Ask the grumpies: Alternatives to grading

Leah asks:

I enjoy teaching but can’t stand grading. I find it demoralizing when students put in very little effort. Are there better ways to grade? Or should I consider a different career option?

It’s funny, I’m fine with grading when I’m not the one teaching (in fact, it is how I got spending money in college), but not so fine when it’s me they’re disappointing.  Why didn’t they listen?  Did I go wrong?  Why don’t they care?

The ideal solution is to have someone else do the grading.  TAs are the best.  Especially when they tell you general areas in which students need more work.  I don’t let them grade exams though, only homework.

And that costs $$.

Depending on what you’re doing, you can utilize multiple choice, or fill in the blank and so on and just not give partial credit.  I don’t do that though because I feel like students should get partial credit?

You can have students grade each other if you’re careful about FERPA (numbers, not names on papers) and it’s things where there’s a correct answer, though in those cases you could just have the computer grade.  :/

I dunno.  Grading sucks.

Here’s some posts on grading motivation and pens.

Grumpy Nation, do you have better advice?

17 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Alternatives to grading”

  1. delagar Says:

    I’m working on my Comp I students’ final papers right now. One thing I do that seems to help is have them turn in multiple drafts, with each one receiving a “grade.” That grade gets superceded by the grade on their next draft. This way (theoretically) by the time they reach the final draft, everyone has done multiple drafts, and their papers are now at least bearable.

    In actual fact, though, what it often means is that students turn in garbage for their early drafts, because “it doesn’t count.” Also, this is so much more work for me, the professor.

    We’re on the second draft now and I am really, really depressed.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I like doing that too, though for me the early drafts are optional so no grading involved at all, just feedback. (Of course lots of students who need to don’t, but it helps somewhat.) I wish DC1’s teachers would even be willing to look at drafts. They’ve got rubrics but so much is just not explicit.

  2. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I am currently two weeks behind on grading because I can’t motivate myself. Blerrrrgh. (We have no TAs, I just have to do it.)

  3. Steph Says:

    I dislike a lot of things about the online homework sites that come with science textbooks, but I can’t deny that it reduces my grading load. I still have to grade any essays or free response items though.

    In my non-majors/distribution intro class, I’ve gotten rid of exams and replaced them with writing assignments. They turn in short drafts of most sections individually, that are graded mostly for completeness, but I can also give them feedback. It feels less stressful than assigning quality grades to those short assignments, and usually improves the bigger papers. I’m not sure it saves me time in the end, but it definitely reduces the mental energy involved.

    In my upper level class I’m having them grade/revise their own homework. I think in the long run that can save me time, but I didn’t implement it super well this semester.

    I eventually want to do “specifications grading”, where every assignment is pass/fail and the final grade comes from how many/which assignments students get a passing grade on. I’ve heard that can save time, but I haven’t tried it yet.

  4. Alice Says:

    All I can say is that the end of having to grade was one of the pluses when I left grad school. What I found to be the most difficult wasn’t assigning an actual letter grade– it was the effort of writing all of the thoughtfully-worded constructive feedback.

  5. Lisa Says:

    My college give health professional degrees and we switched over to ExamSoft a few years ago (it’s an online exam system that many health professional programs use). The downside is that exams are all MC (unless we want to add a separate packet for other types of questions that we’ll then have to grade by hand). The upside is that we never have to grade anything (unless packet), everything is automated, and we get really informative data analysis after each exam. Also, all of our students will have to pass MC licensing exams, so it’s good preparation for them. It feels a little lazy even though we spend a lot of time making sure we’re writing good MC questions. But I have to say, I mostly love it. It also made things easy when we transitioned everything online for COVID.

  6. CG Says:

    I also hate grading, but over the past year it has gotten a lot better for me. I realize that some of these changes are not possible in all fields, but here’s what I’ve done:

    1. Eliminated exams and quizzes. I now give the exam questions over the course of the semester as short writing assignments. They are required to cite lecture and readings in detail to get full credit. The students loved this approach because it was much less stressful for them, it cut down on the amount of grading for me, and the answers they produced were better because they could look things up. I’m never going back.
    2. Implemented more opportunities for pre-grade feedback, as others have suggested above. Again, takes a lot of stress away from the students because they have soft deadlines first. It also helps me flag really weak writers and get them help early on. And the final products, where I actually have to assign a grade, are better.
    3. Make most things due on Monday morning at 9am. For some reason, my brain is slow to be able to do much productive thinking work on Mondays, but I have no problem grading. I’m much faster on Mondays than on other days.

    The combination of these things has majorly cut down on the time I spend grading (I often get an entire set of assignments done on Monday), it has improved the quality of the student work (I mind giving feedback on poor quality work less than grading it), and I think it has had a neutral or positive effect on student learning, although I can’t be sure. Overall, changing these things has made me like my job more.

    • Steph Says:

      Can I ask what type of field you’re in?

