One thing you might not be prepared for as a first-year teacher is the significant amount of time you’ll spend grading papers—about 95 minutes a day according to one study. But student grades are critical to giving feedback and helping with student learnings. Given this fact, knowing how to grade exams and essays efficiently can be a real lifesaver for both new and seasoned teachers alike.
If you’re ready to hone your grading skills and save yourself from mountains of paperwork, keep reading for 10 useful tips.
This may come as a shock to new teachers, but not every assignment that comes across your desk needs to be graded. While some amount of feedback is necessary, some can also be wasteful. Plus, grading everything can take up valuable time that could be better spent doing things like lesson planning.
There will be certain activities that are better to evaluate through a simple spot check or a class discussion or assignments such as journal entries or book reports that can be awarded participation points. Exams should be graded, but a simple math quiz or assignment may be able to be skipped in order to save time.
The most commonly used grading system in the U.S. is the letter-based grading system—or the grade point average (GPA) system in combination with a letter grade. However, there are other grading techniques that might be a better fit depending on the age, ability, or needs of your students. One grading system might not be fair for all learners, such as those with special needs. It's important to understand your school's grade preferences, and understand that high school, middle school, and elementary school may need to be graded differently. Similarly, public schools and private schools may be graded differently based on preferences.
Here are a few to consider:
- Standards-Based Grading: Unlike traditional grading systems that assign a single overall grade, standards-based grading is broken down into smaller “learning targets,” and grading is based on how well the student demonstrates their mastery of each target. Teachers assign activities such as quizzes, essays, presentations, etc. and then assess the student’s mastery of that activity with a grade of exceeding, meeting, or not meeting the standard. One benefit of this grading technique is that teachers have a more immediate understanding of how well their students are learning the material. With that information, they can adjust their lessons in real time to better meet students’ needs.
- Mastery-Based Education: Just as the name implies a mastery-based approach to grading allows students to move through material as they master it. Instead of a failing grade, struggling students can continue to practice concepts until they’ve grasped them. This system can help level the educational field for students with different needs or learning styles. It gives fast learners the opportunity to quickly advance, while slower learners get the time they need to grasp the material.
- E-S-N-U System: This approach is most commonly used in elementary schools, specifically kindergarten through third grade. With this system, students are assigned a grade of E (excellent), S (satisfactory), N (needs improvement), or U (unsatisfactory). It’s also common in younger classrooms to use acknowledgements—such as hard-working, well-prepared, or well-organized—rather than a letter or number-based grade.
- Weighted Grading: In many high schools, students are given higher numerical grades for more difficult courses. This is commonly referred to as a weighted GPA, and it’s designed to reward students for taking more advanced classes. For example, a student could receive a 4.5 if they earned an A in an honors course.
- Pass-Fail Systems: With this approach students either receive credit for a class or not. Some teachers prefer to use pass-fail grading systems in courses that have highly subjective material (such as fine arts or music). A pass-fail method of grading can shift the focus away from grades and create an environment in which learning is the reward.
Remember; there’s no one-size-fits-all method to grading. It’s important to keep an open mind and be flexible in your grading techniques. Many classrooms can benefit from a grading approach that incorporates multiple types of assignments so students can demonstrate their learning in different ways.
Rubrics are sets of scoring guidelines that teachers can use to provide consistency in grading a student’s work. Grading rubrics or grading scales are beneficial for both students and teachers. They help teachers avoid repetitive feedback and can be recycled for other assignments, which saves time on grading. Rubrics also let students know the expectations of each project, eliminating any confusion or miscommunication. If you establish a grading scale, grade calculation is also much easier because you know exactly what you are looking for. A gradebook is easy to create when you have a specific rubric in mind.
As you’re developing your rubrics, remember you can tap into other grading alternatives such as pass-fail, curve grading, or grading based on participation.
Don’t forget your students can be a part of the grading process, too. Instead of spending hours grading papers on your own, you can take advantage of peer grading to save you time. One way to do this is to have students swap their assignments with a neighbor and mark each other’s work as you go through the answers.
Utilizing self-grading or peer-grading methods is a win-win for teachers and students. It can help improve your students' understanding of the material and sharpen their critical thinking skills—while at the same time taking some of the grading work off your plate. A simple math quiz can easily be graded by the students instead of sitting on your desk.
As a new teacher, it can be tempting to assign busy work to soak up class time—but it also creates more work for you. Often the curriculum doesn't need busy work to help students learn it. Quality over quantity is key. Make sure the projects are meaningful and worth the time it will take for you to grade it. If the activity doesn’t relate to or strengthen your lesson plans, avoid assigning it.
It’s easy to get distracted when we live in a world with social media, push notifications, and text. When you sit down to grade, it’s important to find a quiet environment that let’s you focus and be productive. Things like constant cell phone alerts can be your worst enemy. Make sure to put your phone on silent mode or leave it in another room to reduce distractions. If you’re working on your computer, you can avoid online time sucks by blocking or hiding specific websites or apps.
Effective time management is key to stay on top of grading. You can avoid mountains of paperwork by carving out specific times for grading—whether it’s during your prep hour or during times of the day when you feel most productive. Block off time on your weekly calendar to serve as a reminder for those times when you need to be grading.
If you’re studying to become a teacher, it’s valuable to look into the different kinds of technology solutions that can make grading easier for you. Many teachers can benefit from using the following feedback, input, and tracking apps in their classroom:
- Google Forms or Google Docs are both great for auto-grading or making comments on student work.
- Mote is a Chrome extension that lets teachers add voice comments and feedback to shared files, like Google Docs.
- Formative encourages students to learn from live feedback and corrections, and teachers can watch as students answer questions and jump in to help.
- FreshGrade is an easy way to record, save, and share student learning.
- LearnBoost is a free electronic grading system for teachers.
- GoSoapBox features a web-based clicker to give instant feedback.
- Edulastic is a formative assessment tool that tracks achievement of benchmarks.
- Kaizena saves time by assessing digital work on Google Drive.
- The Answer Pad is a teacher-friendly assessment app for the classroom.
- Kahoot! is a gamified classroom tool that makes assessment fun and competitive.
Many new teachers feel obligated to use grades as an opportunity for feedback on every student’s work. While providing thoughtful feedback is a good thing, it’s not necessary for every single assignment. Cycling comments will save you loads of time and allow you to work smarter, not harder. Create a systematic approach to which classes or assignments you spend extra time writing out extensive feedback; then switch it up on the next round of grading.
Instead of trying to power through hours of grading, step away every once and awhile to give your brain a break. This piece of advice might seem counterproductive, but studies show a bit of downtime here and there can actually increase your productivity.
Working for long stretches of time without breaks can lead to stress and exhaustion. To avoid this, make sure to get up and get moving every few hours. According to “Psychology Today,” taking a walk, calling a friend, or simply moving around can replenish your mental resources and allow you to work more efficiently for longer periods.
If you feel like the paperwork is piling up, don’t get discouraged. Have these tips handy so you can get ahead of the work and make your grading process more manageable.