Tip: Reduce your grading workload
The biggest challenges in grading: We evaluate every piece of work. Evaluating work is solely the instructor’s task. We evaluate work on too many different criteria.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about the challenge of grading in an online or hybrid environment. From the instructor perspective, there’s often just so much to grade. Perhaps we’ve inherited an online course shell that was set up with many weekly assignments. Perhaps we have set up our courses with many assignments to mimic the in-class experience, or to guide students through the material, or to meet “seat time” expectations. For whatever reason, you might find that you have more individual assignments to grade than in past semesters. In addition, if we’re trying to include more authentic assessment opportunities, these are often more time-intensive to grade.
I believe the biggest challenges with grading involve three overlapping issues:
We evaluate every piece of work.
Evaluating work is solely the instructor’s task.
We evaluate work on too many different criteria.
Aside from workload considerations for the instructor, we have to consider that we are overwhelming students not only with the number of assignments but with trying to take in and act on our feedback to their work. If we spend more time providing feedback than students spend mulling over and then applying the feedback to future tasks, that’s a big problem. There are ways to address these issues without lowering expectations for our students - although I would argue that it’s not always a bad thing to consider lowering expectations! Below I outline a three-step process that helps to streamline grading by using an adaptation of a specs grading approach.
“SPECS” GRADING APPROACH: GRADE “COMPLETE/INCOMPLETE” INSTEAD OF LETTER GRADES/POINTS
I confess, I am a big fan of the “complete/incomplete” grading scheme. There are plenty of assignments we ask students to do where the goal is the process: engaging in online discussion, submitting practice problems, working through steps in the brainstorming and drafting process, outlining a chapter. The learning happens in the doing of these assignments, and the difference between an 8/10 points versus 6/10 or 10/10 in a discussion board is too small to be an effective way to spend our time. This is why I grade many of these small process assignments as “complete” if they meet the expectations - did they write an outline that will help them draft the paper or not? - and if they score “incomplete,” depending on what type of assignment it is, they typically can revise until they “complete” it.
Now, using the “complete/incomplete” grading scheme to more quickly provide feedback, consider the following three steps:
STEP 1: USE THE LMS TO AUTOMATE THE FIRST ROUND OF FEEDBACK.
I wrote previously about how to encourage students to complete preparatory work by unlocking tasks in stages. This is a similar strategy: offer initial (low-points) quizzes that are auto-graded and that help students to focus on specific content or skills that they will need to apply in a higher-stakes task to come. Here’s where you ask them to engage in tasks that float near the bottom of the Bloom’s Taxonomy - remember and understand.
Image credit: Vanderbilt Univ.’s Center for Teaching
Think of these low-stakes tasks as taking the place of the small check-ins that you might do in-person. The benefit to them being online is that you can let students repeat the quizzes, and can even set up the quizzes so that students receive hints about where they went wrong without telling them the correct responses.
STEP 2: USE PEER DISCUSSION TO EVALUATE WORK, NOT JUST SHARE OPINION
The hardest part about online discussion boards is developing a good prompt - one that asks students to engage in a substantive way with course content and doesn’t just devolve into initial “here’s my opinion, which has zero to do with what anyone before me has said!” posts and “I really like your opinion!” responses.
A more effective approach gives students something to react to; even better is asking students to apply their knowledge in an analysis task. For example, provide students with one effective example of something from your course and one less effective example of something from your course, and ask them to identify differences, or explain which is more effective and why. To encourage students to read and incorporate what their peers have posted, ask students to note something new that their peers have not already mentioned, and if they struggle with coming up with a new idea, to expand on what someone else has noted by providing an additional example of the same thing.
Using discussion this way asks student to engage in application and analysis, and builds on the basic practice they’ve done with the auto-graded quizzes. Again, the discussion can be graded “complete/incomplete” - did they note something new or not? - and you can provide targeted feedback by asking questions to guide the discussion, without needing to respond to each student. After all, you wouldn’t spend class time on long responses to each student during an oral class discussion.
STEP 3: USE SMALL SUMMATIVE ASSIGNMENTS.
Building on the formative assessment of brief recall and understanding quizzes and an application or analysis task, have the students complete a targeted assignment where they evaluate - for example, ask them to read an article and evaluate the author’s use of evidence. The key is to focus on asking students to do one thing, not many different things: evaluate the use of evidence, not outline the article and evaluate the main argument and evaluate evidence and contrast the author’s opinion with a previous author’s opinion, and…
Precision here will help students know what to focus on, and make the grading and feedback process more manageable as well.
Some additional resources…
Consider a single point rubric to help with evaluation
More about specifications grading
More about setting up stages of preparatory work
More about Bloom’s Taxonomy (this is the revised version, and there’s plenty of debate about both the original and the revision, and the underlying philosophy itself)