How To Grade Writing Assignments

Looking for how to grade writing assignments? I’ll give the best advice I have!

By the end of the school year (or maybe in October? I don’t know), grading student work has taken its toll. Tired teachers want to provide meaningful feedback, but writing (common core! mandates!) assignments require an immense time commitment. High school students write long papers and their details – MLA citing and words cited pages – can create marathon grading sessions. A research paper or speech can take me up to 30 minutes to grade. 25 students per class?

30 X 25 = teacher burnout.

Teachers can get burnt from grading student writing. With these ideas, you can minimize the amount of time you spend grading. #HighSchoolELA #WritingLessons

I don’t have all the answers to grade writing assignments quickly and efficiently, but it is possible to cut back on grading student writing with a few tools. Having a rubric or a checklist before assigning a paper communicates expectations to students, and peer editing teaches many important writing lessons.

These tools hopefully will help you cut back on grading student writing.

1. Checklists.

Every long writing assignment that passes my desk receives a note. A student writes a 3-page paper – how could I not write a few sentences?

What does help me cut back on time is a checklist rubric. Since the checklist is efficient, it can be short and catered to every class. Type up a list of what students need to focus on: topic sentences, complete sentences, stronger transitions, and on. Wherever that particular class needs to improve, make it part of their checklist. Then grade them on that checklist alone, or use the checklist as a starting point, to get a feel for the paper.

The best part about using a checklist is it can change. If students suddenly understand and can apply subject-verb agreement, switch that part of the checklist out. Be sure to highlight this for students to show them how they have grown.

2. Simple points for shorter assignments.

Create a basic point system for short writing assignments. I’m a fan of “out of 10” for paragraph writing or journal responses. (I’ve also used check plus, check, and check minus.) Whatever you decide to use, post the expectations for students to see.

Like the checklists, this point system can change as students progress. It is easy to assign these grades. I have found that using this simple point system does not work well on longer assignments, because students want (and deserve) more feedback.

If your students check grades online, these numbers are fast explanations for them as well.

3. Combination rubrics.

By ‘combination” I mean strict point-based rubrics along with a general, guideline rubric. The first will not have much wiggle-room, but the second one will.

For instance, when grading MLA citation pages, use a rubric that covers details – spacing, font, alphabetical order, correct order, etc. For the rest of the research paper, have a general rubric – focus, support, organization, grammatical concepts, etc. (Tip: for my general rubrics, I like to have space for my notes and feedback to students.)

The latter type will take longer to complete, but you can take into account how students have improved and individual situations. For the first, strict rubric there are fewer ways to adjust points, but with documenting sources there most often is a correct and incorrect way. I use a combination of rubrics to lessen my time grading.

4. Peer editing.

Older students can and should provide meaningful feedback to each other. With intensive and purposeful work, students on both side of the editing activity will learn.

After years of tweaking, I created the interactive peer editing system. This keeps students engaged and switching papers. As students correct their papers, they learn – and my grading is easier too.

Learning how to grade writing assignments fairly and effectively while saving your sanity and social life is a steep learning curve. I honestly can’t say I’m a pro, because I see ELA teachers twenty-five years into the business still exhausted from late night grading sessions. I have improved over the years, and using a variety of rubrics helps me to cut back on grading student writing. What tricks do you use? Better yet – do you have any advice for how to grade writing assignments? I’d love to read about your ideas in the comments.

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  • Mark Pennington

    Nice distinction between the detailed and general essay responses and I like your combination rubric idea. Do you have any examples to share? I assume you refer to analytical rubrics for your “points-based” rubrics? You may want to check out my essay e-comments app detailed in my blog to add line by line comments for some essay response. The app also permits audio responses, which might work nicely for your general comments.

    BTW I assign 10 points per paragraph for my essay strategy worksheets. Brilliant minds think alike! I plan to pin this to a board I’m developing on essay response.

  • Paige

    I had a baby this past summer, and am trying hard to leave school work at school. So this year I have decided that most of my 6th graders’ papers will be shared on the projection screen with them reading aloud, and I will grade them at that time. I have found this holds them more accountable for their effort, and helps some of the lower students see what their higher level peers are doing as writers. It’s very eye opening. I have a few with high anxiety about sharing, so I am easing them into it by allowing them to only share with me first, then maybe a small group of students, and eventually to the whole class by later in the year.

    • (author)

      I think this could work sometimes, but are you allowed to share grades with other students? Every place that I’ve taught, administrators stress that we cannot show student grades because they are legally student records.

      I don’t know state by state laws, but I wanted to mention that in case that would affect you. You could probably do it anonymously though.

      Agreed, though. Grading is quite time consuming.

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