help! i’m way behind on responding to student essays

I have a crazy number of service obligations this semester. The good news is that I’m making a difference on my campus and in my community. The bad news is that I’m way behind on responding to student assignments. I have many papers waiting for me to assess, mark, and return to students.

I could use your advice.

There are several goals to take into account:

  1. Assigning a grade.
  2. Letting students know how they’re doing in the class.
  3. Providing feedback that identifies strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Providing feedback that will focus their efforts in future papers.
  5. Maintaining goodwill with students, assuring them I’m concerned about their learning.

I want to be able to accomplish all of those things, but I have so many other responsibilities pressing down on me right now–including a third-year review portfolio to create and a conference presentation to write–that it’s difficult to imagine how I’ll do these things in a timely fashion.

What would you do in such a situation?

  1. Would you just buckle down and grade non-stop until you were done?
  2. Would you focus on evaluation, assign a grade, and minimize comments, offering (or requiring) to meet 1-on-1 for discussion?
  3. Would you give them minimal, but directive comments and give them the chance to revise?
  4. Would you offer opportunities for extra credit to make up for the lack of information about student progress?

Maybe I’m overthinking this, but what would you do if you were in my situation?

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4 thoughts on “help! i’m way behind on responding to student essays

  1. In the semester after the kids were born, I had a backlog of assignments, that went two-deep in the classes I was teaching. So I took a weekend (my mom came into town to help Ann with the babies), went to the office and graded. Here’s how I streamlined:

    First, I put no margin comments on the papers–I have become disenchanted generally with the payoff of margin comments in comparison to the effort they required. But in this case in particular, I only marked up a single paragraph, and only when surface errors were a problem.

    Second, since I had two papers from each student at midterm, I typed a memo that offered a short paragraph of specific feedback for each assignment, and an overall assessment of trends I saw. This helped them see their work from a global view, and allowed me to treat it more efficiently.

    Finally, I read three students’ worth of essays at a clip (often while walking, to keep the distractions to a minimum), and then came back to the computer and typed up all three memos at one time. This was MUCH more efficient, for whatever reason, than full grading one at a time. This method ended up covering about 3 students in an hour, which ended up being 6 papers in an hour: far more more time efficient than my typical 30-45 minutes per paper.

  2. I think that I would go with numbers 2 or 3. Read their work. Assign a grade. Write some directive comments, but don’t make too many marks (if you can resist) on the actual papers.

    Giving students the opportunity to revise is one of the most important things we can do, in my opinion, because it helps them learn something about the process of writing. Otherwise, they don’t get the chance to apply specifically our advice. Sure, they might think about the advice when writing the next assignment. But the difference between the two assignments will frequently make this application difficult.

  3. 1 and 3, but then I allow revision on many of the major projects anyway. Most students choose not to revise where I am. I believe in revision anyway and think that is where students learn. Conferences are then optional.

  4. Like Ryan, in times of crisis I tend to only mark 1 paragraph closely, and then focus on a terminal comment. Like Nels, I tend to give the opportunity for revision, which most students don’t take.

    I know of no good trick, though, that would magically make it better than the bad job it is. (Though it’s nice when the students see you have similar problems!)

    I do also tend to go in for option 4 a lot, so that students aren’t unduly punished for my own organizational challenges. The problem is that this can lead from bad to worse, unless you really do clear the accumulated papers. Otherwise you have unanticipated extra credit material coming in while you’re still trying to clear the backlog. (Or, what I call, November and April.)

    Good luck!

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