Grading Time-Savers

April 20, 2016

By Lynn Bartels

As we approach the end of the semester, I feel like a grading machine. I have stacks of research papers, theses, and project reports to grade and I'll have final exams coming in soon too. Grading is hard and sometimes mind-numbing work. Here are a few grading tips to give students the feedback they need without taking up so much of your most scarce resource-time.


Not everyone is a fan of rubrics, but a good rubric can save you a lot of time in grading. Instead of writing out similar comments over and over again to different students, you can evaluate the assignment on several criteria and students can easily see the strengths and weaknesses of their assignment.

Here is a website from Association for Assessment of Learning in Higher Education (AALHE) that provides links to rubrics for lots of different assignments in a wide variety of disciplines. You can probably find one to adapt for your purposes

An online rubric in Blackboard can save you even more time.  When grading a blog, journal, wiki or discussion board post, you rate the criteria on line and then grades are posted right into Blackboard’s Grading Center. Another benefit is you can easily see who has turned in their work and who hasn’t.

Use Different Types of Grades for Different Types of Assignments

Not every assignment needs to be graded on a 100-point scale.  For example, it might make sense to use letter grades or 100-point numerical scale grades for papers, essays and some projects.  Whereas, a 4-point scale (1 = no check, 2= check minus, 3 = check, 4 = check plus) or 3-point scale (1= unacceptable, 2= competent, and 3 = outstanding) might make sense for quizzes, homework or discussion board posts.  Similarly, a 2-point scale (pass-fail or credit-no-credit) might make sense for preparatory work (  Walvoord and Anderson (1998) recommend using the fewest scale points that make sense.

Don’t Grade Everything

You don’t have to grade every assignment. For example, journal entries, minute papers, issues, reading logs may help students build their fluency and confidence with ideas (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). Instead of grading every assignment, you might only grade every 3rd assignment.

Make your Comments Count

Writing comments on student work takes an enormous amount of time and students may not even read them. Only provide a comment when doing so may lead to student improvement. Comments on drafts or works in progress may be more important than extensive comments on a final project (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). Drafts are teachable moments. If you expect carryover from one project to the next project, ask students to explain how they addressed the comments from the previous work on the new assignment (Walvoord & Anderson, 1998).

Don’t forget how disheartening it can be to get a paper back covered in red ink.  If you need a reminder about how bad negative comments can make you feel, read through one of your own manuscript rejections. Stanford’s Center for Teaching and Learning recommends trying to make comments that are “encouraging and affirming of good ideas” and are “constructively critical of problem areas.” It might help to write your comments in the form of a question “so that you are in dialogue with the student’s ideas.” Instead of writing “irrelevant example,” try “How does this quote support your claim?” Or instead of “unclear” try “How does this connect to the theme of______?”

Here is a suggestion I like that will help get students to pay more attention to your feedback. It can be frustrating to spend hours writing comments that students never read.  To avoid this, send the feedback to the student with comments but no grade and then post the grade in Blackboard later (Teach Philosophy101).

If you can type comments faster than you write, consider using GradeMark in Turnitin to record your comments.

Don’t be an Editor

There are many reasons to avoid marking every error. I have to admit that when I see an error, it’s difficult for me turn off the editing and let the error go without marking it. Walvoord and Anderson (1993) explain that when you mark every little mistake, students think all they need to do is fix what’s marked.  When this happens, students can lose ownership of the work.  They see it as your job to note every error and their job to fix those errors making them reluctant to revise anything that hasn’t been marked.  

When students repeatedly make the same mistakes throughout a paper, comment on the mistake and note that it needs to be fixed throughout the paper.  Students learn more from recognizing and fixing their own mistakes than simply making the changes we mark.

Here’s a situation where it doesn’t make sense to spend time editing. If the paper is fundamentally flawed and requires a major overhaul, it’s a waste of time to mark every minor grammatical error. The paper needs a substantial revision not a minor fix up.

