27 comments on “Marking homework/papers – the unassailable wall?

  1. I know the feeling well, Jeremy: the weariness – dread, even – of facing a pile of assignments to grade and only a few days to do it in. And I think it has a lot to do with repetition – the tedium associated with grading an assignment that you have graded several times before. You’re thinking: what can anyone have to say that’s NEW about this? And then (as you say) you are pleasantly surprised. Even – now and then – delighted.

    But there is a real danger that the novelty will wear off – and that’s where maybe the only way to keep it interesting is to keep changing the task. Quite a tall order, because changing an assessed assignment may mean changing the instructional sequence that leads up to the assignment. And how many times can you tinker with a task before it becomes untenable?

    Nevertheless, I find that the best assignments are those when the students/learners have to create something of their own, or find material of their own, rather than analyse/evaluate something that has been pre-selected for them. Apart from anything else, there’s less chance of plagiarism if the task requires them to create something specific to their immediate context and to rationalise it in those terms. And it’s always going to be more interesting to read than someone laboring their way through the analysis of a piece of assigned material. So, in my discourse analysis classes, for example, the students are required to record and transcribe a conversation themselves – and analyse it according to criteria that they devise. This way, the task is always an interesting – often entertaining – read, and, as I said, much less easily copiable.

    Another thing I’ve considered, although haven’t tried yet, is recording my feedback ‘live’ as it were, using screencasting software like Jing, which both saves time typing, but also (from the student’s point of view) helps personalise your response. Has anyone had experience with this?

  2. Thanks, Scott.

    You ARE right. we do need to keep changing and re-vitalising tasks, as much for out (the teachers’) benefit as for the courses themselves.

    I have tried giving audio and video feedback. It’s fun, I think, though I have never had feedback on that feedback from the students themselves.

    I am sympathetic to your idea that getting students to produce their own stuff makes it more interesting for us. Maybe that’s, in a way, why Lesley’s homework article made such an impression on me. Different, but slightly the same!

    I DO think all teachers have to think about to keep themselves engaged with this task (marking, I mean). It’s important. It shouldn’t hurt so much!!

    Jeremy

  3. Hey, Jeremy. I have been reading your blog for some time now, particularly after reading your books “The Practice of English Language Teaching” and “How to Teach English.” However, I am in the role of the student, just starting to break into the TEFL field (I just got my undergraduate recently).

    Being in the role of a tutor, more so than a professor, I have not had the “pleasure” of grading large assignments like MA papers, but as I have worked with professors on group projects, I can definitely understand your sentiment here. The first thing that I realize, as a student, is that oftentimes my particular essays and reports are written with the only available audience being the grader, or the professor, though that mentality definitely shifts when a paper is potentially publishable. What I realize from that, though, is that as students progress to the classes which are more meaningful to their lives (i.e. graduate-level work, student/peer teaching, etc.) their work develops more according to their own ideas. That’s not to say that all of their ideas are original, or particularly thought-provoking–it would be a very rare occurrence for a single completely original idea to come out of any piece of writing–but the standard has been set so that the writer, usually from a less knowledgeable standpoint, must work to impress the audience.

    As such, I can see how you encountered some seriously intriguing papers amongst your students, and I can also see how initially, you were against looking at them. I suppose that this post is little more than an encouragement from “our” perspective that there is little reason to truly procrastinate on these types of things, but this is also assuming that the students in question have a strong drive to succeed. I guess that I try to think positively in that regard.

  4. Hi Jeremy!

    Count me in as one of those who hate grading whatever there is to grade: homework, tests, papers, projects… Although, I must admit that projects are more fun, but they’re also more difficult to grade because of the higher degree of creativity involved and… how do we grade creativity and originality?

    But you’re both right, you and Scott, we do have to do it, there’s no escape, so we’d better do it as soon as possible, otherwise it piles up and becomes a lot more time-consuming and boring.

    Melania

  5. Good post, Jeremy.

    I recall this dilemma well from my classroom teaching days, and face it even more poignantly these days with my online teaching business, which focuses on TOEFL test preparation. Every week I have to listen to a couple of hundred speaking submissions and read a couple of hundred essays, all in response to pre-set questions tightly bound by exam formats, and then grade them.

    It can be very joyless at times, and I think the repetition Scott alludes to is a major issue that exacerbates the feeling. Creating more variety (especially in task design and requirements) is absolutely one way to improve the situation – although this is not always a realistic option for some teachers and course formats. I also use a variety of feedback formats (again as Scott suggests) and generally find that the more it relies on real spoken commentary, the more enjoyable it generally becomes.

