Getting a grip on grading

I feel overwhelmed by the grading process. It seems like I spend most of my waking hours grading homework, lab reports, tests, quizzes, notebooks, and projects. I teach two science courses at the high school and meet 150 students every day.  What can I do to use my time better and meet the deadlines?
—Stacy, Seattle, Washington

One of my big “aha” moments when teaching 150 students was a realization that different types of assignments required different levels of my attention. It’s important to identify activities and assessments that demonstrate students’ understanding of a concept or their ability to use a process. These require time for in-depth evaluation.

But teachers can overwhelm themselves with trying to evaluate and designate points to every piece of student work. The real value of in-class assignments, homework, and formative assessments is in how they contribute to student learning, rather than how many points they’re worth. I know teachers who select student work randomly to get a sense of what students understand. (They explained this strategy to the students in advance.) Some teachers check off completed assignments before discussing them in class. The teachers recorded which students completed the task and students had the opportunity to update or revise their work.

Explain to students you need time to examine their efforts on projects and written work carefully and respond thoughtfully. For example, you could divide tests into two parts: an objective part and an essay part. The first could be returned and discussed quickly (even the next day), but the essays could take longer to read and comment on. I assigned a score for each, showing students the essay part was just as (if not more) important as the objective questions.

For lab reports, borrow the idea of “Focus Correction Areas”  from our language arts colleagues. Instead of trying to review the entire report, focus on one or two key areas, such as the research question/hypothesis, data tables, graphs, illustrations, or conclusions. Glance through the rest of the report for any glaring errors or omissions if you like, but concentrate your comments on these areas.

Differentiate between proofreading and providing feedback. Part of your rubric for major assignments could be “clarity of communication,” but correcting every spelling or usage error on every assignment takes away time from providing constructive comments related to the science goals (and could discourage students from writing).

Feedback should focus on what specifically the student did well, point out where the student may have made errors or demonstrated incomplete thinking, or discuss how the student could improve. With 150 students, it would indeed be overwhelming to write a detailed analysis for each student. Rubrics can be used to provide feedback, showing students how they performed on components of the task, giving you time for more personalized comments.

Use science notebooks as much as possible. Each week, review a few from each class or focus on a key assignment. Have students include their vocabulary, notes, graphic organizers, summaries, or bell-ringers and review them holistically instead of individually. During lab or small-group activities, spend some time with each group to observe their work and do a quick scan of their notebooks.

With two different subjects, you have some options to help yourself. Don’t give tests in both subjects on the same day. Give yourself some breathing room in terms of doing labs, too. Assign projects in your two subjects at different times.

And take a break from the paperwork once in a while to clear your head—exercise, read a novel, do some yard work, visit a coffee shop, or do something fun with your family or friends. Your health and sanity are just as important as today’s science quiz.

Photo:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/ahlness/424645772/

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