Managing homework and grading

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(More advice for newbies. This is for newbies who are getting assigned homework back. The amount of homework that comes back varies considerably from district to district. Please share this post with middle school and high school teachers especially.)

Did you spend the week-end surrounded by stacks of papers? Are student pages covered with your comments? Did you grade endlessly through the World Series? Or maybe even grade in the car while someone else drove? I remember those days.


Here are a few tips for strategically planning homework assignments:

♦ Before making the assignment, ask yourself: Do I want to grade problems 1 through 34? Do my students need to do all 34 problems? Consider assigning the odd or even numbers instead.

♦ Even if your students are assigned all 34 problems — you may believe they need the practice and hopefully that’s your call — consider grading only a subset of those problems. If you do this, I suggest breaking up classes into separate piles. In a class of thirty students, for example, make 5 piles or papers. For the first pile, grade problems one through seven, for the second pile grade problems eight through fifteen, etc. You want to grade all the problems so you can see where the class had difficulty, but you don’t want to grade every single problem. In an ideal universe, you might grade every problem, you and your three clones on the couch beside you, but in the real world 34 times 120 equals 4,080 problems to grade. If you do this nightly, you will eventually burn out. In fact, you may flame out before the year’s over.

If some piles have lower scores due to tougher problems, curve your results.

Language, studies and science students tend to have fewer problems but often more involved problems. Again, don’t grade them all. Look for samples to use. Your goal is to understand where your students need more help by the time you finish grading. You don’t need to look at the entire contents of every paper to figure that out.

♦ Learn to “scan” papers, glancing over them quickly to spot trouble. Grade a few papers completely and carefully. Then scan the rest, making a mark to indicate trouble as you go. Do it fast. Try to set a deadline if that works for you and does not stress you out. Tell yourself that all of 3rd period has to be done in one-half hour, for example.

♦ Don’t sweat the points too much. Who cares if Xavier got a 7 or an 8? In the end, small point differences will average out by the quarter’s end. Give Xavier the higher score and move on.

♦ Identify students who look at the homework and study your corrections. I recommend spending more time on those papers. If Jasmine studies your feedback, taking a few extra minutes on her paper makes sense.

♦ Identify students who are going to look at the final number and just toss the paper. I’d talk to those students to try to get them to take advantage of grading, but some kids only care about the number on top. Frankly, your helpful comments will be mostly wasted on them. Scan through those papers fast and move on.

♦ Ask students where they had trouble before you start grading. At the start of class or when you pick up papers, ask the class which homework problems were hardest. Those are the problems you will want to grade with more care. If the answers seem to be a hopeless mess, that’s where the review session begins.

♦ Don’t be too helpful. (What??!?) I know that may sound wrong, but I believe fewer comments often lead to more learning. If you put nine comments on a page, the most important ones may get lost. Too much feedback and kids tend to shut down or have difficulty sorting out what they need to learn. For single paragraph openers or exit slips, for example, I’d recommend no more than three comments or corrections. Let a few imperfections slide and focus on what most matters. I might look at a paragraph and write, “Remember to capitalize cities!” along with one or two other observations and then let other flaws pass for later. In my experience, one or two exclamation points will be noticed and remembered.

♦ If you know you can’t get through the grading that night, break up grading into small groups and do part of the grading. You want to know where students are struggling. You will also thank yourself come the week-end if you have half that day’s grading done rather than none. A small pile each day is enough to get a feel for how well your lesson went and for the material you may need to review before moving on.

♦ If you are falling behind regularly, consider grading homework in class. Let students grade the homework for you. This provides immediate reinforcement for right and wrong answers. Students benefit from seeing what went wrong the day after they wrote down their answers. If they get feedback three days later, they may not receive nearly as much benefit.

♦ Consider informal grading. Put a check mark. Put a check and a plus. Make one helpful comment. Don’t bother with the gradebook. Just let students know you looked at their work. Not everything needs to be recorded!

I hope this helps, readers. Have a great day!