Here is the skeleton in every writing teacher’s closet: grading essays is soul sucking, mind-breaking work. After fifteen years of dedicating obscene chunks of personal time to the task, I wish I could reveal some cure-all that makes grading fast and euphoric. I can’t.
Of course, I find many moments of joy, but the bone-weary reality of the life of an English teacher is that it takes considerable time and significant effort to create meaningful feedback. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to write comments on an essay in less than fifteen minutes. Realistically, it often takes more time.
I have experimented with many methods of feedback, but when I need to leave a healthy dose of ink, I use a hybrid approach of handwritten feedback and computer editing tools known as macros. This method doesn’t help me grade more quickly, but it does ensure that I maximize my time.
Here’s my basic structure for working through a stack of essays:
- Students turn in two copies of an essay, one printed and one electronic copy via Google Docs.
- I write more quickly on a piece of paper than I can highlight on a computer screen (I have timed each activity), so I go “old school” and leave marks on the page. The two to five minutes I save on each essay quickly add up. I also use a set of symbols to speed this marking process along.
- I type longer comments that I later print and attach to the essay. I use macros (more on this step below) for common comments, but I also individualize feedback. I always limit myself to one page of typed comments per essay.
- When finished, I photocopy the completed scoring rubric (which I will use during the revision process), print the one page of typed comments, and then staple the typed comments, the marked essay, and the scoring guide into one packet.
- I give students at least one week to revise based on my feedback. I require a revision of every major essay, and I use the electronic copy in Google Docs to track the changes. The revision history in Google Docs feature shows me when and where changes were made. Because I made a photocopy of the scoring guide before handing back the essays, I simply look through the revision history on the computer and make changes to the photocopied scoring guide (another time-saver). I do NOT write any additional comments, as the students will not revise this draft, and I am not a glutton for punishment (even though this post may make you think that!)
Explanation of Macros
Using Macros in Microsoft Word I create a database of comments I seem to write over and over again. Creating these macros is straightforward.
On a Mac, highlight the text and pull down the “Tools” menu. Select “Auto Correct.” Then choose the “Auto Text” tab. Add your personalized code in the Auto Text Entry field (making sure it’s a sequence of key strokes not likely to occur in your everyday typing) and then click on “Add.”
Admittedly, creating this master list of comments takes more time on the “front end,” as I do have to think carefully about my phrasing and add each macro to the computer. In other words, when I get a new computer, I go through the process of adding all these comments to the Auto Text memory. Yet, I save so much time on the “back end” with this method. Over the course of the school year (and my teaching career), this system saves me more time the more I use the macro comments.
Also, I have amassed my own comments over the years, and I make slight changes all the time. I didn’t make all of these at once. You will inevitably make your own set of comments that fits your needs. Yet, my list is a good place for you to start. Feel free to use it as your base.
Of course, any method for giving student feedback has its own pros and cons, but I always come back to this method because my students consistently tell me it works. Each year I poll them, hoping they will tell me to cut back on my comments, but they never do. Extensive written feedback is one of my most effective tools for helping my students improve as writers.
PROS and CONS of the “Old School”/Macro Feedback System:
- If a student sees the exact same comment about the misuse of the semi-colon over and over, she is more likely to notice a pattern of errors from essay to essay.
- My comments are much more legible.
- I give the same level of feedback to each student. As I get tired, I am not giving a less complete explanation to those students who just happen to have an essay toward the bottom of the stack.
- I am able to offer much more feedback within 20 minutes than if I am just writing comments in the margin.
- My feedback is more specific and clear.
- In the end, I save my time.
- If a student loses the marked hardcopy, she has lost my feedback.
- If a student does not look at the symbol legend, she will be confused as to what my marks mean and the feedback could be meaningless. (To avoid this, I always build in class time where they review my comments with the legends at hand.)
- Comments can be too specific. I want to create proactive writers that see me as a guide, not a crutch. I must be careful, then, to be clear and specific while not doing the “heavy lifting” for the students. It’s a balancing act. Also, I don’t create these extensive comments for every writing assignment.