Grading essays

You all know the feeling. As you sift through the pile of papers in front of you (or in the online dropbox in my case), you think to yourself, “Oh, boy!” You spend a large amount of time carefully crafting your revision comments, corrections, and what I like to call “what the author did very well/what the author needs to work on for next time” notes. Then it’s time to give back/upload to the students. Do they glance over every carefully crafted mark on their essays? Maybe a few. Instead, most go directly to the last page searching for their grade. And then you realize all of that time and effort you put in to the corrections and comments = nothing. OK, maybe not “nothing,” but I’m guessing any English teacher out there knows what I’m talking about here…

So, I have been debating in my head: how do I get my students more concerned about becoming a better writer (as in reviewing the comments) vs. only worrying about what the grade will do their overall average in my class? How do I get them to see that they need to look at the bigger picture here (becoming a better reader/writer)?

I don’t think there is an easy answer, though I know there are a few “solutions” out there. First, I don’t put the grade on their essays at all. I fill out a rubric and put the grade on that document. Is this an absolute solution? Not at all. But a start, I guess.

My next idea is to give back the marked up essays, without a grade, but with a rubric, without a grade. Then for homework, have them go back through their essays and write a paragraph or so on what they think their grade should be based. I remember one of my favorite professors (he was a Donne/Shakespeare expert) had us do this occasionally. [He also gave us extra credit if we managed to write our entire essay without any “being verbs” (maybe I’ll incorporate something similar one day because it does make you think!).] I think we got a lot out of this assignment because it made us 1) re-read our essays and 2) think critically about those marks on our paper and what we really deserved.

I also think it would be interesting to see what the students had to say about their essays again, too. Specifically with my seniors, I told them that Word’s spell-checker is no longer “enough” for them to get a good grade. I suggest at the very beginning of the year to create a word document, a sticky note, whatever works….and on that note, each student should write down things they have a problem with in their writing (i.e. run-ons, their vs. there vs. they’re). Then, before they hand-in their final drafts, they need to go back and look over their problem list and make sure none of those errors appear in their paper…after all, if they can establish what their weakness is, then they can better combat the problem! I’m not sure any of them actually did this (in fact, by some of the prominent errors, I’m sure no one has), but maybe in the future, I make this a mandatory thing…I mark up errors that are repeatedly occurring in their writing, they place it on their problems list…hmmm…

Other essay grading strategies? Using Voicethread or Jing. These tools would allow for a visual reference to the issues with me vocally addressing the essays. I haven’t personally used these yet, but know a few teachers who swear by their productivity. I imagine the first couple of times would take longer than usual to grade until I got the hang of how to best utilize those tools for grading (since I’ve used them before, just not for grading), but could be worth the end result = students reading more about what they did vs. only the grade!



6 thoughts on “Grading essays

  1. Thanks for the nice article about getting students to read comments. With pre-final drafts I give copious comments and a rubric grade. I then have them turn in the drafts with the final draft and I look to see if they’ve addressed my comments. It’s a good way to force them to look at the comments. Of course with big classes this gets more difficult.

    I’ve also used Jing to do audio feedback. I like it a lot and find that I’m able to be more precise about what bothers me in a particular passage.

    • Thanks for your note! I’m looking to use Jing for grading in my next round of essays, so I’ll have to give an update about how it goes! I’m interested to see the students reception as well with using the “different” format for commenting.

  2. I am glad to have found this site. With 100+ students daily, I was floored when some parents demanded that I post “substantive and copious” comments on their childs’ essays. I didn’t know how to do this without correcting their papers for them, they would re-copy and I ended up writing their essays!

    • I know exactly what you mean…and I struggled with that feeling as well. I am still playing around with several different “ideas,” but have found that my students really like when I “mark-up” (read: comment critically, yet generally throughout their paper) and then they have to go back and write what grade they think they deserve, what they did well, and what they need to work on for the next paper, etc.

      I’ve also found that too many of them get stuck on a one draft = perfection mentality, so it’s been critical for me to stress that writing is a PROCESS. Yes, the grade is important, but they’re slowly seeing that to become a better writer they have to work for it…and not just rely on the numeric grade at the end of the paper!

  3. It’s more work for all concerned, but the thing that really gets students to read your comments is drafting. Have them submit a draft, write copious comments, then just give the final paper a grade and a few sentences explaining it.

    • I agree — drafting is a KEY part of the process and allows students to really hone their skills. I like to include this part of the process in with the writing workshops which I have found to work well.

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