Procrastigrading; or, How to Grade Efficiently

Woman climbing ladder to top of stack of papersNot That Kind of Doctor‘s delightful post on “The Five Stages of Grading” prompts me to share my own grading method: Procrastigrading.  While the word is a portmanteau of “procrastinating” and “grading,” I do not mean “put off grading indefinitely.”  Instead, give yourself a one-week deadline for each assignment (quizzes, exams, papers, anything), and begin grading on day 6.

I adopted this method over a decade ago, while working as an adjunct professor, with a 4-4 teaching load.  Here’s why.

  1. Grading devours all the time you give it.  You need to limit its diet.
  2. Grading stacks of comp papers (as I was at the time) can be a soul-crushing experience.  Why spread the agony over multiple days when you can ruin a single day instead?
  3. You have other important work to do.  Whether you’re a grad student or a professor (at any rank), you need to keep advancing that research agenda.  Time spent grading is time not spent publishing the articles and books that will get you (a) a job, (b) tenure, and (c) promoted.  Priorities!
  4. Teaching is also important work.  Time spent grading is time not spent reading or preparing for class.
  5. And thus… efficiency!  A one-week deadline & starting as close to the deadline as humanly possible means an extremely intense (and, possibly, grueling) grading experience.  But it prevents the grading monster from gobbling up too much time.  See also no. 2, above.
  6. I am now at the point where I literally cannot focus on grading unless there is a metaphorical gun to my head — that metaphorical gun is the deadline.  And, unless the deadline is imminent (i.e., tomorrow), then the metaphorical gun is too far away to be really threatening.  Really.  Prior to day 6, my attention simply will not remain on the grading.
  7. The week deadline is important not just because it provides a narrow window of grading but because recency in feedback better helps students to learn from their mistakes.  The longer it takes to return the work (with comments), the less pedagogically effective your comments are.  Ideally, you would turn the assignment back the next class (and I try to do this with quizzes).

True, this method does not always work perfectly.  Sometimes, it means I’m up until 2 a.m. the night before (morning before) class and then, after a few hours’ sleep, grading feverishly in the hours before class.  Sometimes, I miss my mark and end up returning the work in 9 days instead of 7 days.  But 97% of the time, I return work in 1 week or sooner.

I suspect that this method is not original to me.  And I admit that it’s an imperfect solution to the anguish of grading.  Indeed, one might argue that procrastigrading works better on the 2-3 teaching load that I now have rather than the 4-4 teaching load that I had when I started using it.  Whatever its limitations, one thing is certain: procrastigrading will help you move through those “Five Stages of Grading” much more swiftly.  You’ll skip Denial, have limited time for Anger, be too conscious of the ticking clock for much Bargaining, too busy to be Depressed, allowing you to spend most of your time on Acceptance/Resignation, a.k.a. Getting It Done.

man looking at stack of papers

Images from Dave Pear’s Blog and Save Pottstown!!

13 Comments »

  1. Anne Said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    This is funny, and I enjoy getting this peek at the Life of the Professor. Just make sure your students don’t know your method, or they will be asking why they can’t have five more days to finish the assignment, if you’re not grading it until Day 6! :)

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    Glad you enjoyed it, Anne! It’s a public blog, and I don’t mind if my students see this — many of them are future teachers, and perhaps it may help them manage their time, too.

    Also, I could add:

    8. By grading the papers all in one shot, I ensure that I’m in the same frame of mind — a kind of dispositional consistency. I had a college professor, J. W. Johnson, who used to tell us that he graded the papers in one sitting in order to be consistent. His implication was that he didn’t want any inconsistencies in his own mood to unfairly benefit or harm any of our grades. And that struck me as fair. So, that’s another motive.

    9. Grading all at once is very helpful for internal consistency. In fact, when grading essays, I write comments on each but affix no letter grades until I’ve finished grading all of them. Instead, I make piles of papers, each of which has a post-it note on top, indicating in which category the papers fall. I’m very specific about the categories, too. So, for instance, I mark not only A-, B+, B, B-, C+, etc., but B+/B, which is higher than B/B+. Then, when I’ve finished every paper, I assign a numerical grade to each paper — and some papers may move up or down a category, as I compare my summary comments on each (i.e., my reasoning for each grade).

    10. The week turn-around time is only valid if the work comes in on time. If the student doesn’t uphold his/her terms of the contract, then I am not bound to uphold mine. I will still make an effort to return the paper within a week and certainly get it back within 10 days, but I’m not as concerned. Nor am as concerned to be as thorough in my comments. I had a professor in graduate school who would not comment on late papers: he would simply put a grade on them and return them. I do comment, but am guided by his example in that I write less on tardy work.

    And… I’ve just written far, far too much about my personal philosophy of grading. Ah, well — an occupational hazard, I guess!

  3. Joseph Thomas Said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    I thought grading went out with the New Criticism! ;-)

    I have a colleague who still says s/he* “corrects” papers. I always say “respond,” and just hate putting grades on them. With my graduate students, I often don’t. But my undergraduates students (and, frankly, more than a few graduate students) hate not having a numerical or letter signifier of their paper’s value.

    Oh, world! Why aren’t you perfect?!

    *The “s/he” is to be ambiguous about said colleague’s identity, not to suggest s/he’s pre-operational or hermaphroditic, but if s/he were the former, that would be just fine, and I’d say, in the words of Russ Lieber: “brother/sister, welcome to your journey!”

