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Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa where he has taught in the Department of Rhetoric and currently advises graduate students on career and fellowship development. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien or on his website at

For many graduate instructors, grading and providing feedback are major headaches. Responding to student work requires an inordinate amount of time, particularly when you are teaching a new assignment or course, and it can be especially frustrating when students don’t take advantage of feedback to improve their own learning.

While developing effective strategies for providing students with good feedback – comments that they can leverage to improve their future learning – takes time and experience, there are ways to make the process of responding to student work less onerous. I’ve pulled together some “hacks” for saving time and sanity as you work through stacks of student work.

Grade in Context

In my first semester of teaching, one of my biggest challenges was the temptation to respond to everything in all of the work my students produced. I spent hours and hours with drafts and even quizzes, returning work that was covered in comments from top to bottom. I was overwhelmed with the labor, my students were overwhelmed with the commentary, and I burned through a lot of green flair pens. Since then, with the advice of some good teaching mentors, I’ve come to understand that most of that feedback was ineffective because it wasn’t responsive to my student’s needs or my own priorities. When I commented on every spliced comma and each disagreeable verb alongside major thematic or organizational issues, I failed to indicate to my students what my priorities were and what theirs should’ve been. I’ve since moved to providing many fewer comments and focusing on the learning objectives that I’ve developed for each assignment. By responding to my students with my learning objectives and rubric in front of me and focusing only on higher order issues or patterns of error (mistakes that appear consistently rather than sporadically), I can much better signal to my student the skills and knowledge that they should focus on developing within the context of each assignment.

Talk it Through

In a similar vein, I’ve started to use audio feedback to respond to a good chunk of my students’ work, recording my voice on the assignment on Canvas and walking my students through my response to their writing as I’m reading it. When I was initially introduced to the idea of audio comments, I was skeptical. I doubted that I would be able to compose coherent, meaningful comments on the fly and it seemed unlikely that it would go more quickly than typing out comments. This is, again, an issue of context. While it would take forever to provide polished audio feedback for a large draft, commenting on brief, initial drafts of a paper as I read through them or immediately after I read through them (again, with a list of major emphases in front of me), allows me to provide quick (I recommend no more than five minutes of audio) and clear feedback to a student about how I am reading their assignment. I generally talk through what I’m seeing as I’m reading the paper, very briefly articulating what seems to be working well and what needs further revision. By verbalizing my thought process as it’s developing, I can push my students to think about how people are reading their work and provide another channel through which they can take in information.  Most major learning management systems have integrated audio feedback mechanisms into their platforms (check out the instructions for Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas). Once you get the hang of it, providing audio feedback goes incredibly fast and most of my students have really responded to it, saying that it feels much more like they are having a conversation with me while their writing and revising.

Drag and Drop

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some assignments that call for much more detailed, comprehensive feedback. Helping a student to understand when they are spending too much time summarizing or when they are not effectively integrating research is complex and requires much more elaboration. This is where commenting libraries come in handy. No matter the assignment that I’m grading, there are always common issues on which I continually comment. For the longest time, I copied and pasted these common comments from a Word document into D2L or Canvas, tweaking them each semester to improve them just a little bit more. Annotate PRO, an add-on for Google Chrome and Microsoft Word, allows me to streamline the process by creating an archive of comments that I can then drop right into student work or feedback sections. This enables me to easily add frequently used comments (such as the difference between summary and analysis, what constitutes common knowledge, and how to properly format a quotation) to student work regardless of the platform that I’m using. It also allows me to easily keep track of and link to digital resources such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab or screen captures from class, connecting students directly to the resources they need.  While each assignment still requires individual feedback, this is a huge timesaver that allows me to work through a stack of exams or papers (and even respond to emailed questions) surprisingly quickly and easily.

The coolest part of Annotate PRO for grad students is that it’s super easy to start using because it is free and requires no formal integration with your learning management system. You can  create as many comments as you’d like and use in Word or Canvas or Google Docs. While it does offer institutional licensing for some of its advanced tracking features and prebuilt commenting libraries (I’ve tried the College Edition and it’s quite handy), it’s free for individuals, meaning that you can continue to build and use your commenting libraries (and share them with others) without reinventing the wheel for each assignment. And if your university has an institutional subscription, you can track comments for each student to instantly identify the issues they struggle with most commonly and how it is that they are responding to and integrating your feedback.

While evaluating student work and providing feedback is always going to involve a significant time investment, focusing on specific learning objectives and using tools such as audio feedback and commenting libraries can help you be more responsive to students’ specific needs, enabling you to enhance their learning while also protecting your time.

Do you have any tips or tools for managing responding to student work? Please share them in the comments below!

[Image by Unsplash user rawpixel and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain license.]

Are you a current graduate student? Have some great teaching hacks of your own? We'd love to have you write for us! Send an email with a cover letter and two pitches to [email protected].

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