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40 Hour Workweek

Productivity Strategies, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 10, 2022

An instant way to have fewer assignments to grade

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

An instant way to have fewer assignments to grade

By Angela Watson

No, the answer is not throwing the whole stack of papers in a recycling bin. (Although it’s perfectly fine to toss out some assignments from time-to-time.)

And, the answer isn’t to give more assignments digitally. That can help make assessment more effective and efficient, but the pile-up of student work awaiting feedback online can feel just as daunting as a stack of papers.

This episode will help you explore ways you may be overcomplicating the assignments you give or your approach to assessment, and think outside the box about how to streamline.

I’ll share how to instantly reduce the papers you need to grade, and help you uncover your own answer to the following questions:

  • Is there ONE type of assignment that I’m giving to students which is taking me forever to grade, and that I might be able to reduce or change up a bit?
  • What can I do to experiment or push back on expectations this year, in order to make my grading workload more sustainable next year?

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So here it is: the instant way to reduce how many assignments you have to grade is to stop assigning so many to begin with.

I want you to step back from the problem, and depersonalize it for a minute. Think about who is actually the person assigning the work. The kids didn’t decide themselves to do all those homework assignments and practice activities and quizzes.

Someone gave them those assignments. Sure, many of them might be things that are mandated to give, but not all of them.

Could the person who is directly assigning tasks to students consider changing the quantity, type, due dates, length of assignments, or assessment criteria to generate fewer assignments to be graded?

Standards-based grading is time-consuming. Here’s how to streamline.

Consider this analogy. Let’s say it’s dinner time, and you are the person responsible for that task tonight. You choose to make an elaborate 3-course meal with 2 protein choices and lots of different side dishes. And then afterward you look around the kitchen and sigh, “Ugh, look at all these dishes I have to wash!”

But here’s the thing. Were you required to make a 3-course meal? Could you have used fewer ingredients? Reused the same bowl for multiple purposes? Washed dishes as you go? Skipped a time-consuming side dish and replaced it with something simpler?

The same goes for grading: could you have given fewer assignments, reused the same assignment for multiple grades, graded things in class as students were working on them, skipped a time-consuming activity altogether, and so on?

In the dinner example, you were responsible for the outcome–making sure everyone is fed a good meal–but how you choose to meet that outcome was largely your choice. Your family may make demands on you and need certain things to be done for them a certain way, but you also had some choice about how you approached their demands, as well as the work process itself.

You can make it harder or easier on yourself based on the way you carry out the process. Yes, you have to cook dinner, but you don’t have to cook in exactly THAT WAY every single day.

Similarly, you have to assess student work, but you don’t have to assess it THAT way every single day. Making very small tweaks to what and how you assign things to students can have a significant impact on how many papers you have to grade. It can mean the difference between grading for an hour on an occasional weekend or three hours every Saturday and Sunday.

So if you heard the suggestion that to reduce papers needing to be graded, you need to stop assigning so many to begin with, and you immediately felt defensive, as if I just don’t understand how demanding your principal or teaching position or district is…

I want you to ask yourself, “Is there ONE type of assignment that I’m giving to students which is taking me forever to grade, and that I might be able to reduce or change up a bit?”

Just think about ONE thing you’re giving kids to do where you might have a bit of leeway.

Maybe you’re giving spelling tests that never help kids transfer their spelling skills over to their actual writing. Maybe you’re giving homework every night and grading every single piece of it. Maybe you’re giving elaborate projects or multiple lengthy essays which are beasts to grade. Maybe you’re giving extra assignments just to have additional grades in the gradebook. Maybe you’re giving weekly quizzes when you’re only required to give bi-weekly ones.

I am 100% positive that there is some way in which you are creating extra and unnecessary work for yourself. I’ve never met a person — myself included — who isn’t, in some way overcomplicating their workload. We all have times when we assume things have to be done in a certain way, and we don’t question whether our current approach is the most effective way to do it.

Consider only grading what is a true and important measure of what your students know and are able to do. Some assignments can be just for practice and don’t have to be given an official grade.

