Rubric For Grading Student Essays

Grading Student Work

What Purposes Do Grades Serve?

Barbara Walvoord and Virginia Anderson identify the multiple roles that grades serve:

  • as an evaluation of student work;
  • as a means of communicating to students, parents, graduate schools, professional schools, and future employers about a student’s performance in college and potential for further success;
  • as a source of motivation to students for continued learning and improvement;
  • as a means of organizing a lesson, a unit, or a semester in that grades mark transitions in a course and bring closure to it.

Additionally, grading provides students with feedback on their own learning, clarifying for them what they understand, what they don’t understand, and where they can improve. Grading also provides feedback to instructors on their students’ learning, information that can inform future teaching decisions.

Why is grading often a challenge? Because grades are used as evaluations of student work, it’s important that grades accurately reflect the quality of student work and that student work is graded fairly. Grading with accuracy and fairness can take a lot of time, which is often in short supply for college instructors. Students who aren’t satisfied with their grades can sometimes protest their grades in ways that cause headaches for instructors. Also, some instructors find that their students’ focus or even their own focus on assigning numbers to student work gets in the way of promoting actual learning.

Given all that grades do and represent, it’s no surprise that they are a source of anxiety for students and that grading is often a stressful process for instructors.

Incorporating the strategies below will not eliminate the stress of grading for instructors, but it will decrease that stress and make the process of grading seem less arbitrary — to instructors and students alike.

Source: Walvoord, B. & V. Anderson (1998). Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment . San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Developing Grading Criteria

  • Consider the different kinds of work you’ll ask students to do for your course.  This work might include: quizzes, examinations, lab reports, essays, class participation, and oral presentations.
  • For the work that’s most significant to you and/or will carry the most weight, identify what’s most important to you.  Is it clarity? Creativity? Rigor? Thoroughness? Precision? Demonstration of knowledge? Critical inquiry?
  • Transform the characteristics you’ve identified into grading criteria for the work most significant to you, distinguishing excellent work (A-level) from very good (B-level), fair to good (C-level), poor (D-level), and unacceptable work.

Developing criteria may seem like a lot of work, but having clear criteria can

  • save time in the grading process
  • make that process more consistent and fair
  • communicate your expectations to students
  • help you to decide what and how to teach
  • help students understand how their work is graded

Sample criteria for a few different types of assignments are available via the following links.

Making Grading More Efficient

  • Create assignments that have clear goals and criteria for assessment.  The better students understand what you’re asking them to do the more likely they’ll do it!
  • Use different grading scales for different assignments.  Grading scales include:
    • letter grades with pluses and minuses (for papers, essays, essay exams, etc.)
    • 100-point numerical scale (for exams, certain types of projects, etc.)
    • check +, check, check- (for quizzes, homework, response papers, quick reports or presentations, etc.)
    • pass-fail or credit-no-credit (for preparatory work)
  • Limit your comments or notations to those your students can use for further learning or improvement.
  • Spend more time on guiding students in the process of doing work than on grading it.
  • For each significant assignment, establish a grading schedule and stick to it.

Light Grading – Bear in mind that not every piece of student work may need your full attention. Sometimes it’s sufficient to grade student work on a simplified scale (minus / check / check-plus or even zero points / one point) to motivate them to engage in the work you want them to do. In particular, if you have students do some small assignment before class, you might not need to give them much feedback on that assignment if you’re going to discuss it in class.

Multiple-Choice Questions – These are easy to grade but can be challenging to write. Look for common student misconceptions and misunderstandings you can use to construct answer choices for your multiple-choice questions, perhaps by looking for patterns in student responses to past open-ended questions. And while multiple-choice questions are great for assessing recall of factual information, they can also work well to assess conceptual understanding and applications.

Test Corrections – Giving students points back for test corrections motivates them to learn from their mistakes, which can be critical in a course in which the material on one test is important for understanding material later in the term. Moreover, test corrections can actually save time grading, since grading the test the first time requires less feedback to students and grading the corrections often goes quickly because the student responses are mostly correct.

Spreadsheets – Many instructors use spreadsheets (e.g. Excel) to keep track of student grades. A spreadsheet program can automate most or all of the calculations you might need to perform to compute student grades. A grading spreadsheet can also reveal informative patterns in student grades. To learn a few tips and tricks for using Excel as a gradebook take a look at this sample Excel gradebook.

Providing Meaningful Feedback to Students

  • Use your comments to teach rather than to justify your grade, focusing on what you’d most like students to address in future work.
  • Link your comments and feedback to the goals for an assignment.
  • Comment primarily on patterns — representative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Avoid over-commenting or “picking apart” students’ work.
  • In your final comments, ask questions that will guide further inquiry by students rather than provide answers for them.

Maintaining Grading Consistency in Multi-sectioned Courses (for course heads)

  • Communicate your grading policies, standards, and criteria to teaching assistants, graders, and students in your course.
  • Discuss your expectations about all facets of grading (criteria, timeliness, consistency, grade disputes, etc) with your teaching assistants and graders.
  • Encourage teaching assistants and graders to share grading concerns and questions with you.
  • Use an appropriate group grading strategy:
    • have teaching assistants grade assignments for students not in their section or lab to curb favoritism (N.B. this strategy puts the emphasis on the evaluative, rather than the teaching, function of grading);
    • have each section of an exam graded by only one teaching assistant or grader to ensure consistency across the board;
    • have teaching assistants and graders grade student work at the same time in the same place so they can compare their grades on certain sections and arrive at consensus.

Minimizing Student Complaints about Grading

  • Include your grading policies, procedures, and standards in your syllabus.
  • Avoid modifying your policies, including those on late work, once you’ve communicated them to students.
  • Distribute your grading criteria to students at the beginning of the term and remind them of the relevant criteria when assigning and returning work.
  • Keep in-class discussion of grades to a minimum, focusing rather on course learning goals.

