Grading Assignments: Motivation, Timing, and Substantive Commentary

Grading is a central part of our role as teachers, and yet I know very few people who enjoy it. Part of this, once again, is structural. Over the past 15-20 years, many – although not all – North American universities have gone to a 2:2 teaching load, which changes the format in which we see our students. Instead of meeting 4 classes per term of between 20 and 50 students, we often meet at least one of between 80-250 students and then balance this by teaching a smaller senior seminar where we can provide a more personal environment. Although universities assign TAs or graders for the gargantuan classes, if you find yourself teaching a class of 60, you’re probably on your own. In any of these large-scale classes, the impersonal nature of the process contributes to the drudgery of marking because you will never actually have a one-on-one interaction with most of these students and you have no idea how hard they have or haven’t been working. And although I lack experience with the UK system, I suspect that the requirement to have everything reviewed twice magnifies the tediousness of the task by removing the last vestiges of a personal relationship from the equation (I invite my UK colleagues to post thoughts or corrections in the comments below).

When talking about evaluation, it’s important to note that marking tests is very different from marking assignments, and today I want to focus on the latter. Confession: I absolutely loath marking final exams for reasons that should become apparent by the end of this post, so my decision to focus on assignments reflects that bias. But hey, it’s my blog, right? Getting back to the matter at hand, there are three issues that need to be addressed here. How do you motivate yourself to tackle that depressingly large pile of papers? What sort of timeframe should you be looking at? And what level of feedback should you be taking the time to provide, considering that you probably have a thousand other demands on your time?

Step 1: Motivation. Well, self-bribery always works in a pinch, and I am frequently guilty of telling myself that after I’ve marked x number of papers I am then allowed to watch the latest episode of some seedy crime drama, whose sweet siren song I can hear beckoning to me from the internet. Then there’s the tried and true “mark with a bottle of wine and bar of chocolate” method. Warning: do not consume the entire bottle of wine, or the grades at the end of the pile might be inappropriately high or low, depending on your personality. The chocolate, however, is fair game.


[Some evenings do, inevitably, come to this]

Surprisingly though, what often works best is pausing to remind yourself what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Marking isn’t just about assigning a percentage or letter value to a piece of work. It’s an integral part of teaching students how to complete a given task and how to improve their skills. In the humanities, this means it’s a stepping stone in their journey towards improved critical thinking, communication skills, and argumentation. And feedback on written assignments is just as important – if not even more so – than the information that students receive from you in lecture.

Step 2: Timing. It’s true what they say. Timing is everything. The (admittedly small) body of literature I’ve read on this subject all indicates that feedback is most effective when delivered in a “timely fashion.” Unfortunately, authors who write on the subject seem hell-bent on not defining what “timely” is. Exact definitions aside, research indicates that if you want a student to look at and think about your comments – and not just their grade – you need to get assignments back to them while they are still intellectually engaged with the material. Ideally, I like to turn things around in a week; however, this is dependent upon small class sizes, complete autonomy (ie: not a team-teaching scenario, or one which involves TAs), and the ability to make the time to complete the task. Now that my schedule is more demanding and I tend to work with TAs, I usually return assignments exactly 2 weeks from when they are handed in. This is because TAs have other obligations too: they are writing their thesis, or MRP, or doing course work on top of the work they’re doing for me. They are also learning how to grade, and require more time to go over the papers in the first place and to make any grade adjustments after they’ve got a sense of the pile as a whole.

While 2 weeks might appear long, I try to compensate for the delay by letting students know definitively when their work will be returned. Last semester I even printed the due date and the return date of each assignment on the syllabus –all assignments were also returned by the last day of class. I found that students responded well to the definitiveness of the schedule and were still eager to see not only their grades, but the commentary that went along with them. The highly structured nature of the course therefore helped to hold their attention, and there was a sense that since I cared enough about assignments to commit to a timeline, that they should care enough to take my feedback on board. This is not to say that all of them did so, but the results were still very encouraging. Just remember, that if you want to be able to live up to your commitments regarding when work will be handed back, you are going to need to stagger the due dates of assignments in your various courses.


[I’ve never done this, but I would be lying if I were to say I have never considered it when  pressed for time and faced with a huge stack of grading]

Step 3: Substantive Commentary. I know we’re all hellishly busy, and have no choice but to limit the time we spend grading, but it’s important to cut in the right places so as not to reduce the evaluation process to meaninglessness. Personally, I do this by not worrying about correctly categorizing every grammatical error. My students don’t know what these terms mean anyway (another confession: I didn’t know what a split infinitive was until the 4th year of my undergraduate degree), and I don’t need to spend time agonizing over whether or not I’ve used the right term. Instead, I simply underline the offending passage and write “awkward” for problems with syntax, and “unclear” for passages where the grammar is so bad that I actually don’t know what the person is trying to say.

