In my five years of teaching higher education, I’ve come to realize that college instructors have the best jobs. The idea that it’s the perfect job, however, is a myth. It’s not all cargo shorts and Birkenstocks. It can be quite stressful.
Between grading essays, creating lessons, working with students, and collaborating in committees, instructors carry some heavy burdens. It’s all part of the job.
The worst part? The Comp Ghetto–an underworld of shadows where green English composition instructors, like me, go to teach a 5/5 load with 20 or more students per class. It’s the deep pit where never-ending ungraded essays gather. Your reward for spending soul-deadening, sleep deprived hours of grading 100 student essays is the next pile of 100 essays. It’s the place where composition instructors pay–some say eternally–the penalty for their crimes from previous lives.
Don’t get me wrong. I love my freshmen students. I love making lesson plans. I love teaching English Composition. But…I absolutely detest grading essays. To give you an idea, I am counting down the days until the next wave of final draft essays hit (which is five days from the day this blog is published).
By the time I grade all these essays, I feel like I’ve finally passed a kidney stone. At the same time, I feel guilty admitting this because I signed up for it. I went through six years of college just so I could do THIS. Guess I shouldn’t really complain, right? That’s why I came up with a list of five strategies to save you days of time each semester. That extra time can be used to plan stronger lessons and remember what your family looks like.
1. Design your most productive atmosphere
If you’re like me, grading is sometimes more physically demanding than mentally. Imagine how bad it is for your body to stay stationary during the act of grading. Yuck! That’s why it’s important to scout out the perfect grading spot to maximize your productivity. For me, that’s not at home.
My first step is finding a bustling–but not too distracting–cafe with a studious ambience. Secondly, a comfortable chair and tall table is essential. The table must be high enough that I don’t hunch over but also wide enough that I can spread out my stuff. Ideally, a plugin should be nearby. Third, I stuff my phone in my laptop bag because nothing is more fatiguing than notification distractions.
Oh yeah, and lastly, order yourself something tasty. Masala chai tea latte, anyone? Below are all the different cafes I found near my campus in China.
2. Start grading ASAP
The hardest step is just getting started, right? For me, that’s so true. It tiresome having to lug home a huge pile of papers, but you’ll feel better and likely have an easier time resuming if you get started right away. Andale! Andale!
One trick that I probably shouldn’t admit, but oh well, is to start with an essay you’re excited to read. Let’s call it “fueling your curiosity” or a “boosting your mood.” The feel-goods you get from reading a well-crafted essay will hopefully carry you farther than starting with an essay that you know doesn’t meet requirements and will crush your soul.
3. Stop tedious habits
Last fall, which was my first semester full-time as a university instructor, I chalked up my grading fatigue to being new. I vowed to do a better job at grading a little bit at a time (i.e. taking 90 essays and grading 12 a day for a week instead of cramming all 90 into a weekend and suffering a cramped neck, no sleep, guilt, etc.).
This semester, I’ve noticed little changes make a huge difference. I stopped my odd habits, like waiting to grade until last minute, becoming the students’ personal editor, or obsessively counting the papers to determine what percentage remains ungraded. All of these detracted from the grading itself and killed my motivation.
To avoid the pitfalls of tedium, stick to the rubric’s big-picture requirements (see below). Rather than edit an entire page, only edit one paragraph. Too much commentary is worse than too little. Perhaps you can split up the large pile of essays by setting aside stacks of ten essays.
4. Rubrics, rubrics, rubrics
I used to work in a Writing Lab and tutor students everyday. During that time, numerous students would come in and complain to me about not receiving feedback from their comp instructor about their writing. A letter grade was given, and that was that. So, these students write four essays over sixteen weeks with no formative or summative feedback from the instructor. There’s no sense in that. At least use a rubric!
I don’t care how you spin it–grading essays is a subjective task. Rubrics, however, not only inform the students of your expectations but enables teachers to grade more systematically and objectively, all while communicating feedback.
Let’s take it a step further. One way to reduce grading fatigue is to offload some of that chore to the students. Require them to submit a dual-entry rubric with their final draft essays. When students identify their issues and strengths, instructors won’t have to describe the problem (as much). A simple 5-point rubric necessitates the use of critical thinking skills to evaluate the quality of their own essay on a few criteria: focus, organization, development, audience, grammar, etc.
5. Reward yourself with breaks
You may have heard about “decision fatigue” as it relates to a study of parole hearings. Researchers discovered that in over 1,000 prisoner cases, the largest factor in whether or not the prisoner was granted parole was the time of the hearing. Those who appeared later in the day were paroled less. Those in the early morning or after a break were more likely to receive parole. In other words, the more decisions you make, the worse you get at weighing the options. When grading essays, decision fatigue creates inconsistencies from the way you graded previous essays.
Consider using both small and big rewards. If the small rewards (like getting on Insta every 10 essays) are too distracting, a bigger reward at the end of your day may help you focus on completion, like ordering seafood from your favorite restaurant, taking a seaside hike with a friend, or exploring a Buddhist temple in the afternoon.
Eventually, if you don’t take control of your grading, grading will take control of you.
It looks a bit like the five stages of grief:
- Denial: “They just turned in their assignment yesterday. It won’t take too long. I’ll give it one more day before I get started.”
- Anger: “What the heck! Why didn’t I start grading sooner? Now I feel handcuffed to my desk. I don’t have time for this!”
- Bargaining: “If only I graded more yesterday. Just twenty more essays, and then I can get on Insta.”
- Depression: “Lord, help me. Why do I even teach? Do students even bother to read my feedback?”
- Acceptance: “I have to finish. It’s only one more pile of essays.”
Multiply this emotional roller coaster by a few essays per course per semester. No wonder so many teachers leave the profession to get their lives back. Don’t let grading be the reason you hate teaching. You can get over this. You have to. Grading is not going away.
Are you an educator? Whether you teach little ones or teach in higher education, I’m curious to know how you deal with grading fatigue. What tricks do you use? Share in the comments below!