  4. T. Crockett Said,

    October 15, 2010 @ 9:09 pm

    Pure serendipity! Just this moment I am taking a break from grading by checking in with my favorite blogs.

    The expanding of the job based on the time allotted is oh so true. Earlier today I realized I’d spent almost 45 minutes reading and composing comments on a paper that probably took just twice that time to write. Time to get out the timer and limit my time per paper.

    One trick I’ve found handy in grading papers is that I stopped offering +/- grades. I feel I can be much more consistent in my standards this way. The students seem to like it too.

  5. stevendkrause.com » A few thoughts on grading (on the eve of a big push) Said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    [...] “viral” (sorta) and seems to have taken the blogger by surprise.  Then there’s “Procrastigrading; or, How to Grade Efficiently” from Nine Kinds of Pie, another blog I had not previously read.  The five stages of grading = the five stages of grief [...]

  6. Erin Said,

    October 19, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    I just skipped over here from not that kind of doctor’s blog, and I love your posts! I can totally relate to your thoughts. I, too, engage in procrastigrading, and though the day of grading can be nightmarish, it works!

  7. Poushali Bhadury Said,

    February 24, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    Thank you so much for this post!! Just stumbled upon it :-) You’ve outlined some wonderful strategies, and I’ll try them out on my next batch of papers.

    I struggle with grading, primarily because it takes me much too long to get it done. I’ve tried timing myself by having a set time for each paper I grade, but writing comments always takes up more time than I allott. This is also why deadlines are pretty much the most effective motivational tools in my arsenal.

  8. Funny about Money Said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

    a) Hire teaching assistants out of your own pocket (since your institution, you may be sure, will not hire them for you). Ten bucks an hour does not amount to much, interestingly enough, and given the amount of your time and psychic energy a T.A. will free up, it’s very much worth the cost.

    b) Train the teaching assistants well and keep them apprised of events in your classes. Take on grading of problem students, drama kings and queens, dyslexic students, and ESL students yourself.

    c) Make TAs do about 2/3 of the grading work. Ride herd on them but do not micromanage.

    d) Eliminate grades for all but the assignments that are absolutely required by your institution. If your institution requires, say, four papers for English 101, do not score any more papers or exercises than that! Make all other exercises and activities unscored or self-scoring.

    e) Create rubrics and stick by them. Any student screw-ups that are not on the rubrics get ignored. Scoring follows the rubrics and only the rubrics.

    f) Grade papers in Word’s “Review” function. This can cut grading time by about 30 percent.

    g) To the extent feasible, convert learning exercises into open-book Blackboard “quizzes” and let BB score them.

    h) Given that writing quizzes in Blackboard wastes vast quantities of your time and makes you crazy, use BB’s “Blog” function to mount exercises; post answers to the exercises after the due dates, and inform students that it’s their responsibility to do the exercises and figure out the answers on their own. Never grade these; tell the students that if they want to make A’s on the graded papers, they’d better do the learning exercises.

    i) Take the horses to the water, but accept exactly zero responsibility for making them drink.

    Lache? Mais certainement. But you know…you get what you pay for, and so should your employer.

    Taken together, these strategies will combine to make your workload more or less tolerable.

  9. Philip Nel Said,

    March 6, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

    Thanks, all, for taking the time to comment. Appreciate the intentions of the most recent comment (from “Funny About Money”), but, alas, such an approach would be neither economically nor practically feasible in my English classes. The rubrics make sense — and I’ve used those before. Rubrics work well for papers. As for the others, I lack the funds to hire TAs myself. While my institution doesn’t require me to give quizzes, doing so is pedagogically sound: it ensures that students are doing the work. Grading papers in the manner suggested would add time. And the trouble with English quizzes and papers is that one has to read the answers to evaluate them. I think, though, that these approaches would work well for quizzes that are easier to score. Kind of you to comment & offer your thoughts.

  10. Jennifer Said,

    July 7, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    This is my own process, but I’ve always been ashamed of it. Thanks for bringing up some great reasons (rationalizations?) for procrastigrading!

  11. Enjoy a Better Grading Experience! | The Instructional Innovations Blog Said,

    December 14, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    [...] http://www.philnel.com/2010/10/14/procrastigrading/ [...]

  12. Blue Moon Said,

    March 5, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    I’m so glad this blog started a discussion about grading practices. If I grade papers “all in one shot” I am NOT in the same frame of mind by the last quarter of papers, so this is not a good idea for me. I find that I need to take breaks after about 8 papers and come back refreshed. If it’s late at night, I need to stop or I’m very snippy with my comments and the grades start going down.

  13. Pamela Said,

    July 23, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    I like to grade all at once in the sense that all at once means on the same day. I willingly offer my day as a sacrifice to the god of my teaching job. But I try to make grading not miserable, usually by indulging in a favorite food while grading. I’ve never found a timer to be helpful, only more stressful.
    My attitude about grading changed after I had a teacher who graded our whole class’s papers in about 36 hours. About 20 of us (this was a graduate-level course) had written 15-page papers and turned in design work at the end of class on Tuesday, and he returned our work to us with extensive comments and analysis at class on Thursday! I was so surprised, pleased, and excited, that I’ve tried to hit the next class period whenever possible, but never to let the seventh day go by without returning the work. I’ve only missed that mark once, but I gave my students an update. It made the whole class go better; my students were more willing to revise (I teach first-year comp), and my reviews at the end were the best I’d ever had!

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