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Faculty Time-savers: Papers

Assigning student written projects is one of the most effective learning tools that we have, since it develops skills in writing and analysis, as well as requiring higher orders of learning. It can also one of the most time-consuming aspects of college teaching, especially if it is done effectively.  Here we try to give some tips for assigning written work while still having a life of outside of grading papers.  Also see our similar discussion of grading tests. Many of the hints given below are amplified in other sections of the website.  Here we try to organize a lot of different ideas in terms of time-saving. There are three main areas to think about here:


  • What to do before students write that might save you some time later.

  • Developing writing assignments that take less time to grade.

  • Time-saving ways to comment on writing.


A note on dysfunctional writing instruction.  Before we start we need to isolate a serious problem in the way most students are taught to write. Here we are talking about the good students, not the ones who can't write at all. For their whole life they have been writing for someone (their teacher) who knows more about the subject than they do. The main reason they have been asked to write is not make any specific point (because the teacher already knows more than they do), but to prove to the teacher that they know how to write. As a result the teacher always wants them to write a longer essay than they really want to write, so they have been trained to pad their writing with extra words. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of how they will be expected to write in any other context, where they will find severe length limits, where they will always be writing to make a point, and where they will have to fight to make their essays shorter.  Sometimes we can both combat this poor training and make our own lives easier. So some of the ideas below have students working in non-traditional formats that teach new skills but are less time consuming to evaluate.  


Before students write:  There are a number of steps you can take before students start writing that can save you time later.

  • Rubrics. If you are able to specify very clearly how you will grade the paper after it is done, the task of grading the paper will be much easier, since often all you will need to do is to refer to the rubrics.

  • Teaching students to identify good work. Typically we teach writing by asking students to give us some writing and then correcting their errors. But it is often more efficient to help students understand good writing before they write. For example, before doing a first paper, you can do an exercise where students work in groups to evaluate model papers against the rubric that will be used to evaluate their paper.  Some of the model papers are good, others are weaker.  Often students have trouble writing a good paper because they don't know what a good paper looks like. The idea here is to help students learn to recognize a good paper before they try to write one of their own, which can then save you time in explaining what went wrong with their paper.  

  • Pre-writing. We find that a ten minute conference before the student writes is sometimes more efficient than a twenty minute conference after a student has already written a paper.  Some faculty ask students to develop a thesis statement with a preliminary outline, and some of the evidence that will be used in the paper and present these to the instructor before actually writing the paper. A one page thesis statement can be evaluated much more quickly than a paper (perhaps in a ten-minute conference), again which produce a better final product. 

  • Mind-mapping software. Another approach is to have students use mind-mapping software and to bring in a map of the paper before they start writing it. 


What students write: changing the format and the audience. It is useful for students to learn how to write a standard philosophy essay, which is, in effect, based on what a professional philosophy paper might look like.  Such a paper will be a prose essay directed toward a sophisticated audience. However, most of our intro students will never have to write such a paper in any other context. There are also other possible formats that may be used to supplement traditional philosophy skills. 


  • Informal Writing: Blogs and Discussion Boards.  Some faculty members find that informal writing about course topics translates into better formal writing.  One idea is to have students participate in electronic discussions about course topics. Here again, it is necessary to have clear rubrics about what is expected, but this approach can generate a lot of student writing. It is also very easy to grade. While the instructor should be part of the conversation, the instructor does not have to grade individual comments. Instead the instructor evaluates whether the student has participated in the conversation in terms of quantity and quality. 

  • Changing the Audience. Some faculty members have experimented with having students develop posters (as they do in the sciences), websites, or PowerPoint presentations. Here, students are not writing for their teacher but for a public audience. The focus is on making the ideas simpler and clearer, and the writing must be short, often using phrases. The Japanese Pecha Kucha format is especially demanding for students, and, again, not very time consuming for the faculty member.

  • Group Projects. Group projects are tricky to organize, but we have tips for dealing with some of the familiar problems. Let's suppose that three students are collaborating on a poster about an article that they read for the class. This is not a simple task, and will involve some fairly detailed understanding of the article. But it is much easier to grade a poster than it is to grade three student essays and, indeed, the students might have learned something new from doing this kind of task.  Saving time on giving feedback. Here are some ideas for being more efficient in giving feedback.


Time-Saving Marking Methods


  • Don't spend a lot of time fixing grammatical errors. Students don't learn much from seeing page after page of red marks on grammatical errors. Some writing gurus recommend just talking about grammatical errors on the first page, and then say that the rest of the paper also has problems.

  • Don't write in the margins. Some faculty avoid this by asking the students to submit the papers with line-numbers (a simple option in Word). Instead of writing on the paper, send the student an e-mail with written comments referring to the line numbers. Alternatively, students can submit an electronic form of the paper either as a pdf file or as a word file, and the instructor can embed comments in the student's paper.  Most people find that it is faster to type comments than to write them by hand. See the sample for details. There are some great iPad apps for marking up pdf files (e.g. iAnnotate or GoodReader).  

  • Don't put a grade on the paper itself. If you have ever watched students pick their papers up, often they look at the grade rather than the comments. Our practice is to send the comments to students by e-mail as we finish grading each paper (on the theory that the sooner the student receives the feedback, the more helpful it will be). Then when all the papers are graded, we release the grades on the classroom management software.  The theory is that students read the comments more carefully if they are trying to figure out how well they did.

  • Don't grade everything.  In some ways it is the practice of writing that helps students improve, rather than our specific comments. So not all written work needs to be formally evaluated. Some people do random grading. In a large class, students might be required to submit weekly reaction papers, but in some weeks (selected randomly) the faculty member does not grade the work. Students can also do in-class ungraded writing. On the one hand, this breaks up a lecture and causes students to synthesize what is being said, but also gives them practice in writing. The instructor can collect and review them without giving individual feedback. There are many different examples of these short written assignments.

  • Peer instruction.  Students can give each other feedback on drafts of papers. Again, this requires some structure but can be effective.



Author: John Immerwahr
Update: November 30, 2015 (E. Tarver)

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