Skip to content

Help Grading Essays Quickly

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

Recently, one of the teachers on our Facebook page asked the age-old question “How do y’all deal with grading papers?” It’s hard to get through even two-page papers quickly when you have 80 of them. Or 100. Or 140.

It’s never going to be a walk on the beach, but it can get easier, especially with a little advice from experienced middle and high school teachers. The trick is to change your thinking about what it means to grade an essay. Instead of asking “What errors can I mark in this essay?” ask “What comments will help this student?” Here are seven of our favorite tips.

1. Focus, focus, focus.

Too often we copyedit papers instead of grading them. We catch every grammar mistake and rewrite sentences in the margins as if we were preparing a manuscript for publication. Instead, try focusing in on a few skills you are currently teaching—such as introducing quotations, providing evidence or using punctuation correctly, and ignore the rest. This will help you as well as help your students as they are much more likely to retain the information.

2. Use a rubric.

Use a rubric with multiple focus areas, advises teacher Rikayah Phillips. It makes grading go much faster. Once you’ve established what proficient looks like, you should be able to identify it quickly in student work. If your rubric is carefully written, you will not have to write comments on each paper. Just circle or highlight the areas of the rubric that apply to the assignment, staple the rubric to the assignment and you’re done.

3. Offer students a variety of assignments.

OK, technically giving students a choice between several writing assignments doesn’t save grading time, but it does reduce the monotony when you have a thick stack of papers to grade. Giving students’ more choice just might raise the quality of their writing as well.

SOURCE: Polka Dot Lesson Plans

4. Share the wealth!

Teacher Brennan Tanner suggests occasionally substituting peer review feedback for a formal grade: “Students create the rubric. They sit in small groups and present or read one another’s papers and comment. I really like this as it helps to develop critical thinking and constructive commentary. By having students establish their own criteria for success, they actually end up being more rigorous than I am the majority of the time.”


5. Have students submit papers electronically.

Yes, some of you are groaning at the mere thought. This solution doesn’t work for everyone. But some teachers definitely find using the comment function is much faster than writing comments by hand. Revisions can also be easier to track when you can see your comments and the student’s response all in the same document.

Plus, you may find it easier to grade papers on a rolling basis if they come rolling into your inbox. Click on the image below to learn how one teacher collects and grades using Google Forms.

SOURCE: Andrew Cullison

6. Three strikes and you’re out!

Your number may vary. Teacher Jacky Boyd writes: “I have a new rule to stop reading after a certain type of mistake is made a certain number of times. For example, three citation errors and I stop and hand it back for the student to fix.” Do this often enough and you may just find papers come in with fewer grammatical errors overall.

7. Take it one step at a time.

A final strategy is to take your larger writing piece and break it into smaller assignments, e.g., 1) write a claim, 2) provide supporting evidence, 3) write a conclusion. Grading these small chunks only takes a few seconds of your time, and by the time students compile their final essay, the piece will be much more polished and ready to shine.

Get  more great tips in free samples of e-books from ASCD here.