All new teachers quickly learn there is not enough time to grade everything; however, even the most veteran teachers struggle to efficiently grade assignments and provide meaningful feedback. This problem leads to two different outcomes: 1) teachers minimize the role of grading in their classrooms 2) teachers sacrifice personal wellness to grade everything. In reality, teachers should straddle these two extremes, but how do teachers find that Goldilocks zone?
While there are strategies to more effectively grade, it is also helpful to think about why you are grading certain assignments and what feedback you want to give students. Your overall philosophy of grading, and the grading decisions made on different assignments should determine what strategies you use when, or if an assignment should be graded in its entirety. To help elaborate on what this looks like, I want to share my philosophy of grading and how that rationale informs my grading decisions on assignments.
I believe grading serves the purpose of informing students of their progress, what they can do to improve their work, and provides documentation to have discussions with students about their work and thinking.
For me, this means grading is not something that happens at the end of a week or the end of the unit, but continuously. Because of this, much of my assessment is informal and formative and happens in class to build towards larger assessments that I grade on my prep and at home. In other words, I use specific grading to improve student work, so that by the time I grade performance tasks or end of unit essays student work is improved and I can focus on the students’ ability to integrate different knowledge and skills.
Philosophy in Practice
If the knowledge is content based, I often find assessing group work throughout the class incredibly effective. By allowing students to work in groups, I foster a better classroom culture by cultivating student discussion. This constructivist design makes students synthesizers and creators of knowledge, while allowing me to be more precise in my feedback and interjections to address student struggles. The key with this kind of assessment is that I must know what I am looking for; otherwise, there is no assessment and no feedback can be given.
For instance, if we are studying cells in a Biology class, I want to hear students correctly use the disciplinary rhetoric regarding cell parts and processes. That becomes my checklist. Then, to check understanding at the individual level, I will have students answer a question explaining the cell parts and/or processes we are studying, or construct a concept map that illustrates students’ knowledge. Then, I focus on the correct use of those terms. Thus, the time I spend grading is reduced, but the quality of feedback is more precise and effective. (Another important note here, this philosophy of grading goes beyond a daily exit ticket. It is happening throughout the class and happens prior to the end of class, so there is enough time to review students’ work and provide feedback on their work before the end of class.)
The process slightly changes if my grading is for skills. It is easy for us to think of content in stark terms – students comprehend and can articulate the knowledge, or they cannot (albeit this is slightly oversimplified, though the premise holds true for grading). Skills, then, are more on a continuum. And, students often exist in different places on that continuum. Therefore, if I am working with students on a particular skill, I may be less inclined for group assessment. Instead, I may favor individual work, followed by peer review, and then individualized work again.
For example, if students are developing tools for using evidence to support an argument with the end goal of students creating an essay using fact-based evidence to support their claims, students and I must cultivate this skill over time. This means I need to think about specific things that I can grade and provide feedback on along the way prior to student’s completing the essay. To do this, I break my teaching and assessment into identifiable parts, which may look like the following: introducing evidence; explaining evidence; connecting evidence points in a paragraph; citing contradictory evidence; reconciling that evidence; drawing conclusions. Each assignment then on the way to the final essay should be graded on one or two of the following criteria with quick feedback.
I may then have students write one paragraph where they incorporate two pieces of evidence. As they are working, I look at their introduction of evidence and use, providing feedback. Then, I will take one or two student examples and explain the thinking behind what is strong and not so strong about student’s work. Then, as a class, we critique another example. After which students in pairs discuss each other’s responses and refine their answers. In effect, student work will have been graded three times before turning it in (improving the quality of work) with specific feedback. This does not mean students learn skills in one lesson. Often multiple attempts at particular skills and different examples of student work are needed to improve student learning and work.
Philosophy in Design
In short, my philosophy of grading promotes a feedback cycle for students and in class grading to be specific to lessen the length of time spent on grading while providing quicker feedback. For me, this philosophy provides a framework for constructing assessments:
Not mentioned to this point are larger assignments that force students to demonstrate their learning over a longer period of time. There is no doubt, as students complete unit projects or performance tasks, the grading burden increases, and, while some may argue that you should limit the grading of these major assignments, I believe it is important to grade those assignments in a longer extended way that builds on the previous knowledge established in the unit, so students get feedback on their ability to integrate those skills, not just their use in isolation. While it is time consuming, it makes sense to arrange your class so that grading does not consume hours on end every week, but every four to six weeks.
Grading is essential to classroom success, but grading effectively is incredibly difficult. To do so, you must define your philosophy of grading and work within that system to provide meaningful feedback to students. I have given you my philosophy and have tried to provide insight into how that philosophy manifests itself in the classroom as a starting point to contextualize your own. If you have more questions though, please feel free to comment or reach out to us to discuss in greater length finding a system for you!