Dragging 100+ essays home to grade over the weekend should not be a badge of honor. It doesn’t prove your self-worth as an ELA teacher, and there’s evidence that it won’t give your students an adequate return on your time investment. Whether you are grading essays online or in print, I believe educational magic happens in the classroom—not in your lonely living room on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Studies show that students need fast, focused, and frequent feedback, so if you can figure out how to provide effective feedback faster, then all will benefit. Below are five tips for marking essays faster while providing your students with better feedback.
But before you jump in with these tips, let’s to do a little “pretest” so that you’ll be able to see how much you improve after implementing some of these strategies. Have you ever calculated how much time you’ll need to spend grading essays outside of your contract hours? It’s a wake up call for sure! 😬 If you would like an easy way to discover your number, download this FREE Magic Essay Grading Calculator and add you own data!
hOW TO SAVE TIME GRADING ESSAYS ONLINE OR IN PRINT
uSE HIGHLIGHTERS TO SELF-CHECK WRITING AND GRADE FASTER
Highlighters are cheap, fun, and effective tools to have on hand for writing self-checks. Have students highlight their writing to show understanding, completion, or writing mastery. For example, if you are working on embedding quotations, have students highlight the parts of their properly embedded quotation. This tip works with paper essays or when writing digitally.
You can see in the image above that students highlight the lead-in (green give context), evidence (pink proof), and citation (green give citation). When you use this strategy to self-check, students can easily see what they are missing and fix the issue before submitting their work. Fewer mistakes=less time marking essays.
From an essay grading standpoint, this saves me time by allowing my eyes to zoom in on the key elements of writing I want them to learn. Rather than needing to carefully read each word, color-coding makes it easier to scan for content mistakes such as missing evidence. Plus, this method makes it easier for me to give students one-on-one help as I walk around the classroom because I can quickly see by a glance at their screen who needs help with what. If you only try one tip from this list, let this be the one.
FOCUS ON REVISION INSTEAD OF GRADING ESSAYS
As an English teacher, where are you spending most of your time during the writing process? If you are like many, it’s the grading essays step. Is that grading time resulting in student growth? If not, it may be time to reevaluate your essay grading process. Think about ways you can work smarter not harder during the revision process to save time grading final essays. I have ideas, resources, and examples in this post: English teacher mindset shifts for prioritizing revision over grading essays
GIVE VERBAL FEEDBACK IN CLASS TO CUT DOWN ON ESSAY GRADING
To cut down on my grading time while providing better feedback, I started carving out class time to conference with students. Since high school and middle school ELA teachers often have full rosters of 35+ students per class, it sometimes seems impossible to give adequate one-on-one writing feedback. However, giving each student just a few minutes of verbal feedback goes a long way in improving their writing skills. Here are some ways to find the time for verbal feedback:
- Walk around the room while students are writing and spot check for common mistakes or areas of growth such as ensuring a strong thesis, checking for evidence, or finding frequent grammatical errors.
- Use one tiny element of an essay as an exit ticket. For example, have each student show you a single parenthetical citation before they leave and give verbal feedback if they need to revise.
- Make one of your revision station stops a conference with you. More below on this, but if you have 5 students per group and your revision stations are 8-10 minutes each, that is 1-2 minutes allotted for each student which doesn’t sound like much, but is adequate when you only focus on giving verbal feedback for a single paragraph.
- Ensure you have time for each student by cloning yourself. 😉 Ok, not really, but you CAN differentiate and get to more students by directing them to a self-help station that will give them individualized mini-lessons and videos. Watch this example:
Much to an English teacher’s dismay, most students quit caring about an essay the minute they submit the final. Therefore, I started focusing my time on the revising aspect of the writing process rather than the final outcome, and the results have been tremendous. The best part: My students are doing the work, not me. To achieve this, I have students write in class as I walk around the room to give direct instruction. Since I can’t devote enough time to explain every single issue I find, I created this interactive bulletin board so that I direct students to the board and have them take the mini-lesson that they need that day.
This is the best thing I ever added to my classroom. It’s a functional ELA bulletin board that I used to give one-on-one help to writers. They might not always know which mini-lesson they need, but I could quickly tell them a number and set them on their revision way. There’s also a digital version if bulletin boards aren’t your thing! You can find everything you need in my Fast and Focused Feedback System.
