by Emily Glankler
I think I speak for many teachers when I say that grading essays is the part of my job I dread the most. I often spend more time staring at the stack of essays while I avoid grading them than I do actually grading, but still…
It should be noted that the foundation of all of these strategies is having a clearly established writing rubric you use consistently throughout the year. In AP classes this rubric is essentially provided for us (although I often edit the expectations to earn each point based on what I want my students doing in my class.) Whatever you use, just be as consistent as you can all year so that students always know what is expected of them on a writing assignment.
Over the years I’ve developed my own strategy for scaffolding the grading process throughout the year so that I can give students’ effective feedback while still getting through the pile as efficiently as possible.
Slow down and “deep dive” on the key rubric points.
Our tendency is to feel like we need to get students writing right now. And that’s true. Getting kids writing and keeping them writing consistently is the single best way for them to become better writers. But, we don’t need students to write entire essays right away. (Which means we don’t need to be grading piles of essays from Day 1.)
Writing is writing. A good sentence becomes a good paragraph, which combines into a good essay, which ultimately could be a chapter in a good book. I’ve found that my writing results have improved dramatically once I slowed down and focused on the basics.
Short Writing is Still Writing Practice
Most of my fall semester is spent working with students on short writing assignments. In AP History, we call these SAQs but they’re just 3-5 sentence paragraphs addressing a specific question. If my students can clearly Answer the prompt with a specific piece of Proof and their own Explanation (we use the acronym A.P.E.) then they can extend that practice to any length of writing. In addition, I will spend an entire lesson on each part of our writing rubric. (Let’s say I need to cover the Mongol conquests but we also need to talk about thesis statements? Great! Let’s evaluate 10 different thesis statements answering various writing prompts about the Mongols.) We work our way through the rubric this way: an entire day (or more) explicitly teaching Contextualization, etc. It might be November before I’m asking students to actually put these various elements together into a simple three paragraph essay response.
Not only does shortening their writing assignments shorten my grading commitment; but it also means that when they do write full essays, I find myself making fewer notes. In “educational buzzword” speak what I’m describing is known as spiraling. We introduce a skill (like thesis statements) early in the year and then we continuously return to that skill as we progress through the course (we “spiral” back to it as we move through the content.)
Focus on 1-2 Rubric Elements for Feedback
Consider, even, that when students write a complete essay, you don’t have to score every single rubric element. If you think students need more feedback on their thesis statements, then you can give them in-depth feedback and a very detailed score specifically on their thesis statement. (Give them a nice completion grade for everything else if they tried so you can get “into the weeds” on the 1-2 rubric elements you want to focus on.) For example, my students might write an entire LEQ (Long Essay Question) but I decide I’m only going to score them for Context and Thesis. I will skim their entire essay to make sure they took the assignment seriously and give them an automatic 80/100 as a completion grade. But then I can go to town on their Context (10 points) and Thesis (10 points) to give them in-depth feedback without destroying their confidence (or their average.)
Practice “affirmational grading.”
If you have taken the time to walk students through whatever rubric you’ll be using on their writing, then consider scoring them based on what they have done (or have almost done) rather than what they’re missing.
Highlight Their Achievements (Literally)
I color-code my rubric (meaning, I literally highlight “Evidence” in green, for example) so that now, any time I come across good evidence in their essay I just highlight that section in green. No notes. No need to write (unless there’s something particularly noteworthy.) Just by identifying where they did provide good evidence (and leaving unhighlighted any other section that does not meet the standard) I’m giving students feedback by showing them what I want to see more of.
I allow myself room for nuance here with a simple trick: if they attempted some part of the rubric but didn’t quite accomplish it, I might underline that section with the same color. With the stroke of a highlighter I’m communicating to the student, “I see what you were trying to do and it’s good. Keep trying it!” This is an instance where I would include a short note off to the side to make sure they knew what they needed to do to fully earn that point the next time.
Constructive Criticism: Pick Your Battles
In general, I believe that the majority of feedback a young writer receives should be affirmational: pointing out what they have done well (or what they have almost done.) It’s the only way we can prime a student to potentially listen to the negative feedback we need to share to help them improve. Imagine the difference between a student opening up their paper to see red markings crossing out all the places they screwed up versus a paper with a rainbow of highlights pointing out things they did well. Which experience will make that student more likely to listen to your writing “tips” or come to you for extra support? Pick your battles when providing constructive feedback: Instead of “What are ALL the things they missed?” Consider: “What’s the next step for them in their writing?”
