The grading is the hardest part

(c) Can Stock Photo / thepoeticimage

For all the time we spend talking about assessment, we don’t spend nearly enough of it talking about time. I mean the time it takes to grade everything.

In an ideal world, our work would look like this:

Students learn a new concept, like the flaws of Keynesian fiscal policy.

Students have several opportunities to practice with the concept — for example, graphing crowding out, explaining the net export effect, and analyzing the pro-cyclical behavior of state governments — and receive feedback on their efforts.

Finally, students work on an authentic task, like evaluating the U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis, which the teacher can assess using a carefully constructed rubric.

At every step in the process, students are given multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do, and the teacher can provide meaningful feedback and, ultimately, a legitimate grade.

It sounds too good to be true — because it is.

I’m teaching part-time (four out of five classes) this semester, and I still have 120 students in my AP Macro and AP Psych classes. When on earth would this all get done? I do like to sleep, eat, exercise and spend time with my family.

In the past week (thanks to my commitment to using authentic assessments and problem-based learning), I’ve received 70 final draft research essays, 30 semester-long psych experiments, and 30 student-made videos explaining psychological disorders. That’s on top of daily formative quizzes and a pile of late work and developing new lesson plans — oh, and I’m giving summative tests in both classes next week.

It’s anxiety producing.

Teachers like me are justifiably skeptical of any innovation that threatens to put even more grading on our plates. What we need are sustainable solutions.

Here are a few tips that have helped me, as I’ve worked to make my assignments more engaging and meaningful — and my grading more useful and accurate.

1 – Keep on top of the little stuff. That means grading any quizzes and homework assignments first every day, just to keep the pile down. It’s good for me, psychologically, to check one thing off the list — even if I know it’s a small thing. And it gives students quick feedback.

2 – Don’t try to grade anything complicated during class. If you think you’re going to get two essays graded while students work on problems, you’re wrong. They’ll have questions, and you’ll get frustrated. Don’t try. You’re better off circulating, encouraging them, and offering targeted help.

3 – Do let students “exchange and grade” on low-stakes formative tasks. In AP Macro, at this time of year, we start class every day with an FRQ. Then we grade them together. Working through the scoring rubric as a class is a key part of their learning, and it saves me time.

4 – Figure out where and when you concentrate best, and save it for the most strenuous tasks. The hardest work I do is grading the research essays. I have to immerse myself in each student’s individual argument, evaluate their evidence, review their sources, and think deeply about their logic. I do this best when I’m cut off from any distractions — like when I’m on a plane or at a hotel. Barring travel, I need to read these at home, as early in the day as possible, with no one else around.

5 – Set reasonable limits. When I’m reading first drafts of essays, I can read six each day. That’s it, and then I set them aside. On second drafts, I can read ten each day. I stick to that. I also set time limits — for example, I won’t work on anything that requires focused thinking after 6 p.m.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the burden of grading. It’s easy to fall behind, leaving students with no meaningful feedback for days or even weeks.

It’s also easy to fix this problem by giving our students less cognitively complex assignments — like only multiple choice assessments. But that’s not preparing them effectively for college or the workplace.

We need solutions that work for us. And now I need to stop writing and dig into today’s batch of essays.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush