Monday, January 7, 2019

How to Make Grading Student Work More Accurate and Less Time-Consuming

Does it feel as if your holiday break never even happened because you're already getting overloaded with work to grade? Would you like to reduce the time you spend grading?

Most of us assign work for two reasons:  1) assessing learning 2) collecting data for grading purposes.  So in theory, we want the work we give to help us measure mastery of important skills and knowledge, and help us give accurate grades.

The problem is that not every question on an assignment is equally valuable as an assessment of learning.

I’m going to share a strategy that will help improve the accuracy of your grades AND reduce the amount of grading you have to do.   

Think about typical worksheets.  The kind you might give to go along with a reading assignment or while watching a film.  They usually have two types of questions:

Lead Up Questions – These are questions that help students go through a step-by-step thinking process that will help them answer other questions.  Or they can be questions that are written for the purpose of making sure students complete a reading assignment or stay on task during a film in order to be able to answer other questions. They are questions that don't address critical skills or content.

Target Questions – the questions that require a student to demonstrate an understanding of critical content or the application of critical skills, often as a result of having completed the lead-up questions.

For purposes of grading, we should focus on the target questions. But usually, when we grade assignments, all of the questions on the assignment would be treated as if they were equally important. That can have bad effects on the accuracy of grades as a measurement of mastery.

Here's why. Suppose a worksheet has 10 questions on it.  Suppose that only two of the questions are target questions. One student might answer correctly eight of the questions on the worksheet but answer the two (most important) target questions incorrectly.  You’d enter 80% in your gradebook.  But did that student demonstrate 80% mastery of content? Or just 80% accuracy of answering the lead-up questions?

Another student might only complete five questions, but answer all of them correctly, including the two target questions.  You’d enter 50% in your gradebook. Does a student who correctly answers the two most important questions - the ones that really require a demonstration of mastery - really deserve an "F" for the assignment?  And would that "F" be an accurate measure of their mastery of the most important content?

Which of those students really understands more of the critical content? And will their grade reflect it?  Not all questions are good assessments of mastery.  If you include all of them in a grade, you’re diluting the accuracy of the score as a measure of mastery.

So here’s something to try.  It’s not a silver bullet.  You shouldn’t use it with every assignment. And it won't suddenly make all of your students do all of their work. But used judiciously it will improve the accuracy of your grades and may also have the effect of improving turn-in rates for assignments. And it will definitely make grading less time-consuming and more efficient for you! 

Create a half-sheet form like the one pictured.  If you subscribe to my email list before 01/11/2019,  I'll send you the form. The form should include the student’s name, class, and an area for writing answers. The half sheet form will be stapled to the front of a completed assignment.  

Prior to the beginning of class, identify ­target questions from the previous day's assignment.  Try to limit the number of questions to four or fewer. Give students a very short amount of time to copy their answers to those selected questions onto the half sheet form.  You shouldn’t allow more than a minute or a minute and a half for students to do this. That’s enough time to copy answers but not enough time to hastily attempt to write the answers that aren’t already written down.  And since you’re watching them while they complete the half sheet, they’re unlikely to cheat right under your nose. 

When time is up, you can either have students turn in the half sheet, or have the students staple their half sheet onto the full assignment and turn it in (so you can make sure they were really copying work they’d already done, and that they really had completed the assignment.)

You grade only the questions on the half sheet and enter that score into your grade book.
If you feel strongly that a grade should reflect responsibility as well as mastery, you could give points for having completed the entire original assignment.  Just be thoughtful about doing that because it dilutes the accuracy of grades as a measure of content/skill mastery.

The reason you don’t use this strategy with every assignment is that if you do, some students will start trying to guess which questions you’re going to select and will only answer those. And you certainly wouldn’t use this strategy to score quizzes or tests.  But when you know that not all of the questions on an assignment are equally important, and if you are buried by paperwork, this strategy will really save you time and improve the accuracy of your grades as a measure of mastery.

If you use this strategy, you will probably find that a few students actually do more work for you.  I wish I had a nickel for every student who didn’t turn in an assignment because it wasn’t complete and they know they’ll get a failing score whether or not they turn it in. It’s a shame that students feel that way, but they’re right if the teacher scores every question. With the strategy I’ve described, students have a chance of getting better than a failing score if they’ve answered even some of the questions you selected for scoring.

You’ll also find that some of your really bright but unmotivated students who refuse to do what they consider to be “busy work” will probably at least do some work if the odds are that doing some of it is going to pay off for them even if they don’t do all of it. Getting kids to do some of the work should always be a goal when the alternative is that they do none of it.

This process, used judiciously, gives you what you need for assessment, improves the accuracy of grades as a measure of mastery, and honors the work that students have completed while reducing the time you spend grading less meaningful work. You might even have an occasional weekend free from grading! 

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