Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.
When I started teaching a daily language course last quarter, grading pretty much took over my life. I was assigning and collecting homework every day, which in turn led to hours of grading that amounted to another part-time job. Perhaps due to my background in editing I never really despised it, but it was wearing me out and my attitude deteriorated severely after a series of occasions when I found myself on my bed at 4 a.m. correcting assignments I knew many of my students wouldn’t even skim through.
I realized soon enough that when you grade homework on a daily basis, you can’t treat it as this tedious, time-consuming, and frustrating thing you gotta do in exchange for a tuition waiver. At least I couldn’t. I had 25 students and roughly 500 pages of homework to grade per week, and I knew I had to find ways to make it pleasant if I didn’t want to spend the rest of the year hating myself, my job, and my students. And after much testing and failing, I finally found a set of methods that felt right to me. Grading this way made me a better language teacher and my students and me happier people. So how does a new or veteran TA handle the hours of grading that can turn TAing into a full-time job?
Accept it. The single most important thing I did, and which had a huge impact on how I value my job, was an attitude adjustment. Rather than thinking about how much work it is, how much time away from lesson planning it takes, and how intellectually stultifying it can ultimately be for my students, I started thinking about how much I can learn about them during this time. And I did learn a lot, applying insights I gained into other aspects of my teaching. But even if you don’t find this idea encouraging, try to accept that it’s an important aspect of your job and quite frankly, it’s not the worst part about it.
Set a time limit. The truth is you can’t really enjoy anything when you feel it’s consuming your life, so time-management was the second major challenge I faced. Setting a time limit for individual assignments doesn’t work for me, but I’ve noticed that I become the most efficient when I’m grading in a time-limited situation. When I don’t have a deadline or plans for the night I can spend hours and hours grading a single pile of homework. I’ll check Facebook, have a snack, chat with my roommate, play with my cat, have another snack, and so on. But if I sit down to grade before class—while I’m waiting for an appointment, or when I have just half an hour before a date—I get the job done in half the time. Plus there’s the added excitement of seeing how many I can finish before time’s up and, in case of an evening outing, the option of treating myself with a glass of very nice Cabernet afterwards.
Use a rewards system. Talking about treats, it’s a classic (and a cliché) but rewarding myself absolutely works for me. Whether it’s good chocolate or some treasured tea or coffee, we all have our little “mood-boosters” that we can incorporate into our grading regime. But while everyone’s heard of the one square of chocolate for every 10 papers trick, what really worked for me was choosing a set of treats that I only allowed myself to have while grading. That way I was looking forward to grading just so I could have my favorite Italian cheese and lavender crackers! Some people allow themselves instead to check their social media after a set number of papers, play an online game, or do some online shopping, but I personally prefer disconnecting completely when grading.
Develop rituals. I really love discovering new, off-the-beaten-track places for snacks and coffee, and I’m also a big brunch person, so I’ve incorporated grading into my exploration of LA’s Westside. It doesn’t always work out, but I will try to check out a new place once a week with a stack of homework in my bag. This way grading becomes part of a larger adventure, and even if the place ends up being a disappointment, I get a kick purely from having seen something new and most importantly, off-campus. Another thing I like doing when I’m confined to grading at home, is light a nice, scented candle and put on some relaxing music or nature sounds, which really helps with concentration as well. Granted, that’s not the fastest grading, but it’s often the next best thing to quiet time I can get during the academic year.
Choose your location wisely. Even if you’re not an “explorer,” location matters. When you’re not getting far at home or in the office, pick up and move to a coffee shop, get yourself a comforting beverage, and try to experience the grading session as a nice little private outing. If coffee shops are not your thing you can try the park, the beach, or anywhere else pleasant where you can grade uninterrupted. Finding such a place reduces distractions and saves a lot of time.
Rethink your assignments (if you can). This really depends on the class you teach but if you can, assign papers and exercises that you yourself will enjoy reading. Once I moved past the course workbook and started experimenting with writing exercises that required my students to talk about their life experiences, dreams, and values, the change I experienced was immediate and quite astonishing. For one thing, students got excited about the questions, and the quality of their homework improved significantly as a result. But this approach also helped me get to know my students better, which in turn helped me build rapport with them. I realized that in my class I had “more” than ambitious UCLA undergrads; I had accomplished pianists, ex-marines, extreme sport athletes, and aspiring opera singers.
Ultimately, it’s the small things that make a difference, and it’s your disposition that matters more than any trick or game you play to make grading more fun. Don’t leave it until the last minute. Don’t pretend it’s not part of your job. Take it seriously and take the time to find out what best works for you and your students.
Have you found ways to make grading more pleasant or even fun? If so, please share your experiences and tips in the comments section below!
[Image by Flickr user Nick Page used under creative commons licensing.]