Commenting: An Efficient Routine

Students (and we) sometimes think that we ought to spend as much time commenting as students do writing; it's just not true. You aren't doing them or yourself any favors.

Studies repeatedly show that when it comes to commenting on papers, less is more. The more comments you put on a paper, the less likely students are to be able to process any of the comments you've written. 30 comments are much less effective than 10, and 10 are less effective than 3.

Your goal should be to spend no longer than 15 minutes reading and commenting on a paper. Set a kitchen timer. If you take longer, you're essentially donating your time to the University: noble, maybe, but not especially wise.

So, here's a routine for grading:


Grade Blind
Once you get to know your students, your preconceptions about them are likely to influence the grades you give them, so try not to know whose paper you're grading:

* You may want to ask students to adopt aliases so that you can respond to drafts without learning their identities.

* Vary the order in which you read papers (students at the end of the stack tend either to getrewarded as you imagine finishing the task or punished for making you sit and grade for so long).

* Know your limit: most people can't grade more than 6 or 8 papers in one sitting; beyond that number, they start to lose their concentration.

Skim the whole paper over once before you write anything.

This will help you to resist the temptation to line edit, and will allow you to see the big picture. When you finish the essay, decide what the two or three biggest issues are in the essay. Number a few locations in the essay that you want to cite as examples.

Type your comments.
Students tend to make similar errors on the same assignment; it just makes your life easier if you can cut and paste definitions or explanations. (You may want to explain to students that you do this, so they don't flip out when they find comments with the same wording.)

Check the language of your comments.
Did you include some praise for things that the student did well? Did you use positive language (instead of "Don't forget," "Remember"; instead of "Your paragraph is confusing," "the evidence doesn't seem to support the reason")?

Sort papers into grade piles as you read.
Make one stack each for A, B, C, NC.. Then, when you've read all the papers, go back through to make sure that all the B papers are of roughly the same quality, and to distinguish the B+ from the B-, etc.

Grade papers for what's on the page (not on effort, or improvement, or personality).

A paper that fulfills the basic expectations of the assignment (in other words, an average paper) should receive a grade in the B-/C+ range.

Invite students to come talk to you after getting papers back. Ask them to wait a week, and to e-mail you in advance with specific questions.