    However, I always try to remind myself that this dread of marking is a rather selfish reaction, and putting it off only makes me feel worse and also makes the process more joyless for students. Having completed their tasks, the one thing many learners look forward to is a quick turnaround and some sort of indication of how well they have gone about their work. While tasks (like exam practice) can be far from enjoyable for many students, getting back scores and indications of progress quite quickly seems to help – not *knowing* how well they are going is definitely more dreadful for them than the tasks or grades themselves. Even when the score/feedback indicates they have might not have done very well with a task, getting that news quickly allows them to get over it more promptly and get on with improving. There is nothing worse than completing a task, not feeling all that confident about it, then having to wait a week or more thinking about that until finally the grade and comments come back confirming your very worst fears about your performance!

    So that is basically how I nurse myself through the marking process: I get it done as quickly as possible (for both my and my students sakes!).

    • Hi Jason,

      thank you for reminding us (me) of the importance of quick feedback for students – or rather of getting grades back to students quickly. I have slipped up a bit on that and feel a bit bad about it – because you know you are letting them down.

      My only comfort is the large number of teachers I know who go through the same thing, whatever their subject and at whatever level.

      Nevertheless, I find that when I DO get round to it, and spend time, and add some detailed comments, that grading task begins to feel very like teaching!!

      I just need to get down to it sooner, I guess!!

      Jeremy

      • Well, just in case my comment came across as sort of holier-than-thou, I can sheepishly confess that I am already late in getting around to this weeks grading and feedback, and I have been rummaging around with distractions as I continue to put it off… (Sigh) – yes, all good in theory, but there are always lapses!🙂

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    This may not fit your situation at all because there are guidelines you have to follow. However, you may want to look at providing video feedback like Russell Stannard talks about. Here’s his paper on that topic,

    I read about a movement towards having students grade their peers’ work. I have been contemplating ways to successfully do this with my students. Many would argue its the teachers job but there are benefits to having students grade papers, blogs, and so forth. It is known students learn from finding the errors in their peers’ essays. Moreover, this is a reflexive practice that helps them see what others noticed, wrote about, and so forth. I remember once being so overwhelmed teaching over 40 hours a week, eight different courses. One of the courses was thrown to me at the last minute. Therefore, I had all the students teach a chapter from the book and come up with their own assessments, presentations, and so forth. I didn’t do this haphazardly. There were guidelines they had to meet and there were requirements. I believed they learned a lot more on the topic of World Religions through this experiment rather than learning from multiple choice exams. The students had to share a custom of their religion and realia so this made this hour fun. Often, we would go outside to do the circles or dances or chants. This was one class I didn’t have to worry about marking, just entering the grades. Here’s the post I did on this topic, with the most important resources that may be helpful to you listed at the bottom http://teacherbootcamp.edublogs.org/2010/01/23/goal-12-resources-for-giving-constructive-feedback/

    • That’s a great story, Shelly (about having students do the teaching etc). I find it very compelling.

      (and incidentally, it would resonate in and through the endless ‘coursebook or no coursebook’ debate – going on, in its latest manifestation, at http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/c-is-for-coursebook-by-lindsay-clandfield/

      Tricia Hedge, in her wonderful book on Writing for OUP shows how students themselves can decide what the priorities are for grading, and how to apply them.

      Of course the teacher will still need to oversee such an exercise.

      But there MAY be creative ways of getting them more involved in the marking of homework and papers – and then we will all feel better!

      Jeremy

  7. Hi Jeremy,

    Nothing so high-falutin’ as MA papers to mark here, but my general strategy for marking students’ work is this:

    Try and pick out the positive as well as the negative. That is, highlight something the student has done well, in addition to giving them something to work on for next time.

    I also get hit by the homework wall from time to time. I find using different coloured pens help (seriously, I mean that – not just red, red, red all the time).

    Sean Banville blogged a while back on using audio files to give students feedback, something I’m looking at with a view to doing next (academic) year. The first post is here (1 of 3) http://seanbanville.com/2010/01/04/using-audio-files-to-provide-feedback-1/

    Mike

    • Hi Mike,

      not that ‘high-falutin’ (marking MA assignments) – and anyway there are decades (unfortunately) of marked students work at all levels behind me. And then i think of all those school teachers with piles of exercise books they have to go through.

      I think that seriously finding something that turns you (the marker/grader) on, coloured pens, whatever, may be the key. Or perhaps, periodically, just changing the way you do things so that you achieve the variety we are always recommending that teachers should offer their students….

      Thankas for link to Sean’s post

      Jeremy

  8. I had one of the greatest teachers in the world: a student (I actually talked about him in Darren Elliot’s teaching as a geisha post) but anyway he was a CEO and he gave me a tip that has seen me through this whole being a full-time blogger and full-time teacher and teacher-trainer and tweeter and juggler of a thousand frogs.

