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Grading Essays

12 Smart Ideas To Grade Essays Faster

by Todd Finley

Does grading a stack of papers feel like shoveling smoke for a weekend? Like the payoff does not equal your effort?

Over the years, I’ve learned strategies to reduce my essay grading time and mental hangover without sacrificing student accountability and the benefits of feedback.

Some of the following strategies will save you days of time every semester. But even if they only save you minutes, that extra time can be used to plan better lessons and remember what your family looks like.

All the recommended tips involve essays submitted on paper. I realize that this is the 21st century, but responding to paper is faster than negotiating digital essays in the cloud.

See also How To Save Time Teaching With Technology

12 Ways To Significantly Shorten Essay Grading Time

1. Try Russian Roulette Grading

Students need vast amounts of composing time to develop writing chops, but that needn’t add extra grading to your schedule. Direct students to compose an answer to the daily journal question for the first 10 minutes of every class. On Friday, provide students time to revise their entries.

Then use a spinner (here’s one example) at the end of class to publically select which journal of the day, out of those written during the previous week, will be scored. If the wheel selects Wednesday, have students bookmark Wednesday’s page in their journal so you can locate that entry quickly, read it, then provide commentary and a quality score.

Enter completion point for the other entries without reading them. Learners will accept this system as long as you set expectations about the process in advance.

2. Conduct Formative Assessment Early

Kymberly Fergusson collects and responds quickly to sloppy copy drafts “to prevent plagiarism, and catch problems or misunderstandings early…” If a large percentage of students fundamentally misunderstand your assignment, take time to reteach the rhetorical context using a tool like SOAPSTone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose, Subject, Tone).

3. Attach a Tracking Sheet

When I grade kids’ drafts, I write one or two of the biggest recurring issues on a yellow cardstock tracking sheet that learners staple to every essay. Heavy cardstock has a better chance of surviving the semester and colored paper is hard to misplace.

Students know that if they make the same mistake for two or more drafts, the scores on their papers lower significantly and we schedule a writing conference to discuss the issue. If a number of students make the same mistake, I teach a mini-lesson on the topic to the entire class.

Writer’s Tracking Sheet Example
Writer: Jane Doe

Assignment #1 – Argumentative Essay (10/22/17)

  • Lacking support for claim
  • Unconventional comma

Assignment #2 – Multi-Genre Research Paper Rough Draft (11/2/17)

Assignment #3 – Multi-Genre Research Paper Final Draft (11/7/17)

  • Dangling modifiers
  • Unfocused (2)

The “Writer’s Tracking Sheet” documents progress on heavy yellow cardstock attached to each essay.

4. Annotate with Check Marks

Instead of copy-editing an essay, write check marks in the margins to point out where errors are located. A check mark is faster to write than “comma splice” and doesn’t contribute to learned helplessness. Ask students to diagnose the error and make changes before submitting a final draft.

If a learner doesn’t know how to make changes to her composition, I keep several copies of Barbara Fine Clouse’s A Troubleshooting Guide for Writers: Strategies & Process (3rd Edition/affiliate link) in the classroom. Clouse offers 240 specific writing strategies to address common higher and lower order writing concerns.

For example, she provides a list of 24 ‘warning words’ (after, although, as, as if, as long as, etc.) to identify fragments and several strategies for correcting the error.

See also 7 Time-Saving Strategies For Teachers That Put Students First

5. Don’t Copy-Edit an Entire Paper

Too much commentary is worse than too little.

Most students don’t possess the bandwidth to internalize an intensively edited paper, and become overwhelmed. So I don’t waste time marking up every sentence like I’m editing an early draft of the Magna Carta. Mark up one paragraph as a model, and then have students edit the rest.

6. Direct Students to Scan their Own Essays with the SAS Writing Reviser

Instead of assuming the job of identifying essay problems, teachers can now offload some of that chore to technology.

The SAS Writing Reviser, a free Google Docs add-on, is crazy-useful! It provides feedback on a couple dozen sentence issues: misplaced modifiers, pronoun/antecedents, weak and hidden verbs, etc. Thus, writers can independently locate and edit concrete grammatical and syntactical issues before you set eyes on their work.

7. Take Baby Steps

Dana Truby recommends that teachers occasionally chunk essay assignments into smaller parts by asking writers to “1) write a claim, 2) provide supporting evidence, 3) write a conclusion.”

This strategy, says Truby, saves time and results in better essays.

Lightning Round! Short and Mighty Tips for Reducing Grading Time

8. Write One Letter for the Whole Class

List common strengths and weaknesses while scanning papers. Then write the entire class an essay evaluation letter and give learners a chance to revise accordingly.

9. Grade with a Timer

Think efficiency…Identify a maximum time to spend on each essay, say 3-minutes per page, so you don’t linger too long on any one paper. To increase your focus, breathe deeply and perform 5-10 squats after completing 3 papers.

10. Grade with a Checklist

Point-based holistic rubrics force instructors to make hundreds of numerical decisions about multiple essay traits and prolong the scoring process. Let’s see, is his ‘focus’ worth 8 points or 9? Hmmmm. . . Reduce decision fatigue; replace your number-based rubric with a checklist.

11. Hold Revising Conferences

For papers that are plagued with errors, arrange for a short conference instead of writing a long commentary. If multiple writers are struggling with a similar issue, gather them for a group conference.

12. Ask for a Writer’s Memo

Require students to draft and submit a writer’s memo or dual-entry rubric with their essays. When students identify their issues and strengths, you don’t have to describe the problem for them.

Finally, when introducing the writing assignment, slow down! Methodically co-construct the essay rubric with your class. Analyze strong and weak essays written by previous students. Identify how to overcome common obstacles.

