This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: The Productivity Roundtable will discuss effective grading strategies for teachers, specifically, how to streamline assessment and spend less time grading.
I’ve always thought it would be really cool to get a group of master teachers together to hash out some of their toughest challenges and share what’s working. One of the issues I’m most passionate about is making teaching more effective, efficient, and enjoyable, so I’ve gathered a group of educators to create a Productivity Roundtable.
Joining me are five members of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club’s graduate program. These are teachers who have completed the full year of the club and are now in year two or three of taking those results to the next level. They have done a tremendous amount of work in experimenting with various productivity strategies in their classrooms and creating systems and routines that work well for them and their students. Since they teach at different grade levels and subject areas, in different types of school settings and communities, in a diverse set of locations throughout the United States, you’re going to hear what works with a variety of teaching contexts and teaching styles.
The topic for our first productivity roundtable is streamlining the grading and assessment process. More specifically, how to reduce the amount of time you spend grading papers. I chose that because it’s a struggle that just about every teacher grapples with, no matter what or where you teach, and often we don’t really know what’s happening in other teachers’ classrooms. Many teachers assume that everyone else is grading All The Things, when the reality is that some of the most effective teachers, like the group of five you’ll hear participating in the Productivity Roundtable, have given themselves permission not to grade everything. They’ve found more effective ways to monitor and assess student learning, and they’re going to share those strategies here with you today.
We’re going to talk about how they decide which assignments to grade and which ones not to, as well as what they do with the work they DON’T grade. They’re also going to share how they’re using formative assessment and student self-assessment to reduce the amount of grades they have to assign and to make the assessment process more meaningful for kids. They’ll also share their best hacks and time-saving tips related to grading and assessment.
Use the audio player below to listen in on the roundtable session, or skim the bullet point highlights underneath.
Click “play” below to listen to the roundtable discussion!
Let’s start off by having you introduce yourselves and share the most impactful strategy or mindset shift you’ve discovered for reducing the amount of time you spend grading papers.
- (Des) I decide during the lesson planning process if the skills we are working on that day are practice or something that needs to be graded. Sometimes at the end of the lesson, I may change my original decision based on how the students did during the lesson and if they needed more or less time than I anticipated. Also, after learning more through the club, I grade WAY less than before in general.
- (Nicole) Making feedback immediate whenever possible, and only recording summative assessments as grades. Most of the things we do are more effective with immediate feedback. By giving that feedback in class, instead of at home, I’ve drastically reduced my grading time, and my students benefit more from it.
- (Erin) This one I have to thank Dave Stuart, Jr. for. I keep the stopwatch feature of my phone clock open when I grade and use the lap timer feature to keep myself on pace. I also keep a sticky note next to me and jot down error trends I see that I can address to the class when I pass them back or plan mini lessons around. It saves me from writing “awkward” or “show, don’t tell” dozens of times on each individual paper.
- (Kevin) Using the weekly planner to allot time for grading. Each week I take a hard look at what I’m going to have to grade and … this is important — when I can grade it. If I see that I am getting bogged down with grading, I try to cut as much as possible while still getting the learning evidence I need. One of the other most valuable mindset shifts was: If something isn’t working, don’t wait until next year to change it — try new strategies if the ones you are using aren’t working.
- (Osa) I don’t have to look over absolutely every piece of work that my students generate! Once I came to that understanding, it became easier to practice being intentional about every piece of work that I gave my 1st or 2nd graders. Even if it is simply a “fun” activity, there is intent behind it (like improving fine motor skills). I’ve taught my students self and peer-editing skills, and I only mark work when I am assessing a skill that I’ve recently taught. The rest of the time, students mark their own work using answer keys that I prepare.
One of the most critical things that teachers learn in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, but that can also be really hard for them to wrap their minds around, is that you do NOT need to grade every single assignment. I advise teachers to grade only the things which are a true and accurate measure of what students know and are able to do. Grading practice work and student’s first few attempts at a new skill are often unnecessary and a waste of your time — some things are just for student practice and don’t need to be formally assessed.
I’ve found that a lot of teachers aren’t sure what’s actually required of them in this area, and they’re often surprised to discover their district either has no minimum number of grades they have to take or else the minimum is a very reasonable number, like two grades per subject per week. That’s what I was required to do when I taught in South Florida. So in a nine-week quarter, that’s just 18 grades per subject. If you grade just those 18 or even 19 or 20 things students do each quarter, which are the most true and accurate measure of what students know and are able to do, you’ve cut down on your grading workload significantly without being unfair to students.