Involve students in the scoring process.
I want to be clear here: I don’t, necessarily, mean students should be grading themselves (or their peers.) I have mixed feelings on peer grading that boil down to: “It works for some groups of students but not all.” What I mean here is just that we should lift the veil of secrecy on grading. Many students seem to imagine us scornfully reading their essays, looking for any opportunity to take points away. In my own experience as an AP reader for the College Board, it’s actually quite the opposite. We want our students to succeed and we are anxiously looking for any opportunity to award them rubric points.
Easy Lesson Plan: Scoring Sample Responses
Throughout the year, I provide opportunities for students to see exactly what it looks like when I grade their essays. One good way is to have an entire lesson in which groups of students score sample responses. AP courses have a leg up here because each year the College Board releases the Free Response Questions along with sample responses. Just print and go! But you can also create your own sample responses (the hardest part will likely be writing an essay that’s not perfect) or using anonymous student samples with their permission. What I often find is that students are tougher graders than we are! But either way, it’s a simple activity that gets kids talking about writing and evaluating based on the established rubric.
Keep in mind that students can “score” any piece of writing using your class rubric. Articles? Book excerpts? YouTube videos? As long as someone is using their words to get a point across, it’s a piece of “writing” that can be evaluated. (Pro tip: Crash Course videos follow a standard essay format almost to a tee.)
Side note: This is a great activity for covering new information simultaneously: let’s say students were supposed to read about the Columbian Exchange the night before. Now, in class, they are scoring 2-3 sample essays all about the Columbian Exchange (in theory, using their knowledge from the reading plus additional information you provide.)
Here’s a handy template I’ve used that guides students as they “reverse engineer” an essay outline from something they’ve read/viewed/listened to for class.
Individual Essay Conferences
The other way I let students in on the grading process is much more time-consuming and also infinitely more effective: essay conferences. After our first “official” in-class essay, I try to plan a project or other independent activities for the next few class periods. Then, I fill my schedule (and “free time” before school and during lunch) with 5-minute essay conference slots that students sign up for. During their conference, they sit next to me while I grade their essay in real time. (Warning: this is not for brand new teachers still learning the rubric and it’s not for teachers who struggle to hide their poker face when reading essays that are… let’s say… less than ideal.)
Basically, I share my thoughts out loud as I’m reading and highlighting the essay. A student can stop me at any point to ask questions. (“Why didn’t you highlight that? I thought that was evidence.” etc.) Honestly, this process is terrifying to most students at first but it’s also the most effective activity I’ve done. At the end of the year it’s always #1 on my end-of-year survey asking about what we did that helped them the most.
- You can make these essay conferences optional. (I required them every year for our first LEQ which meant I had 160 essay conferences filling my calendar for about a week and a half. But, hey, then I was done grading!) If you make them optional, you’ll be able to meet just with the students who are really open to hearing your feedback and really want to know how they did. This helps cut down on students asking, “When will our essays be graded?!?!” If they want to know soon, they can sign up for a conference! Otherwise, they’ll get their feedback in writing like usual.
- You can also just record your feedback and share the audio with students. If you, like me, are very verbal then it might be quicker for you to talk through their essay rather than write out notes at the end. It’s fairly simple to use the Voice Memo tool on your phone and then just share the audio file via email, Google Classroom, or another online classroom tool.
Emily Glankler has taught almost every Social Studies course for the past decade from 6th grade World Cultures through AP® U.S. History but her favorite course to teach is AP® World History. She has taught AP® History courses at both private and public high schools in Austin, Texas and she was the team lead responsible for bringing AP® World (and building the curriculum from scratch) to the last two high schools where she has taught. Emily has also led professional development within Austin ISD as an Instructional Coach as well as presenting to an audience at SXSW EDU about incorporating current events into the core curriculum. She has a B.A. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.A. in History from Texas State University. In addition to teaching full time, Emily also writes and produces a history podcast called Anti-Social Studies that is used by teachers and students in history classrooms around the country.