Teaching Today

Tackling the Stack

As the academic year comes to an end, Daniel Cole offers some tips for how to grade student essays efficiently and with integrity.

April 20, 2022
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You can’t avoid it anymore: students have submitted their papers, and now you have to read, comment on and grade them. How can you give good feedback yet, at the same time, avoid overworking yourself?

Yes, you could have been done some conceptual things in advance that supposedly would have made student essays less of a grind to read, like scaffolding and assignment design. But it’s too late for that; there sits the stack, digitally or otherwise. Or maybe you have, in fact, done those things but, regardless, a monster number of essays awaits you.

And, of course, you use abbreviations and give keys to your students, or assign keyboard quick keys to often-used comments. Maybe you use rubrics. But still … there sits the stack.

It’s worth pausing to think through the time it should take to grade an essay. Consider that the average adult reading pace is around 250 words per minute of presumably polished prose; this may be roughly one page per minute of a student essay with standard formatting and maybe not-so-polished prose. That works out to at least six minutes to simply read a 1,500-word student essay. How many more minutes to credibly write comments and determine a grade? It could be a total 10 to 15 minutes, at least, to grade a single essay of that length. That can be a struggle for instructors who have more than 30 total students.

And before going further, I should also say that I’m among the lucky ones. I teach full-time on one campus, so I’m typically required each term to read and formally grade some 390,000 words produced by about 65 students. Some of you teach on multiple campuses and have a great many more students. Also, the calculations I’ve done above, along with the fact that many higher education institutions rely on contingent faculty, should play into discussions of course caps and personnel structures.

Unfortunately, the ideas I want to share won’t solve such deeply embedded structural issues. But I hope they can help other instructors cope a bit more in the day to day. So back to the narrow problem at hand: the stack’s haunting you, and you want it done, but you don’t want to shortchange your students. And they also, rightly, want feedback sooner rather than later. Here are a few simple suggestions.

Sit on your hands. Read a bit of each essay and get a sense of things before pouncing with the marking pen or comment box. This restraint may keep you out of the trap of overmarking and overwhelming the student. Concision is better in end comments, too. Most students don’t want long epistles; they want focused, actionable feedback.

Ride the tortoise. If you’re like me, you’re shocked by the screen-time reports from your phone. No way I’m online that much! Well, you can also tap into hidden time and melt the stack with a simple habit. I call it 2x2e: grading two papers in a sitting at least twice a day.

When you only require yourself to grade two essays in a given moment, you tame the daunting tyranny of the stack. Dodging that pressure also helps you be more present for each essay, and students can certainly see the difference between thoughtful and rushed feedback.

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You may also find that your momentum carries you to more than two essays. Even if it doesn’t, following 2x2e means you will get at least 20 essays graded over the course of a workweek. That may be a large or small slice of your load, but you’ll find that this steady effort will cause the stack to seem to melt away, and you’ll also will have some sense of control.

The principle here is the tortoise and the hare, and it is surprisingly powerful. Consistent effort outperforms trying to race through the stack. You can adapt those numbers, and of course, you sometimes need to make a big push. Also, you may well find, given your course load, that you regularly have to read, say, at least five or six or more papers at each sitting. But definitely make a deal with yourself to grade at least x number of papers a day.

Avoid the rabbit hole. It’s too easy to get lost in a student essay—mulling and agonizing over accurate diagnoses and best suggestions—and lose large chunks of time. To avoid that, set a timer for a target time to grade an essay. You’re not racing the clock; you’re just reminding yourself that time is passing. That can help you work the trees without getting lost in the forest.

Look mainly for what you value most. You don’t need a gridded-out rubric for this. Let’s say that, whatever else students do, you mostly want them to provide solid evidence and clear claims. So are they doing that? Grade and comment accordingly. Or maybe you want to see they’ve grasped a key concept adequately. Well, have they? Grade and comment accordingly.

Give a secondary and tertiary level of ink (or pixels) to your secondary or tertiary concerns. And more good news: this focused, less-is-more approach is clearer to students and thus more useful and less overwhelming for them.

Play home inspector. Home inspectors don’t move into the houses they examine. They go straight to trouble spots—the foundation, the roof, the wiring and so on. You can evaluate an essay the same way. Start by reading just the introduction and the conclusion. Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Does the student present a chain of reasoning? What sense of the essay does that yield? Read more of the essay to confirm patterns and impressions.

Some faculty members may not be comfortable with this approach and feel they must go through each paper as a natural reader. I get that, and I won’t try to change your mind. But I’ve found that it has helped me quickly get my bearings when reviewing an essay.

So that’s it. Admittedly, these suggestions are no magic wand that will make the stack disappear. Sometimes you have to grind, and there’s no getting around it. Still, I’ve personally found these ideas helpful and hope they can make grading less of a millstone for you, too. You may feel more in control, as well as more confident that you’re providing students with helpful feedback.


Daniel Cole is associate professor of writing studies and rhetoric at Hofstra University.


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