If we grade every piece of paper our students touch, when do they get a chance to just be learners, to experiment, to fail? How can we assign a grade to kids’ understanding of a concept just learned about for the first time 20 minutes ago? Do we really need to grade that assignment when kids are going to be exploring the same skill again tomorrow and the next day and next week and then given a quiz and then more practice and then a test? How many times are we going to grade them on the same thing?

Every single one of those assignments doesn’t have to be graded in order for you to monitor students’ progress and know how kids are doing. And, there are many, many ways to build accountability for students without issuing formal grades to every task.

Check out Episode 252 of the podcast, in which I interview the founder of the Modern Classrooms Project, Kareem Farah. He talks about using self-paced structures sometimes called “quests” in which kids get a list of tasks on Monday, and have the whole week to work on them. The teacher sets up checkpoints along the way, and since kids are working at their own pace, there’s a time during the school day for the teacher to monitor progress, meet one-on-one with students, and give detailed feedback. The Modern Classrooms approach actually makes time for assessment during class time in ways that are meaningful for kids.

Another approach is in Episode 238, in which a fellow teacher named Megan Faherty shares 7 mindset shifts to help you get your grading under control. Listeners to that episode have told me it was absolutely transformational for them in terms of deciding how to assess student learning in a more manageable way.

One of my favorite tips from Megan is to schedule time for grading an assignment when you are designing it. So instead of just piling work on kids and then watching them turn it in so it becomes work piled up for YOU, consider whether you actually have time to grade something before you assign it, and put it on a to-do list when you assigned it (not when you collect it or when a deadline is approaching). This allows you to make conscious choices about what to assign.

Rituals + routines to help you make space for focused grading

So this week, my challenge to you is to think about ONE type of assignment you could make easier to assess, or maybe not assess or assign a formal grade to at all.

And if you’re into this idea, then I want you to take it a step further. I want you to take ownership of the grading process and habits you’ve been dealing with. If the workload is absolutely outrageous and you are exhausted from spending every spare minute grading papers, what will you do to push back against this expectation in your school?

Will you be quietly subversive, and find simple, subtle ways to reduce the workload to something that feels more reasonable?

Will you work together with your colleagues to form a plan of action to bring to your principal, and suggest proposed changes to next year’s syllabus, weighted grading system, or required number of assignments for students?

Will you join the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program this summer to commit (with thousands of life-minded educators) to making the next school year the time when you find a sustainable approach to your workload?

Just because every teacher you know is bogged down with endless grading does not mean that’s the way it has to be, or that every teacher in the world feels like that, or that things can never be better. I’ve worked with countless teachers who have streamlined the way they assign tasks to students, and monitor/assess student progress.

There are so many effective ways to teach, and investing a little time into figuring out a way that is more efficient is a win for everyone. You get your nights and weekends back, and your students get a teacher who is balanced, energetic, well-rested, and no longer as resentful of how demanding their job is.

This is a wonderful time of year to experiment: you already have a great rapport with your students so you can try something different with a group of students you already know well. And, your kids are getting restless now anyway — they’re ready for something different, eager to move on, and no longer responding as well to the things that used to be effective with them earlier in the year. What do you have to lose? Why not try something different now so you can start the next school year with some new approaches under your belt?

10 time-saving tips for grading student writing

Your takeaway truth for the week ahead is this: Only grade what is a true and important measure of what your students know and are able to do. You don’t have to take as many grades when your gradebook is a true and accurate reflection of your students’ skills. Give yourself permission to stop grading everything, and find a more efficient way to stay on top of students’ progress.

Join us in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek program this summer if you want more ideas, support, and community — the program has transformed the workloads of over 46,000 teachers, and it can help you, too. There’s even a new 40 Hour Leadership course to help administrators shift school culture to focus on productivity and support teachers in reducing their workload and having better work/life balance, and a 40 Hour Instructional Coaching program.

See if your principal is interested in letting you or a small group of colleagues pilot the program next school year, and you can begin implementing ideas right away. Later on, you may be able to expand the program to create positive change school-wide.

Have a great week — you can do this, and remember, it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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