Sometimes teachers are nervous about doing this because they’re afraid that not taking enough grades will pull down their students’ averages, but I know from experience, from doing this for 11 years in the classroom, that it does not have a negative effect on students’ averages IF you are grading the right things, the things which are that true and accurate measure of what they know and are able to do.
Can you share how you decide which assignments will be given a formal grade and which ones not to grade?
- (Nicole) Most work, I only track as “collected” or “missing.” I only take the time to formally grade things that are summative assessments. We use standards-based report cards, and you don’t want an average of everything they’ve ever done on the topic. You want a measurement of where they are at currently. I use this to guide my decisions about what to grade. If it doesn’t give me an accurate reflection of where they are currently at in their learning, it doesn’t get a formal grade. To this end, I also tend to record more grades later in a term than early in a term, as I know those earlier scores won’t be an accurate reflection of what they know in another month or two.
- (Osa) I use the timing of the work to help me decide what to mark. If we’re in the middle of a unit or learning a new skill, chances are I won’t mark anything during that period but will gather the data for anecdotal records or to inform my lessons in the coming days. I tend to mark student work at the end of a unit after they’ve had lots of time to practice and consolidate their knowledge.
- (Erin) I try to take the “they write way more than I could possibly grade” approach. Whenever I can, I’ll give the students the option: “You wrote two op-ed pieces: pick one to turn in.” I also try to look at it from a skills perspective: What am I trying to assess here? Have I assessed this before, and if so, am I happy with their progress? I used to think planning out as far as I possibly could was the best method, but now I’m seeing the value in finding a balance between planning ahead and leaving myself the flexibility to add or subtract assignments or slow down planning based on how that particular class is performing.
- (Kevin) Most of the “in-class” stuff can be handled with the thumbs up stamp. I have found that one of the best ways to answer this question is to ask yourself: If I had a student who just moved here (in the middle of this unit) what assignments would I make them do so they could have success on the major summative assessments for this unit? Each unit has a Socratic Seminar, a research project and presentation and a traditional unit test with multiple choice and another written section based on the images and photos related to the vocabulary in the unit. I look at which assignments are going to help a student achieve success on those three, and focus on those at the expense of the rest.
I really like how all of these strategies are focused around what’s really needed for student learning. I think it’s going to be very freeing for other teachers to hear you all share that you don’t grade every single assignment and have figured out systems that work better for you AND your students.
I know a lot of people listening to this right now are thinking, Okay, that sounds good in theory, but what exactly do you do with the assignments that you don’t grade? Can any of you speak to that? And let’s be real, do any of your papers end up in the recycle bin?
- (Erin) The circular file! Seriously, sometimes the practice was valuable in and of itself. I’ll often have my students work in small groups to give peer feedback or to have those reflective conversations with each other about what they tried, how they grew, etc. I try not to give too many completion credit assignments and help the students to see the value in the practice before the final assessment without the need for the grading carrot.
- (Nicole) For most assignments, I just mark down on a checklist if it has been completed. My students need that accountability, and I have a system in place that addresses unfinished work. I don’t put a single mark on those papers, though. I just mark it on my checklist. We have 1:1 technology, so we do a lot of that digitally. However, paper assignments usually go home or go in the recycle bin.
- (Osa) The recycle bin and I used to be very close, but since changing how I think about assigning work, I rarely end up recycling student work. Most of it goes into their portfolios. Since they’re very young, it’s nice for them to see the progression of growth from the beginning of the year, until the end of the year. Young students love to sit and reflect on their work, and I love to watch them — proud of their progress and mostly, that they can now see it.
- (Kevin) Many times I will tell them that they should keep those assignments in their notebook because it will help them with an upcoming larger assignment. I will vary this depending on the class and their level of focus. When I circle around, I’ll notice: Are kids really doing the activity? If they are not, I tell them that this one will be graded or I will grade the next three straight to send a message that class time matters.
I want to add here that just because you are not assigning a formal grade to student work doesn’t mean that you’re just sitting back, hoping that they’re learning, and then finding out when they take the end of unit test. The effective and appropriate way to reduce your grading workload involves more formative assessment and less summative. It requires a shift to thinking more about where students are in the mastery process each day rather than waiting to take a grade at a more formal assignment.
So in many of the most effective teachers’ classrooms, there might be less grading happening, but more assessment, and you actually have a better idea of where your students are at each day because you’re using formative assessment.
