How I Kept From Drowning in a Sea of Student Papers

Developmental Writing Tip: How I Kept From Drowning in a Sea of Student Papers

As promised, here is the follow up post regarding my on-the-fly restructuring of last semester’s paper prompts.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, this past semester was the first time I taught four sections of the same course. One prep? No prob! Easy semester! Yeah, not so much. Try 100 papers delivered on the same day. For you math whizzes out there, that means somewhere around 500 pages. To grade AND comment on. Not just read. I’ll get right on that.

After a miserable week of grading, I managed to tread water and slowly drag myself to shore. Where I was still lying–beached–as I handed out the Paper Two prompt. I hated the thought of another marathon grading round about as much as my students hated the thought of writing another paper. So, I came up with a brand new plan.

First of all, I just want to stress again as I did in my earlier post that I really don’t mind grading. I kind of like it even. Student papers make me happy (does this make me insane?). I love seeing students apply what they have learned. When a student learns from a mistake and revises a draft, it’s one of the highlights of my life. Seriously. And this is the very reason I hated grading 100 papers at a time. I couldn’t possibly give each one the attention it needed. I couldn’t possibly advise each student thoroughly. I couldn’t effectively do what I love to do: teach.

My first thought was: “Okay, I’ll just stagger the due dates.” Not a bad plan. It would have done the job. I didn’t like the way it would mess with my course outlines, though. We would inevitably get behind in some sections. There had to be another way. Something more innovative and interesting.

If you know anything about me, you know I am a collaborating fool. Especially in the brainstorming stage. God, I love kicking ideas around with people. Talking them out until they grow into solid plans. The other thing my colleagues know about me is my obsession with revision and drafting. Ah, the groundwork has been laid.

I was on the phone with my friend, a future trendsetting high school English teacher, when the paper two plan began to materialize. It started with the goal of de-emphasizing the grade or product, and prioritizing revision and the writing process. I wanted to find a way to push students to care about drafting. The new plan would do just that. It would also empower the student to make decisions, allow me to intimately advise one-on-one, and of course lift the heavy burden of grading from my shoulders (or at least reduce it a little). Without further ado, here is Paper Two Redux:

  1. First, all students write a rough draft of their papers (following a detailed prewrite, as always).
  2. Peer Review. This is also standard procedure in my classes. Every student’s paper is peer reviewed by at least two classmates.
  3. This is where things get interesting. Students do a “Revision Reflection” in which they digitally comment in the margins of their own papers, and then they write a 250 word introduction to their reflections. In this introduction they have quite a bit of creative freedom to discuss how they intend to revise the paper. They can mention advice gleaned from peer reviews, discuss the thesis, outline a plan for including outside sources–it’s really up to them. The key is this revision plan is graded. They know if they just say “I need to fix my grammar,” it will hurt their final grades. The burden is on them to take revision seriously.
  4. Next, I scheduled a week of one-on-one meetings with my students. This is something I love doing anyway, and it fit perfectly because it was right at midterm. No class during this week of meetings. Each student was required to come and talk to me for 15 minutes. In these meetings, we discussed their Revision Reflections. They told me how they intended to revise. Interestingly enough, most of them knew exactly what their weaknesses were. They told me what they were doing wrong. This allowed me to immediately focus on direct mentorship during the coveted “teachable moment.” By the time each student left my desk, he or she had a plan in place for how to revise the paper.
  5. Grading for this assignment was particularly interesting. I divided it into three categories: Draft completion, Revision Reflection, and Enacting the Revision Plan. Each received equal weight.
    • If a student turned in a rough draft, he or she was given full credit for that portion. I don’t like to “grade” drafts for anything other than completion because I feel like it defeats the purpose. This portion of the grade was simple for me. Turned it in? Check.
    • The Revision Reflection was basically graded on the spot. I read it with the student during the meeting. Afterwards, I jotted down a quick grade and a few notes regarding the plan. That simple.
    • The third part of the grade was the most time-consuming, but even it wasn’t all that bad. I read the final papers and cross-referenced my notes to see if the changes had been made.
    • Finally, I just plugged each grade into Excel and averaged them up. Pretty sweet.

This grading experiment went so well, I plan to do it again this semester. Because it emphasizes different steps in the process (and I found that it favored the student grade-wise), I wouldn’t recommend doing this for every paper. Not only that, it’s hard to justify canceling that much class to do my one-on-one meetings (although . . . potentially much more beneficial . . . another post maybe). Anyway, my students loved the creativity and flexibility. Many of them cited this assignment as the most helpful assignment of the semester. And, of course, I lived to grade another day by alleviating some of the crushing at-home workload.