By simplifying my grammatical commentary, I open time up for providing more substantive commentary about argumentation and methods. At the end of the essay I write short points highlighting the need to avoid value-laden terminology because it is counter-productive and hinders one’s ability to meet the past on its own terms, or the importance of providing concrete evidence to support each sub-argument. Here, I might actually discuss style in more detail too. I sometimes remind students to use more paragraphs – because paragraphs signal coherent thoughts to their reader – or to cluster ideas into sections instead of scattering related evidence throughout the paper. Finally, I also try to provide at least some pointers towards other analytic avenues that the student might have pursued to better develop their argument. For example, if a student is gesturing at the concept of agency but isn’t quite there, I let them know that this is the theoretically area within which they’re working and encourage them to do some reading on their own time or as part of other courses.

Providing feedback takes time, and in a perfect universe, you’d have time to leave a whole page of notes after essay proposals, book reviews, etc.. Unfortunately, we live in the real world, so we have to be more realistic about how much feedback we provide. Normally, what I tell my TAs, and the rule which I try to follow myself, is to leave 3 substantive comments at the end of every assignment, trying to highlight key areas in which the student can improve. I know what most of you are thinking right now: students don’t look at the comments no matter how important they are or how quickly you return assignments, so why bother? To this, I can only say that’s you’re right… about some of them. In fact, some will never even bother to pick their assignments up, or will throw them out right in front of you. But the question is: do you focus on the small percentage of students who won’t care no matter what, or do to teach to the small percentage that desperately want any and all feedback you are willing to give them – not to mention that huge middle group who can be swayed one way or the other based on how we approach our role as teachers?

Personally, I choose to waste some of my own time in the hopes of reaching those who are potentially receptive. Oftentimes, I have several students each term who come to thank me for giving them feedback, which seems to be an increasingly coveted commodity. Admittedly, there are going to be times when this level of planning and detailed feedback aren’t possible – one’s first year in a new post as tenure-track faculty springs to mind. But when it is at all possible, I think it’s worth making the effort.


7 thoughts on “Grading Assignments: Motivation, Timing, and Substantive Commentary

  1. I can’t help but feel that if faculties – especially tenured faculty members – had better valued, understood, articulated and defended the importance of creating genuine learning opportunities, universities would be in a better position now. Cuts are easy to make and classes are easy to expand if you act like all students really care about is the grade at the end of a paper or exam (or, worse, getting drunk) – comments I heard a disappointing amount of times during my years in academia. Academics are way too fast to blame the current atmosphere in universities on the rise of administration. The real question is how administration has managed to gain the power it has, and much deeper reflection needs to take place around the ways that departments and professional academics fed – and continue to feed – into this process.

  2. Pingback: Codes of Conduct: A Code for TAs and Myself | Ph.D.s and Pedagogy

  3. Useful and enjoyable read. I wonder if you might be willing to share some examples (your own or others’) of a good end-comment; I’ve had a difficult time locating any online. I’m specifically thinking of comments on literary analysis essays at the upper-division college level, but anything more broadly humanities/social science would be really helpful. Thanks in advance!

    • I often leave comments that refer them back to a critical reading/writing workshop I do at the start of the semester. These comments are often along the lines of: “This paper is too narrative and not analytical enough. Instead of telling me what, I need to know more about the hows and whys.” I also leave a lot of comments about the antithesis, especially in my ethics class: “You tend not to give sufficient credit to the counter argument. A moral dilemma is a dilemma precisely because the other option regarding what you should do is equally powerful and convincing. Keep working to learn how to explain and engage with such counter-arguments.” [When teaching history at the university level, I phrase this in terms of historiography and competing interpretations of an event]

      Finally, I work with lots of ESL students when I teach night school, so this is very common: “You are clearly struggling with your written English. If you are not able to make it to the academic skills centre for assistance with your writing, here are some tips. Try reading things aloud to yourself. The extra sensory experience can help catch errors. Also, make sure you leave 24 hours between when you finish writing and when you start editing. Otherwise, your brain will correct errors on the page because it know what should be there”

      Is that the sort of thing you were looking for? I hope it helps at least a little, but it’s hard to offer generic comments because the substantive stuff at the end tends to be targeted specifically to the assignment in question. One thing I find that helps is to keep a list of comments that you write over and over again, which will help streamline your feedback the next time around.

      • Thanks Sarah, this is great feedback. I’d love to hear more about this critical reading/writing workshop you mentioned — I’m always looking for new activities to incorporate to help my students hone their skills in that area!

      • Sorry for the delayed reply. I haven’t really had the time to maintain this site properly as of late. My critical reading/writing workshop focuses on the kind of stuff I talk about in the Bias vs. Perspective post (, and so we spend a lot of time talking about the construction of an argument and how almost all scholarly articles will be trying to convince you of a particular interpretation. I then give them a silly op-ed or something else short, but related to course content, and ask them to work in groups to identify all the key information (regular reading), and then figure out what the argument is, how it’s supported, and whether or not it’s convincing (critical reading). As part of this, I often ask them to think about what larger debates the piece in question is engaging in. I choose the readings and craft the questions differently every semester, but I find this site from U of T is very helpful as a starting point:

      • Thanks Sarah, this is great feedback. I’d love to hear more about this critical reading/writing workshop you mentioned — I’m always looking for new activities to incorporate to help my students hone their skills in that area!

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