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5 ways to cut your grading time in half

(and make your students better writers in the process)

Let's say you spend three minutes per essay grading 100 essays (and as English teachers we know three minutes would be a miracle). That's 300 minutes. That's FIVE hours of your life.

Grading essays is the most daunting task for many educators. It is timely. It requires concentration. It requires analysis. Luckily, there is hope. Here are five tried and true methods that will help save you grading time... and maybe a little sanity:

1. Pick a Paragraph.

Depending on the genre of writing, you will most likely always have to grade the introductory and closing paragraphs of your students' writing. Body paragraphs, however, are often structured in similar ways to each other. Ask your students to choose their strongest body paragraph and highlight or label it before turning in their papers. When you grade, focus on the intro, the single body paragraph your student chose, and the conclusion.

Not only will you cut out some grading time, students will be examining and reflecting on their writing. Metacognitive learning is one of the most powerful tools in education. Pick a paragraph is an easy way to add metacognitive skills to the writing process.

2. Create a numbered list of frequent feedback.

Numbered feedback lists are an ELA teacher’s best friend. I wrote a detailed post about this here. Basically, create a numbered list of the feedback you leave for students most often. Categorize the list into different elements of writing: comma rules, punctuation, paragraphing, style, etc.

After fine-tuning your numbered list, print copies for your students and keep a copy with you as you grade (or share digitally). Instead of leaving detailed feedback, leave numbers. For example, if feedback number 6 on your list is “Add a comma after an introductory phrase,” simply leave the number six anytime a student leaves out a comma after an introductory phrase. No need to leave detailed feedback. The numbers do the work for you!

If you have Google Classroom, you can go a step further and add your numbered comment list to the Comment Bank. When you add a comment and type in a number, the comment will magically pop up based on Google Classroom’s word prediction feature.

Either way, when you return student writing with the numbered feedback, students can use the feedback list to identify, fix, and track their errors with tally marks or by color coding their feedback list (if your list is digital, have your students color an error they make once green, twice, yellow, and three times or more red). Your students are tracking their own data AND improving as writers at the same time.

On subsequent writing pieces, students can review the feedback list and their past errors during the editing process and work to identify and fix mistakes BEFORE handing in their work. They’re learning from their mistakes and growing as writers, and you are saving massive amounts of time leaving detailed feedback.

You can check out my premade list of 58 comments here.

3. Maximize writing process time and teacher conferencing.

Students produce better writing when they have adequate class time to work through the writing process. The writing process also helps speed up grading. Here’s how:

Throughout the drafting process, try to work with as many students as possible reviewing work and giving quick feedback. Workshops should consist of:

  • 5-10 minute mini lesson on one aspect of writing (writing intros, blending quotes, the claim and counterclaim, expanding ideas, quote analysis, writing the conclusion, etc.)

  • Workshop time: As students apply the lesson, circulate through as many essays as possible giving feedback on the skill being practiced. The more you have your eyes on student writing during the process, the more familiar you are with the strengths of the writing when it’s submitted. The more polished the writing, the easier to grade!

  • 5 minute exit ticket or sharing of model writing. For an exit ticket, students can submit a demonstration of the skill that was being practiced. You can use exemplars as models for students to start the next class. OR you might choose to share exemplars at the end of class to help solidify and clarify expectations.

Once drafts are complete, use timed revision stations to facilitate the revision process. I typically set up six revision stations that my students visit over the course of two days. Students spend ten minutes at each station, which includes a simple, active checklist. By active, I mean the check list is written with tasks like: Highlight the hook in your writing vs. Do you have a hook in your writing? Every item on revision checklists forces students to actively engage with their writing so they don’t assume they have an element when really they don’t.

By taking time to revise their writing, students’ writing will have less errors and take less time to grade and provide feedback. Additionally, one station will be the most important of all: the teacher conference.

At the teacher conference station, focus on one aspect of writing to keep the conference timely (under 5 minutes). For example, you might choose to focus on the introduction or the blending of quotes in body paragraphs. Regardless, getting your eyes on as many student papers as possible, becoming familiar with their strengths and giving them feedback ahead of grading, will save you time later. You will be familiar with the writing, quickly recognize the writing that has reached mastery, and have stronger writing to grade based on your prior feedback. Teacher conferencing during revision stations is a win-win for all. I have a blog post here with more ideas for fast teacher conferences.

4. Set grading goals.

We regularly tell our students to set goals and to write them down because goals work. Set realistic grading goals for yourself complete with rewards. I highly recommend setting goals that involve keeping your grading at school and minimizing the work you bring home. I did this last week with my students’ argument essays. My goal was to grade one class period per day. In order to accomplish my goal, I cut out side conversations with colleagues that sometimes ate up my time and ate my lunch at my desk. Was it hard? Yes, but I didn’t take a single essay home and I didn’t have the awful feeling that essays were hanging over my head--a constant and never-ending to-do list.

Here are some sample grading goals you might use:

  • I will grade one class period each day.

  • I will grade x amount of essays each day

  • I will use my planning period to grade x amount of papers each day this week.

After you meet your goal each day, reward yourself with a coffee or chocolate or a quick walk around the school building (woohoo!). Take pride in your accomplishments!

5. Use last edits for grading revisions.

This tip applies if you allow your students revisions AFTER you’ve graded writing for a first time. For example, after you return writing and students apply your feedback, they turn in their essay to share their improvements and earn a higher grade (they also learn so much in the process!).

Last edits is a tool specific to Google. In a Google Doc for example, last edits appear above the toolbar like this:

When you click on last edits, you will be able to see the revisions the student has made since you last provided feedback. If you notice minimal revisions, let the student know that more significant corrections are necessary in order to earn a higher score. If you notice significant revision, you can look at just the changes and quickly see elements of writing the student improved. Using last edits allows you to grade revisions in 1-2 minutes.


If we can make grading student writing a less overwhelming process, hopefully we can focus on the beauty of being a part of the magic. As ELA teachers, we have the privilege of getting to know our students through their work. Let's enjoy it... without giving up too many hours of our lives!

Have you used any techniques or do you have other techniques that have helped you? Share in the comments. We love hearing from you!

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