine grasp of English language conventions, but need to work on writing with sophistication beyond what they learned in 8th grade;
    • writing groups where authors can turn to peers for advice; papers that can be rewritten.
  3. Similar Stacks, Similar Comments: With correcting pen in hand, focus on the bottom line for the essay. Read it through once, quickly, without making a single mark on the paper. What’s your gut instinct on the grade? A 70%? 80%? Mark the first grade lightly in the top corner of the page and make piles of all the similar grades. After a first read of each paper, once they’ve all been assigned to stacks of similar grades, read through each stack to assure that they are all of similar quality. Does each stack exhibit similar problems? Do they exhibit similar strengths? Can you write a brief statement at the top of each paper that sums up what the author should do to improve their writing? Something like “Good points, but needs more explanation and elaboration on your ideas and how the quotations support your thesis” is what I’m thinking of here. Move papers from stack to stack as necessary, writing your comments at the top of each paper. Those comments should come easy since all of the papers in one stack will necessitate more-or-less the same comment. Now write the final grade on each one, secure in the knowledge that you’ve maintained a level of consistency in the grading of these papers and that the author will have a comment from you for a focused rewrite of the paper or to take into consideration for next time. Works Well For:
    • the final draft of a multi-draft assignment, where the other drafts have received some other kind of feedback.
  4. Look Ma, No Pen!: Put your pen away; stack the papers on a table; stand up. From a slight distance, as far away from the papers as possible while still being able to see the words on the page, read each essay and categorize them by grade, making stacks of all the 70% papers, all the 80% papers, and so on. No comments, no marks on the page, just focus on reading the papers and evaluating them and grouping them (a holistic grade). Once you’ve read through them all, double check your stacks to make sure each stack exhibits the same level of quality and put a final grade on each paper. You’ve just given the bottom line on these papers and any students who want to discuss the score further with you can arrange to do so. Works Well For:
    • determining minimum competency of a particular writing assignment (those with X amount of highlights have to rewrite the essay);
    • papers that can be rewritten.
  5. Highlights: Much of the time spent evaluating a piece of writing comes from writing comments on the paper. To cut out that time, grab a highlighter as you prepare to read these papers. Concentrate your evaluation on your choice of writing issues: grammatical, syntactical, logical, wherever you wish to focus your efforts. Everytime there is a problem with the chosen area of concern, highlight the offending words or phrase. At the end, glancing at all the problems highlighted on the page should give you a good indication of the final grade earned and the author then knows where the areas of concern are, ready to work out what problems have been shown. Works Well For:
    • writing group collaboration to figure out why certain parts are highlighted.
  6. A Single Criteria: Focus on one thing on which to grade these papers. Maybe it’s the use of quotations to support a point; maybe it’s the use of literary terms in a short story; maybe it’s just the flow of conventional English. Whatever the focus, limit your evaluation to the author’s demonstration of mastery in that one area. You can make marks as you wish, but keep your evaluation focused. Now, you only have to pay attention to one thing in that piece of writing, instead of paying attention to grammar and to factual accuracy and to logical order and to flow of ideas. Works Well For:
    • determining minimum competency of a writing skill recently taught, almost like a test on the writing concept last covered.
  7. Peer and Personal Evaluation: Make sure everyone has a copy of the rubric and set the authors loose to evaluate two other people’s essays and to evaluate their own. For each category of the rubric, they must give a number score and a written explanation about why the score is deserved. An overall score is also written down and defended. When you grade the essays, read their evaluations last. If you agree, simply write the grade down. For any differences between the grade you wrote and the grade the author gave, an explanatory sentence or two should clear things up. Works Well For:
    • the final draft of a multi-draft assignment, where the other drafts have received some other kind of feedback.

No doubt there are plenty more ideas of how to get through a stack of papers while still providing something meaningful to the author. And not every option listed above is appropriate for every writing assignment. My Works Well For suggestions are simply that, suggestions. The point is that there are ways to make it easier to grade writing while still giving the author valuable feedback. And a happy teacher means a happy class which is more likely to result in happy students. How happy are you after 9 hours of grading essays? Try it some time and report back to me.


1. Matthew Brown says:

[2/12/2006 - 6:58 pm]

I’ve started using some of these; others I hadn’t considered. Thanks for writing these up!

2. Linda Aragoni says:

[9/29/2008 - 5:51 am]

The best way to simplify grading is to know what you want to accomplish in your class in a particular year.

If my goal is to get students to use whom correctly, that’s really all I need to look for when I grade.

If my goal is that every paper develop a clear central point, I have to grade very differently.

For more on this, see