Slaves to the Grade

It’s that time of year. Teachers of Year 12 around Australia are scrambling to varying degrees to prepare students for final assessments and exams, which inevitably involves a whole lotta marking.

Of course, all teachers have to grade student work. And they are engaged in doing this all year. But nothing beats the pedal-to-the-metal feeling of marking Year 12 practice tasks in a last ditch effort to refine their examination responses.

In particular, nothing beats the hellish pressure that exists in states like NSW and Victoria where the HSC and VCE exams respectively loom over teachers and students alike. And out of all these teachers and students, I argue that subjects that are writing-intensive (e.g. English and History) have it the toughest; if you have a class of 25 for Year 12 and it’s coming up to an assessment, teachers in these subjects are spending their nights and weekends correcting pages and pages and pages of long form expositions.

Which can leave your eyes (and soul) feeling kinda like this:

bill crying blood

I was prompted to write this blog post after watching my friends Justin and Alex tweet about their marking yesterday:

twitter convo 24.08.2013 HSC marking

I’ve taught for the HSC three times and this slavish marking routine is the only part I do not miss…having said that, the jolly task I have now of marking as a university lecturer has involved marking binges that certainly rival the pain of HSC workload.

The question is – what can we do about it?

Is there anything we can do about it?

Some ideas that I threw out into the twittersphere yesterday seem promising, but without a class to try them on I’m at a loss, not sure if they would work. The ideas I bounced around with Justin and Alex were:

  1. Focussing on writing just the introduction, or a body paragraph. This would make the task smaller and more focussed for students, and more manageable to mark 25-30 of them.
  2. Setting a paragraph writing challenge. To address Justin’s problem of the student that only writes about ‘tone’, each week set a different language feature/form for students to write a paragraph on. By the end of the term they will have a bank of paragraphs on different elements.
  3. Gamify the writing process. This could be done by putting students in groups, getting every student to write a paragraph (or essay), then each group submits it’s best one (as judged by the students in the group) for marking. This means you only have to mark one essay/paragraph per group, not per student. Keep a chart of which group wins each week and award them a prize at the end of the unit. Change the groups around for each new unit.
  4. Peer assessment. This can only be used in a limited way, as students don’t have the capacity to grade work to a Year 12 standard. However you could use the ‘medals (feedback) and missions (feedforward)’ framework that Bianca draws on to give students a direction. I think the main benefit is that they read each other’s work and discuss their strengths, not that they actually give each other a ‘grade’.
  5. Find an authentic audience. Partnering up with another teacher/class would provide an avenue for students to share their work with another class on a platform such as a wiki. This would give students someone to perform for besides their own teacher, which could prove motivating. The teachers could also arrange to do a marking-swap, and grade each other’s student essays…this may get you writing less comments, marking more objectively (?) and just plain old provide a change of pace as you get to read a different set of handwriting!

I really hope these ideas are useful to someone out there.

If you have any other good ideas for getting feedback to students without going through so much of the eye-bleedingly painful million-essay marking process, I would LOVE to hear them!

Thanks to Justin and Alex for inspiring this post and helping me brainstorm ideas 🙂


Images: Cropped screen still from True Blood, Season 5; Screen shot of conversation on

Postscript: If you liked this post, you may also like the post Matt Esterman wrote today, ‘The home stretch for Year 12’. Looks like we all have Year 12 on the brain this weekend!

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  1. #1 by hibar29 on August 26, 2013 - 11:07 am

    Great ideas. I have tried the “writing paragraphs only” and it worked. Made my marking easily, and got more writing done overall. The thing I noticed is that in tasks and exams students spend far too long writing their introductions. Why? Because it is a good way of avoiding writing about something they don’t know anything about but it still makes them feel like they did “something”. So I *gulp* banned the writing of introductions whenever we did class tasks. They had to write three or four body paragraphs and submit that. The result? Overall improvement of their paragraph structure, more focus on techniques and better explanation of their points. Plus great way to establish whether they know enough or not, and this is when they will turn around and say “I don’t know any techniques besides from tone”. And you will “ha! I knew it!” then teach them a bit more 🙂

    • #2 by kmcg2375 on August 26, 2013 - 10:33 pm

      Thanks Hiba – it’s good to know the paragraph-only strategy works. Your ‘no introduction’ rule is inspired! It gives me an idea – you could then give the three paragraph essay to another student and challenge them to write a pithy introduction for it…?

  2. #3 by Justin on August 26, 2013 - 6:46 pm

    Reblogged this on Rebel without a horse and commented:
    People on Twitter are fantastic. I was having a bit of a whinge, and an awesome conversation AND this blog post followed.

  3. #4 by Justin on August 26, 2013 - 9:41 pm

    I really like the idea of smaller chunks of writing. I used a flipped lesson to prompt 2 carefully thought out paragraphs. Structurally they’re good, but content still needs work. Tried something similar with creative writing. I let my students read the openings to a bunch of books from my collection and think about style and technique and then try to apply to opening paragraphs.

    Varied results, but I think it helps students think they’re achieving something. The trick is to get them to apply it in their exams.

  4. #5 by kmcg2375 on August 26, 2013 - 10:42 pm

    Oh yeah Justin! The number of times my Twitter conversations have boosted my energy, creativity and overall optimism…too many to count.

    Getting students in the habit of spending s few minutes planning their responses before they start writing is important o exam performance, I think. It takes awhile to convince them it’s worth giving up the few minutes writing time, but in my experience better exam responses tend to follow.

  5. #6 by TroyMartin on August 29, 2013 - 10:53 am

    Brilliant ideas Kelli. It is interesting the place ‘techniques’ have taken in the Stage Six course, seeing the word doesn’t appear in the syllabus.
    The only advice I have to add is write, write, write.
    I do miss Twitter for the engagement.

    • #7 by kmcg2375 on September 1, 2013 - 6:32 pm

      Too true – but I think ‘techniques’ has become shorthand for ‘language forms and features’ (?)

  6. #8 by thestudylounge on October 3, 2013 - 3:46 pm

    been running a thing called the Study Lounge for the last month 🙂

    basically we just provide students with a ‘stress free environment’ to study and we provide free assistance in their subjects. Pretty much a bunch of uni kids lending the year 12 community a helping hand.
    Interestingly, I’ve been talking to a couple of the students who have been coming and it’s really amazing how much they appreciate teachers once they graduate. The same rings true for myself personally.

    With your 4th suggestion, peer assessment, it really does work. At the Study lounge, we have about 20 kids and 6-8 of them come from selective schools. It was amazing seeing the kids share their notes around and proof read each other’s essays. Interestingly, sometimes the selective kids are the ones who have the most questions to ask and the other kids happily help them out. At the same time, they are building relationships and removing the whole ‘competition’ aspect out of the HSC.

    Really encouraged by the work of teachers.

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