For educators, grading can be the dreariest part of the teaching gig. Grading doesn’t feel like what we signed up to do when we decided to teach. So much time outside the classroom spent on paperwork. By ourselves. With piles of paper.
Assessments, too, can feel overwhelming with all-afternoon, higher education “grading pizza parties,” or in other cases, giving up a weekend to pore over exams, quizzes, or essays. With those piles of paper. And our red / purple / green pens.
But as we know, assessment is a significant part of the pedagogical landscape. Grading isn’t just an evaluation, but a means for communication via feedback, a way to motivate our students, as well as a demarcation line between learning milestones. In higher education, assessments often account for at least 50% of the final course grade, which puts pressure on the instructor to grade thoughtfully. Add to that a responsibility to be fair and impartial… and we educators have got quite a challenge on our hands.
Instructors worldwide know that when grading fatigue hits, it can be difficult to remain unbiased. A tired teacher makes for a biased grader--and we all know what it means to be “Teacher Tired.” Couple that with the fact that alas, we educators might have favorites, according to this Secret Teacher; consequently, students with a better relationship with the instructor might end up with a slightly more favorable score.
Bias is real; not only can it inform our mindset while grading, but it can also inform the grades we actually give our students.
So, how can we mitigate bias? We can do things like:
- Mindfully grade the assignments of our secretly favorite students last and not first.
- Make grading more efficient by un-stapling (or literally cutting stapled corners off of) student exams and grading the same question for all students before going on to the next question (as opposed to grading one complete exam after another).
- Keep a spreadsheet of the test questions and data on student errors so as to inform ourselves of exam efficacy and to track bias.
BUT it doesn’t resolve the root cause of bias in grading and making sure we’re doing the best job with feedback.
Here’s the thing: in order to better mitigate bias and to uphold effective feedback, we must tend to our own well-being during grading. Teaching is depleting, so it’s only when we rejuvenate ourselves that we can ensure we are alert, engaged, and fair. And in doing so, we protect the integrity of our classrooms.
The best strategy against bias is to engage in self-care.
So--while cleaning the whole house may not help you progress through the stack of papers--taking a break from grading ultimately benefits both you and your students. Here are nine other ways you can prioritize self-care in order to grade fairly:
- Grade during the part of the day when you're most bright-eyed and clear-headed, whether it’s night-time or first thing in the morning.
- Grade in small batches of assignments/exams, possibly divided by muffin/scone or cookie/biscuit breaks.
- Grade with a timer so as to not spend more time on one particular paper or exam than another.
- Grade with the top 1-3 priority items for feedback; students might be discouraged by an exam or paper filled with teacher marks, so help them prioritize by narrowing the focus. It’s good for your well-being and efficacy, too.
- Use technology, like Word’s track changes, rubrics and Quickmarks in Feedback Studio to enable writing, or Gradescope for STEM assessment.
- Respect your own personal boundaries; if your bedtime is 10 pm, step away from the essays or exams and give yourself sleep.
- When you are not teaching or not grading--truly step back from the work and immerse yourself in something that is personally fulfilling.
- Allow for drafts and engage peer review so students can develop self-reliance while relieving you of time spent on assessment.
- Aim for leaner and fewer assignments that target knowledge instead of weekly busywork.
Assessment is important. In fact, it’s a way through which we understand where our students are in the learning process and a way for students to receive feedback and a roadmap for learning. But it’s also important to safeguard teacher wellbeing so we ourselves can be the best teachers we can be. We hope this post helps you on your journey.