Can you share — what’s the easiest or most impactful strategy you’ve tried for formative assessment so you know what kids are mastering without giving formal quizzes/tests?
- (Erin) If kids are self-assessing or if I want to collect a quick survey of information, I’ll use a Google Form to collect data. I can sort, filter, or see pie charts of the results, which is really helpful. I also have a very discussion-oriented, collaborative classroom, so I’ll often have the students talking in their table groups of 4-5 about the book they’re reading or an article I assigned. Walking around the room, I can get a really good feel for who’s struggling based on their conversations. And I’ve mastered the art of listening to two groups at once or standing near one group pretending to listen while actually eavesdropping in on the group behind me who think I’m not paying attention.
- (Nicole) I use a wide variety of strategies. Sometimes I will pose a question on Google, have them jot down an idea on a post-it, show me one finger for A, two for B, etc., or even give them a two-question self-graded quiz. Before I had 1:1 Chromebooks, I used Plickers a lot. When it comes down to it though, I am a huge fan of exit tickets. They bring it to me, and I sort them into two piles as they hand them in … one for mastery and one for those who need reteaching. Sometimes the simple solutions are the most effective!
- (Kevin) I learned about Total Participation Techniques through your podcast and bought the book. I have a whiteboard wall at the back of my classroom so after or in the middle of notetaking or a lecture, I will have them write down the three most important things they have learned so far. Depending on the time situation, I can have them do a Think Pair Share at their table (or let them talk to someone on the other side of the room), or I can have them summarize their ideas on the whiteboard. It makes their thinking visible and it breaks up the sitting phase and adds movement and discussion to notetaking.
- (Osa) For young students, I like to use Fist to Four, which is when students show me four fingers for complete mastery (and they can teach someone else), three for good knowledge, two for very little, etc. It’s a quick, non-anxiety causing way for six-year-olds to show that they may need help or are ready to go practice independently. Also, students are expected to be able to explain their thinking on a regular basis, so we have lots of small and whole group discussions. When a student struggles to do so, that tells me that I need to find a more direct or explicit way of reaching them or provide support in another way.
Download the audio below and listen in on our roundtable discussion:
One of my favorite ways to reduce the grading workload and rely more on formative assessment is by giving kids more ownership of the assessment process. You all know first hand — student self-assessment is powerful. Teaching kids how to analyze the quality of their work and their own mastery of skills is so much more meaningful for kids than just getting back a sheet of paper with a grade on it, which they then crumple up and throw in a trash can without even reading our comments. And it doesn’t have to be a really difficult process to train kids in this.
How have you used student self-assessment to cut down on your workload and empower students to take responsibility for their learning?
- (Erin) For AP practice essays, I often have my students start with “write the outline & then pick one body paragraph to write” or “we’ll practice two timed essays in class & then you’ll pick your better one to submit.” The time the students take to reflect on their own work and evaluate their quality is powerful! It gives them a better perspective so that even if we do need to conference after, they have a clearer understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. It also takes some of the pressure off of them in terms of grading because they know if they take a risk and try something new and it fails, they won’t necessarily have to turn in that assignment.
- (Kevin) I have my AP Psychology students do a very quick written response to prompts. I give them a situation, provide the definition and an example of the concept, and have them explain how the concept applies to the situation. It’s the highest level of thinking required for the written part of the exam. It’s the one they struggle with the most so I build in the scaffolding (definition and example) but isolate the hardest part. We go over each one after they’ve tried to write a response and then discuss their answers — it’s usually about the level or lack of detail. I collect them at the end of class just to make sure they are completing them. But, that usually isn’t necessary because I had plenty of time to circulate and check in with each of them several times during the writing sessions.
- (Nicole) I start with rubrics and checklists that not only help students better understand the success criteria but allow them to self-check and provide better quality peer feedback. It allows them to get farther without me. I have used different forms of journaling (I currently use a digital template I created), where they track their progress, reflect, and write how they are doing and what they need to do to improve. I use this type of reflection for every subject, and with a little practice, it becomes a very worthwhile routine. I also love Seesaw. They think it is fun to add work to their portfolios, and I always have them include a reflection of some sort with that work. The bonus is that it sets up a great platform for student-led conferences (which saves me even more time!).