Show a sizzle reel of outstanding titles and sentences from previous students’ work, accompanied by the soaring “Somos Novios,” then challenge students to pick up a pen and write like heroes pushing mountains into the sea! Providing an hour of guidance and inspiration when an essay is assigned can reduce common errors and response time later.

This strategy also forestalls the agony of reading half-hearted essays all weekend.

12 Ways To Significantly Shorten Essay Grading Time

Guidelines for Grading An Essay


This exercise intends to take the mystery out of grading papers.  It is true that many teachers and professors have their own “style” of grading.  But all follow some general rules of thumb when they grade your papers. 


A Good Essay

Every essay must contain three essential elements.  First, the essay must provide a thesis statement (in the introductory paragraph).  The thesis statement must encapsulate the main argument for the paper.  It must be clear and coherent, and it must answer the question that the professor has put forth to the class.  Second, the essay must offer supporting evidence.  The writer must provide the supporting evidence in paragraph (not “bullet” or list) form.  Each paragraph must contain evidence that supports one idea or concept that proves the thesis statement.  The writer must provide citations (in footnote, endnote, or paranthetical form) for all evidence presented.  Third, every essay must follow basic rules of format and grammar.  Every paper must contain a beginning (introductory paragraph), a middle (several supporting paragraphs that comprise the body of the paper), and an end (concluding paragraph).  Grammar is vital for essay composition. Sentence fragments, misspellings, and improper punctuation denote a carelessly-written and poorly-conceived paper.


Here is an outline for the paragraph above:


A Good Essay

 A.     Topic Sentence“Every essay must contain three essential elements.”

This is the main concept of the paragraph.


B.     Thesis Statement

  1. clear and coherent
  2. answers the question


C.     Supporting Evidence

  1. paragraph form
  2. evidence supports one concept that helps prove the thesis statement
  3. includes citations


D.     Paper Format and Grammar

  1. paper includes a beginning, middle, and end
  2. Proper utilization of grammar, including punctuation, spelling, subject and verb usage.


Now you must play the part of the professor.  Here is a standard guideline, adapted from several dependable sources (see footnote on previous page), that you must follow as you grade a fellow student’s paper. 


Take a record of each item missing, and subtract the total number of points from 100 (a perfect score).  Not all professors grade papers by deducting points in this fashion.  But for classroom purposes, we will assign point values.  I have devised these point values to show you the relative importance of the different elements of essay-writing.


Grading an Essay

 A.     Identify the Thesis Statement.  Does this paper have a thesis statement?  Does that thesis statement answer the question put forth in class by the professor?  Is the thesis statement clear?  Do you understand it?

No thesis statement:  -15

Thesis statement unrelated to question:  -10


B.     Supporting Evidence.  Examine each paragraph for the information below. 

  1. Identify the topic sentence for each paragraph.  This topic sentence (usually the first or second sentence of the paragraph) should resemble a mini-thesis statement.  It should contain one idea or concept.  The rest of the paragraph must present the evidence that proves that topic sentence (one idea or concept.) Does each paragraph have a topic sentence?  If not, -5 for each paragraph.


  1. Does each paragraph contain just one idea or concept? –5 for each paragraph that does not.


  1. Does this author use evidence to support his/her argument (thesis statement)?  -5 for each paragraph that lacks evidence.


  1. Has the author provided citations for his/her evidence?  -3 for each supporting paragraph that lacks a citation.


C.     Examine the paper’s format and grammar. 

  1. Does this paper have a beginning (introduction), a middle (body), and an end (conclusion)?  If it does not have all three of these, -10


  1. Examine grammar.  Circle every violation.  –2 for every single violation. If you find more than 5 violations, -15.

a.       Does this paper have proper punctuation?

b.      Are words spelled correctly?

c.       Does the author provide full and complete sentences?  There should be no sentence fragments or run-on sentences. 

d.      Does this paper have consistent verb tense, voice, and third-person usage?

e.       Are proper nouns capitalized?


At last, you must recommend a grade for this paper.  On your notecard, write a one or two sentence statement that explains this paper’s argument. If this paper is so poorly organized, conceived, and written that you are unable to determine the main idea presented here by this author, then you must assign, automatically, a failing grade (F).


Otherwise, write your statement.  Then, total the points and subtract from 100.  Write this number on the note card, and then paper clip the note card to the paper.  This is your recommended grade.  Please include your name on the note card.  Do not write your name on your fellow student’s paper.


Explanation of writing symbols on marked papers



awk      -- awkward:  sentence is clumsy, difficult to read and comprehend


frag       – sentence fragment


w/c        – word choice doesn’t express what you seem to mean


      -- paragraph; or, you need to insert new paragraph


sp          -- spelling error


cs          -- comma splice


ro          -- run-on sentence (2 independent clauses in 1 sentence without punctuation or conjunction)


rep.       – repetitive


?           -- in margin means passage is confusing or obscure; over word or phrase means I don’t                       understand its meaning.


p.                  – punctuation error


agr.      --  agreement.  Form of pronoun doesn’t agree with antecedent; verb form doesn’t agree with subject


vf         -- incorrect verb form


-- capitalize


-- join


-- strike out


-- insert

For more information on writing essays, see Peter Charles Hoffer and William B. Stueck, Reading and Writing American History:  An Introduction to the Historian’s Craft; and William Strunk and E. B. White, Elements of Style.  Other resources for writers include The Chicago Manual of Style : The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition); Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert Malcolm Gay, Words Into Type; and Kate L. Turabian, Student’s Guide for Writing College Papers.



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