    So, if you want his advice, it was this:

    Do the hardest task first.

    That’s all. But it’s my mantra – and the relief felt once the big task of any day’s done, makes the rest of the day easy.

    (Another student also taught me how to project manage btw… but that’s not for this post… I’ll wait ’til you’re talking ’bout juggling tasks.)

    K

    • Thanks for this Karenne,

      yes, of course do the hardest task first. But when it’s done you feel so good that you kind of relax and then the other stuff DOESN’T get done!!!

      Setiously, it IS the way to go on. Just that it’s difficult,

      I think I may be whingeing!!

      Jeremy

      • That you might be sire, I somehow don’t really think that someone who’s accomplished as much as you have is really… someone who doesn’t know his priority one from the tv series calling…

        Now get to work and stop bloggin!

        K

  9. Hi Jeremy,
    I don’t have any marking but I do have several long, repetitive and boring tasks that might compare. For a long time I tried various strategies that I’d read about somewhere, for example start the day with the thing you are dreading doing and once you have successfully completed it you will get a huge kick out of that etc. etc. That just made me get up later and breakfast more slowly. I also tried to feel guilty about the people who were waiting for me to complete my taks, but no, it just didn’t happen.
    So far only two things have worked:
    Tricking myself into thinking I’m not acutally working. I put on some comedy clip on youtube, I find that Frasier in 10 minute portions works quite well. I open the document on the computer that I should be working on, but to start with I just watch the video, then I start doing a little bit here and a little bit there, and then at some point I realise that the clip ended an hour and a half ago and I’ve finished what I was meant to be doing.
    For really boring things I get a friend or colleague who also work from home to meet me in a cafe. We aren’t allowed to talk for half an hour except to order coffee or in case of fire. Every half hour we are allowed to gossip for five minutes. Sometimes we compete to finish our boring tasks, but mostly that isn’t necessary. However, there is often cake involved.
    I do agree with you that ‘it shouldn’t be so hard’ but somehow procrastination seems to just happen. If you find a way to stop it, will you let me know?

    • Hey Gemma,

      I am so sorry it took ages to get to this comment.

      I’m not very good at doing the worst task first even though I agree with Maren that it is, on paper, good advice!

      I love Frasier & cafés. I had to tweet that straight away.

      I guess there isn’t any real alternative except ‘just do it’!

      Jeremy

  10. Karenne posted whilst I was writing so I only saw her post after I finished mine – I’m sorry that it looks like I’m dismissing what she wrote, it’s just a coincidence!

  11. Hi,Jermey
    New member ,I am a teacher of english in Saudi Arabia. I appreciate your books and your confernces.
    Actually ,I agree with Scott Thornbury when he said ” that the best assignments are those when the students/learners have to create something of their own, or find material of their own, rather than analyse/evaluate something that has been pre-selected for them”.
    For me I was very happy with my blog and people apprecate what I have written in my blog.Do you know why .Because I creat something of my own.
    You can visit my blog to see how much is it wonderfull to give learners chance to create something of their own .not pre-selected for us.
    My blog link is
    http://learningstep.wordpress.com/
    I will be grateful if you post comments for articles I wrote .I promise you will enjoy reading my articles you and your friends have a nice time with my blog.

      • hi,Jermey
        I would like to thank you for giving me time to read my post and reply .
        I am looking forward to read your comments for my posts in my blog.I look at you as a close friend who may support me in future.
        See you there in my blog

  12. Let the students decide on a time limit for getting the work back from you. The only stipulation I make is that it can’t be less time than I gave them to complete it in the first place.

    • Hi Adam,

      I really like that. The more ‘bargains’ we make with our students the better because then we are all locked into an agreed procedure!

      Jeremy

  13. Gemma Ruffino :Hi Jeremy,I put on some comedy clip on youtube, I find that Frasier in 10 minute portions works quite well. I open the document on the computer that I should be working on, but to start with I just watch the video, then I start doing a little bit here and a little bit there, and then at some point I realise that the clip ended an hour and a half ago and I’ve finished what I was meant to be doing.For really boring things I get a friend or colleague who also work from home to meet me in a cafe. We aren’t allowed to talk for half an hour except to order coffee or in case of fire. Every half hour we are allowed to gossip for five minutes. Sometimes we compete to finish our boring tasks, but mostly that isn’t necessary. However, there is often cake involved.I do agree with you that ‘it shouldn’t be so hard’ but somehow procrastination seems to just happen. If you find a way to stop it, will you let me know?

    OH what a great idea. I LOVE Frasier, he cracks me up every time. And the café strategy I find lovely too. I saw Jeremy’s tweet “Frasier and cafés” and was intrigued. So pleased I read your comment. Merci !

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