25 Ways to Make Grading Less Painful

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There's no way around it. No matter how much formative assessment you did, how much feedback you gave early, how aligned or focused your rubric is... you still have to grade it.

Some teachers are actively working to make grading easier. There are infinite articles about grading on TeachHub, Scholastic, and Edutopia, just to name a few. Carol Jago commiserated with us in her book, Papers, Papers, Papers. Secondary Solutions wrote a popular blog post with 10 tips for essay grading.

But on the other hand, other authors in education keep publishing books and articles about "effective" feedback for students that don't address the practical realities of grading and commenting... which only adds to our guilt/indecision about the quantity and types of feedback to give (and thus the amount of time we spend per paper). 

I agree that we can all become more reflective, more efficient, and more accurately responsive to students through improving our grading practices... but these arguments often fail to recognize (much less address) the toll that grading can have on our personal lives in those well-intentioned attempts to be "effective". 

Eventually, what happens looks something like the seven stages of grief
  • Denial ("It won't take that long, so I'll do it later"), 
  • Anger ("Why didn't I start this sooner? I don't have enough time for this"), 
  • Bargaining ("Okay, if I do five more, I can get on Pinterest"), 
  • Depression ("Why do I even do this?"), 
  • and Acceptance ("I have to do this, and it's only one more pile"). 
Multiply that by multiple assignments, per class period, per grade level and course? No wonder so many teachers leave the profession to get their own lives back. 

The relief of being done and passing work back to students is sweet, but even in a well-designed situation, grading can be far more emotionally and physically consuming than some give us credit for (especially as we keep learning how bad sitting is for you). 

And it's also not just essays - it's the worksheets, the example sentences, the reading logs and journals and exit tickets and index cards and... the list goes on. No matter how cute it is, anything you have to take home counts as grading, and it can take longer than you want. 

So while I can't wave a wand to make your grading pile go away (or mine), here are some ideas to make the process a little more bearable.

25 Tips for Grading
I think we can all agree that grading is one of the most disliked aspects of the teaching career field. It's tedious, monotonous, and time-consuming. Therefore, I wrote up this blog post, which shares 25 ways to make grading less painful! Click through and read it - I know you want to!
  • Make students self- and peer-assess first. Getting inside their heads can make your grade decisions more confident.
  • Organize it immediately. I feel a lot better once I've organized (with lists and charts) whose work is on time, late, missing a rubric, etc. I bring home student work alphabetized in binder clips and boxes (pictured).
  • Do >10% the first night you take it home. It's always hardest to just get started. You'll feel better (and have an easier time resuming) if you've already started.
  • Start with one you're excited to see. Get your bias out early, fuel  your curiosity, or feel good about the success of a student (before you start worrying about the ones who aren't there yet).
  • Take them out of alpha order so you can't obsess over which one you're "on" (and how much is left to go). 
  • ... Or stack them up, such as in fives or tens, if you need to be able to visualize progress.
  • Have a drink. I mean water. Remember to hydrate, get up every 45 minutes, and do whatever your body needs. 
  • Get comfortable. Unless I truly need a desk to spread out on, I grade on the couch in a certain position that doesn't kill my back and neck from hunching over. 
  • Race a coworker. My coworker and I have "raced" via text message to finish piles fastest!
  • Find your noise level. Need silence, or background music? Experiment!
  • Do not become their personal editor. ELA teachers especially... Even if you ARE grading for grammar, you're not obligated to point out every error FOR them. Edit just one paragraph, page, or section. Create class norms that will make the amount you give "okay". 
  • Stick to the rubric. Don't nit-pick about other errors or flaws. 
  • Write down what to do differently next year. You won't remember next year what you wanted to do change! Don't forget to reflect on how it went
  • Have a big reward... If the small rewards (like getting on YouTube every 5 pages) are too distracting, a bigger reward at the end may make you focus on completion.
  • ... And small ones for intervals. Sometimes I feel more "balanced" if I pause every 10+ papers to check something, complete a home task, walk the dog...
  • Turn off your phone. This is single-handedly my biggest distraction, so sometimes I surrender it to my hubby until I'm done.
  • Pencil it in, in chunks. I physically write into my calendar what pile I will get done each day, mainly so I can visualize how much there is and prevent underestimating how long it will take. 
  • Set soft and hard deadlines. There's the date I'd LIKE to have them done by, and the one by which they MUST be finished. 
  • Do it "early" in the day. Have a goal to get at least some done before 6pm, so that if you pick it up again later, you've at least started. 
  • Don't be afraid to skip. If you can't emotionally handle looking at a specific student's work, then skip it and come back. You deserve to maintain momentum, and the student deserves your objectivity when you have enough energy to give your feedback. 
  • Get emotional. While reading student writing, I laugh, cry, feel fear, and fight the urge to throw my pen at the wall. Staying "invested" is not only a sign that you care, but you'll be able to talk to students from the heart about their work
  • Keep a notepad handy. A lot of my ideas for procedure, revision steps, scaffolding, feedback, or future activities/assignments come while grading. Don't lose your thoughts!
  • Rethink the assignment for next time. Can you make the rubric smaller? Limit the page count? Add a detail to the directions to make your expectations clearer?
  • Talk to your students about your grading. I try not to whine, but I choose to be honest about how long I spend reading and responding to their work. I think it cuts down on student nagging and humanizes the title and concept of "teacher".
The reflection sheets and checklists I use are available for download here.

Make Grading Easier

(PS - you might also like my followup blog post, "3 Common Myths about Grading, Busted.")

What other ideas do you have? 
Tell me in the comments!


  1. Using Edmodo! I love that I can annotate their papers so that not only the child, but the parent can also see what they did well and what they need to improve on!

    1. I totally agree! I often make vocab or grammar quizzes on Edmodo so that they can grade themselves. Students like the instant feedback anyway :-)

  2. #23 is so true! I make a lesson while grading. Some classes need to work on run-on sentences, others on subject verb agreement.

    I get overwhelmed easily. If I sort out five papers to grade, my goal is to have them done by ___ time. Five a day - big papers will probably be done in a week. I have to make it manageable.

    Of course, I think ELA teachers need an extra prep period...

  3. So much helpful information - I've been at it a long time, but always like to hear from others. One thing I recommend to new teachers is a letter size organizer/expander with pockets - I need 12 pockets for my classes. They sell them at Office Depot - http://www.officedepot.com/a/products/807709/Smead-Step-Index-Organizer-Letter-Size/

  4. 1 - Grade with a friend -- I have a standing "date" with another teacher on Tuesdays and Fridays to grade papers before we go home.

    2 - Stagger assignments -- I try to craft my lessons so that they can either be a traditional writing assignment OR something more creative. I alternate which of my classes are doing essays v. projects so that I don't get stuck with 170 essays about the symbolism in Of Mice and Men. Also, if you're not chained to a pacing guide, you can stagger when major assignments are due. I may have a major assignment to grade every weekend, but I've only got one one or two sections of it rather than five.

    3 - Scaffold & Chunk (sounds like a law firm, doesn't it?) -- I can greatly reduce the number of errors in my students' work by chunking it and giving immediate feedback in class as we go. Frex - If we work on introductions 1-2 days, body and transitions on following days, and then conclusions, the final drafts I get are much stronger than if I'd had them do it all at once through two or three revisions. It gives my kids a chance to really focus on discrete elements of their writing. Also, it means that I only have to look for final changes since I've essentially been grading them all along the way.