Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading

25 May

As I finish my fifteenth year in an English classroom, I’m seriously thinking about tattooing the following phrase across my belly in Old English lettering ala Tupac:  “Students will write more; teachers will grade less.” I once started to calculate how many hours I have spent writing feedback on student writing, but I quickly abandoned that sadistic calculation. The number was impressive. And depressing. And not at all meaningful. Any instructor of writing who lasts for any length of time has to embrace two concepts very quickly: acceptance and efficiency.

I now accept that it takes me 20-30 minutes to write comprehensive feedback on an individual essay, and in a future post I promise to break down my system. In this post, I share some of the things my colleagues and I have done to become more efficient with our feedback.

I never use any of these techniques exclusively. I choose what is appropriate, what will keep me sane, and what will keep my students engaged:

  • Free My Grade: The students write a complete essay, and I grade it with a detailed holistic scoring guide (1-7, A-F, etc.).  Using the scoring guide, I read the essays, put a grade in the grade book, and write NO COMMENTS.  The grade is then held “hostage” in my grade book until the student completes an adequate written self-evaluation. The students score their own essay and reflect, in detail, on the strengths and weaknesses. At least 80% of the students accurately assess their work the first time around. If a student needs to write a more specific or accurate reflection, I conference with the individual. I also provide a few anchor essays for the class. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the models so they have a better sense of how their work measures up. Usually students free their grades in one or two attempts. Note: I also use this technique when I’ve written comprehensive feedback on the essay. More on that in a future post.
  • In-class (or Homework) Timed Paragraphs: Students don’t always have to write a complete essay. Here students write one quick response, and I grade the paragraphs with a scoring guide but with no comments. Again, I usually copy examples of various paragraphs.  I then use those anchors to give whole class feedback by talking about each or by asking the students to read, rank, and evaluate.
  • Show Me in 7:  I sometimes give my students a full prompt, exactly like one they’d receive for a timed essay.  They have the entire hour to write.  Instead of an essay, however, they are given three boxes with seven lines in each.  I assign each box a topic (“author’s purpose”, “imagery”, “structure” for instance).  They must give me only their seven best lines on that particular aspect.  They can write rough drafts elsewhere. These grade quickly, and the students can’t hide behind verbosity.
  • Essay Club:  A group of teachers agree to meet once every two weeks and grade one teacher’s group of essays.  Every teacher will end up having at least one set of essays graded by his or her peers.  The host provides snacks, a detailed scoring guide, and a few anchor papers.  I love this technique: stacks of essays get graded in about an hour, grading becomes a social event, students have to write for a different audience, and I always learn so much from my colleagues.
  • 6 +1 Traits with a re-write option: Early in my career, I would make the students a deal.  I would use the 6 +1 Traits method, with no teacher comments.  What kind of deal is that, you ask?  If the student scheduled a one-on-one conference with me and completed a writing conference sheet, I’d allow her to turn in a revised draft.  The new grade was the new grade. Now, I require a revision on every major paper, and the revised grade always replaces the old grade. I’ll blog about this philosophy in the future. In the meantime, Rick Wormelli can convince you of the wisdom behind re-dos:

  • Writing Conference Sheet:  Don’t waste valuable time during a writing conference doing the student’s work for him or her.  Create a sheet that students must fill out before the conference begins.  If the student shows up sans sheet, grab one and have him or her fill it out.  You have a big pile of grading in the corner that you can work on while the student prepares!
  • “Write, Then Talk” Class Discussion:  All teachers prepare class discussions.  Why not have the students write their answers for 3-5 minutes?  Then the discussion springs from the writing.  Collect the writing at the end of the hour and skim it . . . or file it directly into the circular bin.
  • Think Alouds: A few brave students “write aloud” in front of the class. They are speaking from the cuff. The class listens for “ideas that sell.”  Then, turn the tables.  The students who listened will now write on the same topic.  The students who spoke may opt to write or not.
  • MODEL, MODEL, MODEL: Show students examples of good writing as often as you can.  Post good essays to the class site.  Create writing folders in a corner of the classroom.  Create a Wall of Fame. Do whatever it takes to surround your students with exemplars. They work.
  • ½ and ½ writing:  Make the actual essay half of the grade, then make the evaluation, scoring, revision (whatever) the other half of the grade.  This way a student who bombs an essay at first can still pull a decent grade on the reflection end.
  • Multiple timed essays: Over the course of two weeks, have students write three or more essays.  They then get to choose the best one to turn in for a grade.

I hope you share your thoughts on how to have students write more and teachers grade less. If you’re still reading this ridiculously long post, let me reward you with these closing thoughts:

  • Grading CAN BE ENERGIZING!  This revelation has saved my life. Literally.  Writing comments on papers sucks our souls; watching students point out the EXACT strengths and weaknesses you would have written about is heady stuff.
  • Mix up your grading: grade 5 essays, switch to vocabulary quizzes, go back to essays.
  • Be physical. I do push-ups and sit-ups in between essays. People in the cafe stare at me, but the physical breaks keep me mentally sharp. (And I only do the push-ups in the privacy of my own home.)
  • We’re doing too much of the mental heavy lifting, letting students passively receive feedback.  Every year, we re-teach many of the same concepts.  It’s good teaching to expect more from them and less from us.

5 Responses to “Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading”


  1. Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time « Robin Neal - September 3, 2012

    […] 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 […]

  2. Meaningful, Effective Peer Revision | Robin Neal - September 28, 2013

    […] I have written a previous post about some of the ways I try to tackle this time dilemma, and I have used automated feedback systems like Writer’s Workbench in the past. (Currently, I am testing Criterion and White Smoke as well. I will share my reviews later). […]

  3. Recap: 2013 | Robin Neal - January 2, 2014

    […] 4. Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading […]

  4. Audio Feedback on Student Writing | Robin Neal - December 13, 2014

    […] macros to increase the precision, consistency, and detail of my written feedback, and I have shared other feedback time saving techniques. Of course, I always give students oral feedback in the formative stages of their writing. Yet, […]

  5. “The Power of Feedback” Summary: Part One | Robin Neal - April 24, 2015

    […] have written before about some of the time-saving techniques I use to mark essays. The practice of “Free My Grade” (first point in the linked blog post) is […]

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