      Also, how do your students feel about the Monday 9am deadline? Many of my students seem to prefer working on things over weekends, but I dislike it and don’t want to ask them to, so I usually have WRF deadlines.

      • CG Says:

        I’m in a social science. I don’t know how they feel about the Monday deadlines, but the course evaluations last semester were the best I’ve had for that class. :)

  7. Debbie M Says:

    I’m wondering, even if your institution doesn’t give you a TA or grader, can you hire one with your own money? Of course you shouldn’t have to. But I’m remembering a friend who would always have some money in her budget for stress relief. Often it would go to massages. But when she went back to school, it went to parking because she found taking the bus stressful.

    When I was a typist for zoology professors, one did hire me on the side (with his own money) for extra typing over the weekend when he was about to miss a grant deadline. So maybe you can hire graders, too? And you probably even know grad students or previous students of that class who would be good for the job.

    Otherwise, I have no good advice.

    When I was a student teacher in an elective high school course (sociology), I felt I had to assign a lot of work or the students wouldn’t do anything. I tried having students trade papers and grade each other with MC or short-answer questions. And on the short-answer questions, if they weren’t sure, they should ask me. This was unmitigated failure–the cheating was rampant.

    I also used to score essay questions for teacher certification tests, mostly for math, where they essay question was really a series of related word problems. Once we were calibrated, this was basically the easiest grading ever: We couldn’t give them comments, and we only had 4 choices of scores, which basically boiled down to 4 = they know their stuff, 3 = they basically know their stuff, 2 = they know half of it or otherwise show that they have a clue, and 1 = they have basically no clue at all.

    There were a horrifying number of 1’s and 2’s. Frankly, people with 3’s did not belong being teachers unless they carefully taught or re-taught themselves everything right before teaching their students.

    The social science tests were so depressing I had to quite scoring them; the vast majority of people earned scores of 1 or 2. People tried to make me feel better by saying that a lot of people would take tests in all kinds of subjects, not just the ones they were most interested in teaching.

    So you have my sympathy.

    • Steph Says:

      I think hiring your own grader would technically be a ferpa violation. That said, I know a high school teacher who used to do that.

      Or you could do what one of my profs did in undergrad, where hiring graders was forbidden – he made his lab TAs grade the class homework assignments on their own time, somehow.

  8. accm Says:

    My institution pays for software called Gradescope, and lots of science departments use it. Students upload their assignments (or you can actually upload one enormous pdf of all the exams, and the automatic sorting will be ~75% correct), then for marking you can eg whizz through all the question 2c answers. When a new error comes up, you make a rubric entry for it, and it’s available to tick off on subsequent papers. And if you decide that forgetting to multiply by 2 pi should cost a full mark instead of 0.5, you just change the penalty once. All of this speeds up grading tremendously, but it’s probably the most use in assignments that don’t have long essay questions.

  9. First Gen American Says:

    I would love an ask the grumpies question around how much more work an unmotivated student is vs someone who does the work. One of my children is going through the phase of passing in a lot of things late or not reading the one page of prework before a class discussion because he thinks he can wing it. (No he can’t) We’ve tried all kinds of angles but right now, we are trying to get him to see what a pain in the …it is to have to nag people to do their work, show their work, do the prep, chase people to hand things in. Would love actual teachers’ perspectives on pet peeves or things kids do that make their jobs harder.

    • Alice Says:

      First Gen–my own teaching experience is from grad school and some years back, but I thought I’d answer your question based on that experience.

      When I was teaching, I didn’t do a lot of what you’re describing– no nagging, no chasing, none of that. If my students turned in their work on time, they got the credit for it for the quality of work that they did. If they didn’t, they didn’t. Most kids did the reading by the night before– which I know, because I required them to send in responses to the reading by 10 p.m. the day before it was being discussed in class. And most kids turned in their work on time, most of the time. The very small handful of students who persistently didn’t, I warned once– I had them meet with me outside of class and told them that they were in danger of failing. At that meeting, I recommended that they drop the class before the drop deadline if they didn’t want the likely F on their transcripts. I only failed one person– someone who skipped class a lot, didn’t turn in most of their work, and who ignored the warning. I was unhappy about it because I didn’t want to give an F, but– the students earned what they earned based on what they did. The other kids I warned dropped the class while they still could.

      This is probably not helpful from your point of view, but– for me, a student who was unmotivated to the point at which they were going to fail was very easy from an instructional standpoint. They didn’t give me enough to react to. I put my time and energy into the people who made the effort to show up and do the work. They may not have vastly improved by the end of my class (Freshman Comp), but they engaged. They tried.

  10. Contract grading is base! Says:

    Contract or specifications grading! It takes some time to set up, but reduces stress. All work pass/fail (and often better). No extensions; the system is set up for people to do, say 10 out of 14 assignments. No redos. Best of all, stacking the grade: folks who want an A do extra work, those okay with B do less, and Cs less yet. Avoids the shitty work someone just wanting to skim the class does.

    Less stress all around, faster grading, and better work/learning. Everybody shoild be doing it.


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