April 8, 2017

My #1 Way to Reduce Grading Time and Increase Student Ownership


As a high-school English teacher, I work hard to provide engaging, thoughtful lessons that involve students in critical thinking and problem solving.  I don’t like boring lessons and I work hard to ensure that students find relevance in our class activities.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re an overworked, tired teacher, not looking forward to grading that stack of essays sitting in front of you.

I know, because I’ve been there.

Over the last several years, however, I’ve developed a system that not only makes my life easier, but also gives my students greater ownership over the work they submit.

I make them grade it themselves!

Hold on, while I know at first thought is this seems too good to be true, reality will sink in and you’ll wonder how this can ever work in your class.  What will your principal say?  What will the parents say?  What will you do with the large stack of ‘A’ papers, that you know don’t deserve that grade?

Rest assured, I’ve got you covered.  I’ll explain the ins and outs of this system that will revolutionize your grading.

So, you might wonder?  How will this work for me?

I, along with most English teachers I know, use grading rubrics to speed up essay marking.  Like many, I tend to give my students the rubric at the start of our unit, which makes it really clear what is expected, and reminds me to hit all the key components when giving mini-lessons.  Students see the requirements and know what they have to include.

Now for the grading.  The day essays are due, I require students to do two things: 1. Submit their essay to www.turnitin.com (by far, the best plagiarism checker and more on the market), and 2. Print out and bring a hard copy of their essay to class, along with several highlighters (and preferably colored pens).

Then we get started. When students enter class, I give them an essay submission form.  This form has a color-marking guide, critical thinking questions about their work, a scoring guide, and a rubric on the back.  Students first go through their paper color-marking for the elements, typically, thesis statements and any reference to the thesis in yellow, all quoted evidence in pink, and all quote introductions and citations in blue.

Then, students use the rubric and scour their essay for evidence. Their job is to annotate their essay according to the rubric.  If, for instance, the rubric calls for the claim to be carried throughout the essay, the student must find all evidence of the claim and annotate it (the color-marking helps for this particular point).  As the students continue their annotations, they are deciding their rubric score for each category.

Color-marked Essay, Rubric, and Essay Submission Form
When finished, they add up the points for each category (as I determine them), list the score on the front of the submission form, and answer the question “Do you think your rubric score is reflective of your effort and skill? Explain.”

I love this for so many reasons, but here are just a few: first, students take ownership of their writing.  They become suddenly invested in their work and words in a way that doesn’t happen when they just turn something in for the teacher to grade.  Second, they are the ones struggling to interpret their meaning.  If something is unclear, they can now see it with new eyes when looking at it with a rubric.  They are proving their score, so they have to look carefully. Third, they realize when they’ve done well and when they’ve faltered, and they’re able to realize that THEY make the choice in the level of effort they put in.

So, how does this translate into a gradebook grade?  I count their rubric score as 60% of the total essay points.  So for a 100-point essay, their rubric score is out of 60.  Then, I give points to the things we repeatedly focus on, usually 10 points for thesis/claim, 10 for quality of evidence, 10 for commentary, and 10 for Words Cited.  I feel that I’m able to spend less time per essay when I narrow my focus to these 4 areas, and reading their annotations is always enlightening to me.

Our most recent essay scores, with the students' rubric grade first.

Our most recent essay scores, with the students' rubric grade first.
Of course, there are always a few jokers who circle the top rubric box in each category and give themselves As every time.  My students know that I hold the power to change their grade and that if I notice a great discrepancy between their score and mine, we’ll meet to discuss.  Also, I give them credit for turning in their essay submission sheet, and part of that score is the quality of their answers to the critical-thinking questions and annotations, so they really have to do a solid job of locating rubric evidence to get the grade they want.

In a writing diet that includes mini-lessons, drafting, conferencing, and peer-editing, this grading system is the perfect way to put the focus back on the student and allow them to take responsibility for their work.

If you’d like a free copy of my Essay Submission Forms, head here.  You’ll get two submission forms, one for standard essays (argument and explanatory) and one for narrative.  You’ll also get a list of links to standards-based rubrics that you could copy onto the back of the form.  I have them free in my Teachers Pay Teachers store and I’m betting they’ll work well for you!

I’d love to hear if you decide to try this in your class.


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  2. This is certainly a great idea. I am a high school math teacher and it makes grading easier on me too. For math, they get immediate feedback (his or her scores, errors made, getting the right answer - or what it should be, etc.) just like in your case for the students writing. I let them grade everything except test and projects. Highlighters are the best since answers cannot be changed by using a highlighter as pencil is required for doing the math work.

  3. It's 4:51A.M., and I can't turn off my thinking-about-back-to-school brain. When I found your article on your blog, my sleepy eyes lit up---what a great idea! I'm definitely putting your idea at the top of my list and posting it in my school's ELA file.

    Because many of my students would rather take a zero rather than write an essay (!), I'd like to know what suggestions you have for these slackers. Even though I've tried re-assigning the essay for in-class credit or having a copied essay prepared for in-depth analysis, this rarely gets any "bites."

    Thank you for a thoughtful and thorough plan that makes sense. Now if I could convince my brain to get just a few more hours of sleep, I'd like to dream about my classes working and thinking about their writing. :0

  4. I love this idea and imagine that it improves their writing as the school year continues.

  5. Do you have a teacher's pay teachers account for your rubrics/highlighting instructions?

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