How to approach that big stack of papers

A post from John Paul Foxe, Educational Developer, TA/GA Program:

As the semester progresses, Ryerson students are busy working on their first assignments. In the weeks ahead, TA/GAs (and faculty) will find themselves with stacks of papers that need to be graded. A previous issue of The LTO Best Practices – TA/GA Edition was dedicated to best practices for effective grading. Below you can find some excerpts from this issue that discuss how to get started on grading and how to provide effective and meaningful feedback to students.

Getting Started 

  • Determine the criteria for grading.
    If criteria have been provided for the course, read them carefully ahead of time, clarifying any uncertainties before beginning the marking process. If criteria haven’t been provided, prepare a detailed set to follow as you grade. Criteria are important to ensure consistency and fairness. As you mark, annotate your criteria, “this helps you become more efficient as you encounter the same mistakes repeatedly,” providing a “record of how you handled the same error previously.”
  • Find examples of excellent, good, adequate, and poor work.
    Compare them to determine the distinguishing features of each level. Make these examples your standards—review them as you go along to make sure your grading has remained consistent.
  • Quickly group student work into excellent, good, adequate, and poor piles.
    Then go back and review the answers in each group, from best to worst. This will help you establish a view of general performance in the class, become familiar with typical mistakes, and discriminate more finely for a final mark. These groupings will also make it easier to determine the fate of borderline cases.
  • Grade one question at a time.
    This will help you remain consistent and focus on the subtleties of your criteria. Marking by student rather than by question “allows for halo effects,” with a “high or low mark on one question influencing your judgment on the students’ answers to other questions.” Finish marking all the responses to one question in a sitting so you don’t have to worry about standards shifting from day to day.
  • Shuffle the papers after marking each question to remove any expectations based on order.
    Cover students’ names so “you’re not influenced by the performance of students on previous exams or assignments, their class participation level, or their attitudes about you or the course.”
  • Do not change your standard as you mark.
    When you have finished marking, go back to the first five or ten papers you have marked and then mark them again. This may help compensate for the tendency for marking to get harsher towards the end.
  • Know your limits.
    Decide ahead of time how long you will spend on each question or paper. Try not to mark in blocks of time longer than two hours to avoid burning out.

Adapted from “Fast and Equitable Grading,” Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo, and “Examination Essay Marking Guide for Tutors” by Carol Johnston, Teaching and Learning Unit, Faculty of Economics and Commerce, University of Melbourne.

Providing Feedback

Leaving comments on student essays can require a complex balancing act. Taking the time to draft extensive comments can slow the marking process to a crawl, while as generic, perfunctory comments can be worse than no comments at all. The perfect comments provide encouragement and guidance, demonstrating to students how to improve their writing for the future.

When providing feedback, avoid over-commenting on every weakness in a paper, or focusing heavily on small errors. This can demoralize students as well as distract them from addressing major issues with their work. Instead, comment “primarily on patterns and representative strengths and weaknesses.” This will help “strike a balance between making students wonder whether anyone actually read their paper and overwhelming them with ink” (Walk, 2000).

Try to keep comments organized and prioritized. One way of doing this would be to create a bulleted list with the most important issues listed first. Make sure your handwriting is legible and keep your tone respectful. Scribbled comments in red ink are mostly likely to incur student ire rather than thoughtfulness (Walk, 2000).

Most importantly, focus on specific and meaningful feedback, and don’t focus only on what’s wrong—positive comments are not just encouraging, they also show students what works and what they should use again (Walk, 2000).

When providing feedback on a student writing:

  • Briefly say something positive. Positive feedback motivates the student and opens the channels of communication.
  • Identify the main problem, if there is one, or, at most, the two main problems. You may frame your response as a statement or a question.
  • If the paper has major problems or problems that you cannot easily define, ask the writer to see you after class or in a short conference. Concentrate on helping the student understand (1) what you expect in a response paper (2) how to read and analyze the material (3) how to present the evidence (4) how to argue effectively.

Read more about the TA/GA Program on the LTO website.

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