For a comprehensive look at grading, see the chapter “Grading Practices” from Barbara Gross Davis’s Tools for Teaching.

An Easy Way to Grade Writing Quickly

Nothing spells guilt like a 4-week old stack of neglected, ungraded, sad-looking student essays sleeping on your kitchen table.

Now I know that YOU would never let your grading pile up for one month, but let’s just say I have a “friend” who used to routinely dump mounds of ungraded papers in her recycling bin while praying that her students wouldn’t notice.

They did.

English teachers are often pitied for having to spend long, torturous hours hunched over student writing pieces, but what if there was a quicker, dare I say, easier way to grade writing? I believe there is.

When I taught English, I knew I had to come up with an efficient way of grading writing, or I was going to have an incredibly full recycling bin and some extremely perturbed students. I set out to create a system that would provide my students with excellent feedback while cutting my grading time in half.

(If you’re interested in some other time-saving tips I’ve learned along the way, check out my podcast episode entitled, “25 Ways to Save Time & Take Less Work Home.”)

I once heard someone say, “…a problem well defined is half solved…”, so I began by identifying the grading practices that were wasting the most time; two stood out to me.

Grading Time-Wasters

  1. Writing a bunch of comments. Now don’t get me wrong. Students need feedback. They need to know how they can improve, and they need to know why they got that grade on their paper. But painstakingly writing dozens of individual comments takes so long, and it can be inefficient when you’re writing the same comments over and over on paper after paper. 

    It is also not uncommon for a kind-hearted teacher (like yourself) to thoughtfully craft a beautifully-written personal note on their student’s paper only to watch said-student look at their grade for 2 seconds, ignore the rest, and promptly toss their kind-hearted teacher’s time laden, carefully annotated assignment in the trashcan as they walk away without a second thought! Never again.  

  2. Doing the math on a rubric. I know many teachers love rubrics, but I have to say, I am not a huge fan for writing assignments. It doesn’t take long to develop a sense of what an A, B, C, D, and F paper look like, so trying to fill in the rubric turns into mathematical gymnastics of “how can I make these numbers add up to the grade I already know they should have?” (Or at least it does for me.) What a pain —and a huge waste of time! There had to be a better way.

With these two time wasters in mind, I set out to create a grading system that had the fairness and accuracy of a rubric paired with the specific feedback that writing individualized comments provides—all without the fuss of actually hand-writing comments on every paper or adding up numbers on a rubric for each student.

So I came up with (drum roll please……) a checklist system that has the best of both worlds, and it makes both teachers and students happy as a clam. What more could you ask for? Here’s how it works:

A Simple Way to Grade Writing Quickly

  • Create a checklist of everything you are grading. Your checklist will look similar to a rubric because you will include a list of everything that you want your students to do in the paper. For example, you can have a section for anything you are checking such as content, writing style, mechanics, formatting, etc. 

    The only difference between a checklist and a rubric is that you will not include any point values. The checklist also acts as a grading form because there is a space at the bottom where you can record the final grade. 

  • Give the students the checklist as part of the rewriting stage. This is optional, but I strongly recommend giving the students a copy of the checklist ahead of time. Not only will this help them write their paper, but it will also ensure that students are crystal clear on what you expect them to do and what you will be looking for when you grade their paper. 

  • Create a simple key. On the checklist/grading form, create a simple key that makes sense to you and your students. For example, the top of my grading checklist says, “Areas circled below are areas that need improvements. Check marks or smiley faces indicate areas that were well done.”

  • Use the key to indicate what areas were done well and which need improvement. When it comes time to grade the paper, all you have to do is go through the checklist and put checks (or smileys) by anything that was done well, circle areas that were done poorly, and leave the acceptable but not fabulous areas blank. This process ensures your students have a wealth of feedback without your having to hand-write a lifetime-supply of comments.

  • Give a holistic grade or use the number of “need improvement” items to assign a grade. It didn’t take me long before I could read a paper and know intuitively what grade to give. If you’re like me, then just go with your gut. All of the “need improvement” areas you circled will be enough to justify the grade.

    However, if you aren’t sure what grade to give, develop a simple calculation in your head. For example, each “needs improvement” in the content category could be 5 points off; and each formatting error could be 1 point off and so on. Quickly do the math and put the grade on the paper.

    Boom! You’re done. Even though there is a little bit of math, the second method still ends up saving time because you don’t have to write down all of the numbers or double-check that they add up perfectly. No mathematical gymnastics here!

I love this system because it gives plenty of encouragement (remember all the smileys) while providing constructive feedback. And the truly miraculous news is — I can’t remember a student ever arguing with me about their grade. Even the most accomplished grade grubber can see what they need to fix in order to improve their score.

With this system, there is no reason to procrastinate on grading essays for fear of how long it will take, and your students will be overjoyed to have their writing promptly graded and returned.

Once you spread the word about this system, your teacher friends will never have to make up an excuse about how the classes’ ungraded essays accidently disappeared into the swimming pool, the cat litter box or last month’s recycling bin. I’d call that a win-win situation.

Want an editable grading sheet checklist? I include it – as well as an example of my entire system for teaching writing (as well as the rewriting checklists that match the grading sheet) in this free writing unit.

Click here to download the editable grading sheet as well as the complete writing unit.

(This is a total steal. It’s a full, complete unit that I’m giving away for free because I think you’ll love it & will want to get the whole bundle!)

Would you like more time-saving tips that will help you cut 3, 5, even 10 hours off your workweek? Consider joining Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Find out more about the program here. 

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May 19, 2017 in Academics (Teaching) , Teaching , Work/Life Balance

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