Many times I have heard fellow teachers say things like, "if I could just teach and not grade", "my whole weekend was spent grading papers", or "I wish I could hire somebody to do all my grading for me!" It is true that stacks of papers are an inevitable part of teaching at any grade and any level, but as Ron Ritchhart states in his book Creating Cultures of Thinking: The Eight Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, "Taking a stack of papers home to read through and mark is rarely an energizing task for any teacher" (p. 94). Amen to that!
Last year, I had four sections of one particular course. Every time I gave a test, I had about 120 tests to grade. If you figure about 15 minutes per test, that is 1800 minutes, which is 30 hours of grading, and that was per chapter. Furthermore, I teach six sections and this only accounted for four of the sections. What about the other two? I knew, and accepted, that grading would have to be done at home, but I simply didn't have time to do all the necessary grading and have the time to plan student-centered, collaborative, thought provoking lessons that I knew were so necessary for an effective math classroom.
So what was it going to be, grading or planning? Could it be both? One answer may lie in a re-allocation of time during the school day. Ritchhart mentions a teacher named Nathan that meets weekly with each of his grade 12 students to give feedback on their writing. Nathan sets up a meeting schedule and each student sits with him and they have a discussion about their paper. He gets to know his students better, is able to establish a rapport with them during these sessions, and is sure that the students receive the feedback (as compared to written feedback where Nathan wasn't sure if students read the feedback or not). When I read this, I thought 'Why couldn't I do this for math tests? Nathan did this for literature, why not Math?'
I put this into action for the third unit test of the year. I built a schedule of 10-minute time slots using signupgenius.com, based on the days and times that I was available. For some of the days, I set up three time slots for the morning, two during lunch time, and three after school. Other days, I didn't have any in the morning, but scheduled three during lunch, two during my prep, and three after school. The time slot allotment really depended on my schedule. Then, I sent a link to the students for the signupgenius.com page. After the students had a few days to sign up, I pulled the tests according to the schedule and had them ready to go. I also made sure that my key was written and that I had two copies of it, one for me and one for the student.
Once the students started showing up for their assigned times, I would give them one of the copies of the key to look at and I would go through the test and score it while they looked at the key. We would talk as I graded and I would give specific feedback on each problem and they would also ask questions about their test and about the material. The session really gave us a chance to talk about what their strengths and weaknesses were on the material, mistakes they made on the test, best approaches to fixing them, how they did on the home thinking that was assigned during the unit, as well as anything else that helped them in their journey through the chapter.
Here is one session that I happened to jot down:
Me: 'Hi. Are you ready?!?!?!'
Student: 'I'm a bit nervous'
Me: 'Well, I can understand, but everything's going to be ok!'
<I start grading the first couple problems>
Me: 'Oh, I like your method here for solving this. I haven't seen this used much.'
Student: 'Thanks. It made more sense to me to do it that way. My friends don't like it, but I do.'
<I grade another problem and the student loses all but 1 pt.>
Student: 'I didn't really have time to study that one. I know you said to look at those types, but I
just didn't have time'
Me: 'That's understandable. It happens. No worries!'
<We finish the grading of the test>
Me: 'What do you think?'
Student: 'I think I did really well. I'm a bit disappointed in myself on a couple of problems, but I
like what I did on the one you mentioned.'
Me: 'Well, don't be too hard on yourself - you have eight classes to juggle and mine is just one of
eight! Here, let's look at your class grade when I enter your test score and home thinking score.'
Student: 'That looks good. Thanks for taking the time to do this.'
Me: 'You are welcome.'
This is just one piece of dialogue, but you can see the power of sitting one on one with them - this is a conversation that I would never have had with them otherwise. When all students left the grading session, they would know their score on the exam, their home thinking score for the chapter, and their current grade in the class.
First, the pros of the new system:
Second, the cons of the new system:
I used this method for the rest of the school year, except for the last test (because I had to turn the test around in only a few days so the scheduling method would not work). I will use it again this year as much as I can. The best part about it is the immediate feedback that it gives to the students, as well as the rapport that can be built between the student and the teacher. Next year, I think I will have the students do a reflection on the grading session, and I will also have a list of the chapter objectives at the grading session so that the students and I can talk about which objectives were met during the exam and which objectives still needed some effort.
Many teachers on our staff began to use this system as well when time allowed and the feedback from them was mostly positive. Hopefully this will help you too!
Jeff Watson is a Math teacher at the International Academy East in Troy, MI. His work as a software engineer made him realize the need for problem solvers and critical thinkers in the workplace today. Jeff believes that the secondary math classroom should be a place of critical thinking, collaborative learning, and exploration which will cultivate the problem solvers and thinkers needed today.