If different students are making the same mistake, it might be helpful to use a standard comment across students or develop a symbol to indicate a common mistake.


I hope your end-of-the-semester grading goes well and the stacks of work to be graded start shrinking.  Feel free to share any grading tips you have with us.


Walvoord, B. E. & Johnson Anderson, V. (1998).  Effective Grading:  A Tool for Learning and Assessment, John Wiley & Sons:  Hoboken, NJ.

By Lynn Bartels

There is a lot of pressure to get your class off to a good start on the first day. You may have heard that students’ impressions of you during the first few minutes on the first day are highly correlated with their course evaluations at the end of the semester (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1993).  The three main things I try to accomplish on the first day of class include:  getting to know the students, distributing the syllabus, and creating expectations.

Getting to Know the Students

A good place to start is trying to learn students’ names which may be difficult in large classes.  I’ve seen faculty in my department videotape students’ introductions so they can watch them and memorize the students’ names.  Mary Clement (2008) recommends arriving early to class and asking students to introduce themselves and pick up a syllabus.  I like this tip because students say their names first and I don’t have to guess how to pronounce them.  As I check their names off the class roster, I make notes about how to correctly say their names.  Did you know that you can see student photos in the Starfish link in Blackboard?  This might be helpful in connecting names with faces.

Like many faculty, I ask students to fill out a questionnaire with information such as their name, major, goals, contact information, something that will help me learn your name, hobbies, interests, what helps you learn, etc.  Learning more about your students might help you get to know them a bit and suggest ways to help them understand the content.  For example, if you learn that you have a lot of nursing majors in your class, you might think about examples that involve nursing.

Icebreakers are great too.  Icebreakers can help students’ learn each others’ names.  I’ve used the Human Scavenger Hunt to successfully get students to identify their previous experiences with the course content.  For example, in my graduate Employee Development class, I’ve given students a sheet listing things like:  Participated in online training, Received performance appraisal feedback, Designed an employee training program, etc.  and asked them to find someone in class who has had that experience and ask students to sign their names by their experiences.  Students have to get up and move around and ask people about their employee development experiences.  It’s a fun way to help students identify their relevant past experiences and start thinking about the course content. Elizabeth Barkley’s book, Student Engagement Techniques, has several other ideas for icebreakers. 

The Syllabus

Kevin Gannon (aka The Tattooed Professor) had an interesting piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently called “The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester.”  He observes that on the first day of class, many faculty distribute the syllabus, make a few comments, and let students go after 10 or 15 minutes.  He suggests several ideas about better ways to start your class.

To encourage students to read and learn what’s on the syllabus, he suggests announcing that there will be an upcoming quiz over the syllabus. Another suggestion is putting students into groups and asking them to generate questions about the class prior to distributing the syllabus.  Then, distribute the syllabus and ask students to answer as many of their questions as they can from the syllabus.  Class discussion can focus on any unanswered questions (Gannon, 2016).  This can also give you some helpful feedback about your syllabus—what’s clear and what’s not, things that you left out, etc.  A related benefit is that students see that the syllabus is a place to look for answers to their questions.

Creating Expectations

On the first day of class, you need to establish what types of class behaviors are acceptable.  You can give them a list of expected behaviors.  Alternatively, you might consider allowing students to generate the rules for the class.  The first time I tried this, I was surprised at how closely student-generated rules matched the rules I would have set for the class. A benefit of this approach that Kevin Gannon notes is that when you are pressed to remind students of the rules, they are the class’ rules, not just yours.


I hope that all of your classes get off on the right track.  Feel free to share any first day activities you like with us below.


Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431-441.

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco:  John Wiley & Sons.

Clement, M.  (June 10, 2008).  How to make the first day and the rest of the semester successfulFaculty Focus,

Gannon, K. (August 4, 2016).  The absolute worst way to start the semesterThe Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Categories: All Categories, Teaching, Students