USE SELF AND PEER WRITING REVISION STATIONS FOR FAST GRADING
I’ve tried many methods of peer review in the past, and I have found that the following stations work best for my students and me. The goal is to orchestrate a time in which I can conference with every single student on his or her writing. Stations allow me to do this. While they aren’t in my station, students are working with their group to revise their writing. Again, fewer mistakes = less marking.
- Self-grade with a Rubric- This allows students to look closely at the rubric and make adjustments as needed based on their self-assessment.
- Three Stars and a Wish- I picked this up at a workshop and love how catchy it is. Three stars are for three parts of the peer-reviewed essay that deserve a “star sticker” and the wish is for adding one thing they wish was better. This gives students an easy way to word their peer review.
- Read it Aloud- It’s amazing how reading your own writing aloud can help with revising for flow and finding errors! Students can also listen to each other’s essay being read aloud to find even more parts to revise.
- Use Tech to Check- I’m a big fan of the free version of Grammarly , Pro Writing Aid, and The Hemmingway App (website) to help students find and correct grammar mistakes. If you only have time for two, Grammarly and Pro Writing Aid are best. The Hemmingway App is more about style issues. I also recently discovered LanguageTool which doesn’t require a login!
- Word Choice Work- This station is to help students improve their word choice. With the help of partners, they make their word choice more varied and clear.
- Teacher Conference- As mentioned above, this is possibly the most important station because it gives me a chance to speak directly with students and catch any glaring problems I see with their writing.
- Specific Skill Showoff- I believe the key to improving writing is to build on skills. To do this, think about focusing on one new skill with each essay. As students do peer review and revision, have them show their learning by highlighting mastery of that specific skill as I showcased in tip one.
SET UP A FEEDBACK COMMENT BANK FOR GRADING ESSAYS
Whether you are grading essays online or in print, the KEY to leaving faster and better feedback is using a comment bank. While it will take you some time to set up at the start of the year, once you have your comment bank ready, you will cut your grading time in half or more! If you are a new English teacher, you might not know this yet, but veteran ELA teachers will tell you that if you don’t set up a comment bank, you’ll find yourself repeating the same feedback over and over. Work smarter not harder by saving your frequently used feedback and using it to reteach so that those repeats decrease as student writing improves. Here is a video showing you how to set up your Fast and Focused Feedback library:
Google classroom, Canvas, and Turnitin all have comment banks. If you are grading essays on a different platform that doesn’t have a comment bank, you may need to improvise and simply copy and paste from the library each time.
If you are grading printed essays, you can also use a comment bank. If you’ll notice in the image above, I provide an editable reference sheet in my Fast and Focused Feedback System so that you can simply write a number associated with the feedback you want to give. The numbers are important to note because they directly relate to tip number 3!
CREATE IN CLASS TEACHER GRADING PAPER TIME
I realize that movie days are frowned upon in some districts, but as ELA teachers, we do have media standards to teach. Therefore, if you are going to show a movie, don’t waste it. Instead, strategically plan your movie day for the day after an essay is due so that you can use some of that viewing time to grade. I used to show the movie of whatever book we were reading, but now I opt to show a similarly themed movie and have students discuss the common theme. You can find a giant list of ELA book and movie pairings here: Best Movies for High School and Middle School ELA
Test days are also great days to work on grading essays, but you have to go about it the smart way. If you use your test day time to grade essays, but then have to spend the next day grading tests, then you really didn’t come out to the good. Instead, use an online grading tool such as Google Forms, Canvas, Socrative or my favorite Zipgrade. When I bought the Zipgrade app, it was around $6.99. TAKE MY MONEY! This app is amazing. I can grade 75 tests in 2 minutes and within another minute I can know exactly which questions students struggled with because it has this awesome data function that gives me the percentage of how many students missed question x, y or z. I love it! Such a time saver!
I sincerely hope that you try out some of these tips because it makes me sad to see caring English educators turn into exhausted, overwhelmed, overworked, employees. The demands that are being placed upon us are arduous, but not impossible if you set boundaries and learn to work smarter not harder. Here’s to less time grading, better writing growth, and more time for yourself!
Building Book Love
P.S. Don’t forget to do your “pretest” to find out your starting number and improvement!