- (Osa): I made an “Author at Work” spelling and writing folder for my students which contains all the phonemes that we have learned so far and will learn, this year. It also contains all the sight words on our word wall, blank sheets for them to collect their own words, a handwriting page, and a “5 Star Writing” checklist which they can use to check their writing when they think that they’ve finished. I introduce the folder in the middle of the year because 1st graders aren’t independent enough to edit their writing for the first half of the year. So, we practice together using a step-by-step writing anchor chart that checks capitalization, punctuation, etc. In math, we’ll either mark our work together (students use markers or color pencils), or they’ll mark their work using answer keys that I’ve prepared for them. These strategies help to build independence, but going slowly helps them to understand that rushing usually results in careless mistakes, rather than their best efforts.
- (Des) Our district has been doing training related to Visual Learning. Through this training, I have altered my rubrics. For example, instead of the students simply finding where they think they are based on the criteria (they usually think they are higher than they are), each of the criteria requires them to underline, highlight, etc. where in their work they met the expectation. This makes it visually quick and easy for both the students and I to see where they fall on the rubric and exactly what they need to improve on.
Let’s close with a lightning round. What’s your best hack for grading and assessment?
- (Osa): If you give homework every day, incorporate students marking their homework into your morning meeting routine. My second graders loved it (not as much as I did) and we always had reflective conversations about what they enjoyed about it and what they’d like to do next!
- (Nicole) Utilize technology. Google Forms, Socrative, Go Formative … the time you take setting up an assessment more than gets paid back in time not spent grading!
- (Des) I use Angela’s tip of grading the same question at once for all the assessments instead of grading a whole test one at a time. This has really helped get through the work faster since my brain isn’t needing to readjust as many times, essentially with task switch.
- (Erin) Stamps! My high schoolers love them! I can quickly check for completion, we can discuss the assignment, and then when I collect it later if I want to grade it, I know they didn’t just copy it all down during class.
- (Kevin) Ditto to stamps!!! If you are a new teacher — find a veteran teacher to collaborate with or at least talk to about this topic. Finally, good teachers circulate around their room as much as possible. Moving around the room when kids are doing an assignment allows you to keep them on task and assess. Sometimes I take a clipboard with a roster and make notes on who is getting it and who is not. Once you know your kids (which is key!) you know who to check in with early and often. It allows you to give feedback and assess on the fly. When I have bigger classes, it might take two or three classes to get to all of them. But if you know who your struggling students are, or your easily-distracted or the ones who love to disappear — those are the ones you look at first. Your best students are going to check in with you on their own most of the time anyway.
About the Productivity Roundtable participants
Nicole Guzman is a 5th-grade teacher, wife, and mom of five in Provo, Utah. She has taught kindergarten through 5th grades, and her favorite part of teaching is the fun, laughing, and learning with her students. She loves flexible seating, workshop-style instruction, project-based learning, and technology integration. After a year in the 40HTW Club, she has freed up enough time to start sharing her ideas at elevatingelementary.com.
Osa Oyegun is an elementary school teacher who has worked in independent schools for 11 years. After teaching in Turkey, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates for seven years, she returned to the U.S., teaching in Washington, D.C. for two years. She now teaches 1st grade in Manhattan, New York. When not teaching, she likes to read, sing, travel, and host dinner parties for her friends. Osa blogs at www.thegoodeapple.com.
Desirae Nüñez lives near Modesto, California, and is in her fourth year of teaching 4th grade. She enjoys spending time with her husband and kids, playing soccer, traveling, being with friends, and experiencing new things.
Kevin O’Shaughnessy lives in York, Maine and is originally from Buffalo, New York. He began his teaching career at age 39. Kevin has two sons (ages 23 and 21) and has been married to a pediatrician for 26 years. He has spent his entire 16-year career at Wells High School, and currently teaches a required sophomore history course, “The World After 1945” and a senior elective “AP Psychology.” Kevin enjoys yoga, golf, swimming, biking, bowling, and is a big fan of the movie “The Big Lebowski” as you can tell by his photo.
Erin Palazzo is a self-proclaimed bookworm who set her heart on teaching in the 1st grade. For the past 13 years, she has been sharing her love of language in her English classrooms, working with a wide range of student ages and abilities. She completed her Master’s of Education in Curriculum & Instruction and Teacher Leadership through Penn State’s online World Campus. Currently, she teaches Advanced Placement English Language and Composition as well as sophomore English at Shrewsbury High School in Massachusetts. She loves working with her students to help them find their passions, develop their skills in communication, and to provide balance and perspective into their often overbooked and over-stressed lives. When she’s not teaching or reading, Erin loves spending time with her husband, two kids, and family and friends. A lifelong New Englander, she feels lucky to call this beautiful landscape, rich in history and culture, her home.
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