3 Steps to Sustainable Grading

Jan 05, 2021

Sustainable grading - is that even a thing?  It’s like teachers have all collectively just rolled over and accepted the fact that if we aren’t drowning in grading then we aren’t really doing our job.  Not only is that crap, but it’s unsustainable.  No one can manage that in a healthy way.  But then we’re left with the question, well what do we do instead?  If we aren’t grading everything in our classes, aren’t we saying that it’s not important???  O man, that statement couldn’t be more wrong.  There is a way to reach more sustainable grading practices and in this episode I will provide three steps to help you get there.  

Do you remember as a child how, if you’re anything like me and most children I’ve observed, you collected things and used objects to simulate real life situations as an adult?  For instance, my 5 year old son right now has this clipboard that has a compartment inside and he has taped various pieces of what are junk mail to us inside of that clipboard.  It’s totally full and also includes pencils and other “important papers” for when he really needs them.  Again, it’s all junk mail, but to him it is so incredibly important because it is very grown up.  He is SO looking forward to the day that he gets mail on a regular basis.

Now as adults, we are incredibly annoyed by all that junk mail, right?  I would say that 75% of the pieces of paper we get in the mail go straight to the recycling, and it doesn’t feel cool at all to go through that process everyday - it’s just what we do.

In a way, that’s how grading was to me as I dreamt of my teaching career as a kid and in college.  As a kid, we would play pretend school and as the teacher I would assign all kinds of things to grade, collect those assignments and spend time grading them.

Then as a student teacher and first year teacher, I continued that trend of giving assignments, collecting and grading them.  It made me so proud to have those stacks of papers to grade (whether physical or digital) as if it were some indication of my work and worth as a teacher - I am grading papers, therefore I am a teacher, therefore I am effective.

This is what we call a mindset.

And in this instance it is an unsustainable, and in my case and even debilitating mindset.

Debilitating might seem dramatic, but let me ask you this… when you look at all the things you have to grade right now, how does it make you feel?  Do your airways tighten up a bit, do you cringe or feel the tension in your neck and shoulders like me?  Does it invigorate you to go and do great things inside your classroom?  NO!  That’s because it’s debilitating to your abilities as an educator.

Now, this isn’t to say that we ignore those piles of paper and never grade anything again, not at all.

But it is to say that if those papers are sitting there for a while and you’re tensing up every time you see it, then there’s got to be a better process, a better system that serves your students AND you.

And that’s what I would like to offer you in today’s blog… a way to reach a more sustainable system for grading in your classroom.

I will go through each step here that helps you to really look at what you grade and how it serves your students, and how to make it all a bit more manageable.

Ok, let’s get to it. 

Step one - Establish the purpose of the grade.

Really you should be establishing the purpose of grades in your course as a whole.  And the most sustainable meaning of a grade is one that indicates ONLY what your students have mastered in your class.  The grades your students earn in your class should never directly reflect their effort or behavior.  I could talk for hours alone on this topic, in fact I wrote my entire master’s thesis on it, but we won’t dive that deeply in this episode.

Now, effort and behavior certainly impacts a student’s mastery of a grade, but make no mistake, mastery should be the only thing that’s graded - that’s just equity 101.

But the question you want to be asking here for each and every item you grade is this… does it serve my students for me to grade this?

And if it doesn’t serve your students and indicate their mastery of a concept then it should not be collected and sifted through and ultimately graded.  So the process you’ll want to go through here is see what assignments don’t indicate mastery and don’t grade them.  Now stick with me in this because those items are still important, it’s just not sustainable to give them the same dedicated focus on your part as a mastery grade.

Notice in the question you should be asking “does it serve my students to grade this” that I said to grade this, not to assign it or use it somehow in your lesson.

You can absolutely assign an activity without grading it.  And there is a whole process in doing so in a way that makes sure your students still do the work, but it’s ultimately  a necessary culture shift in your classroom that you are NOT going to pay them with grades for their work in your class - your class is not a factory whose workers are earning a wage.  And your grades should not serve it as such.

Instead your grade should inform the student of where they stand in their learning.  Simple as that.  If grading an assignment only indicates how much they’ve completed or how much effort they exerted, then it shouldn't be a grade.  It should ABSOLUTELY be documented, but it shouldn’t be a grade.

Which leads me to...

Step two - Eliminate the grade, but validate the work.

So you’ll have gone through what it is that you grade in your course and for assignments or tasks in your class that you still want students to complete, but aren’t necessary to grade you will not grade them, but you will still validate the work.

Let’s take notes, for instance, particularly in the middle or high school class. In most classroom, notes students take on the content aren’t always graded - and really, they shouldn’t be… or at least the grade should be very minimal.

However, their completion has a direct result on their mastery of the content. So are they important??? Abso-freaking-lutely.

But do they indicate mastery directly? No.

So although they aren’t a grade, they should still be validated some how.

This does not mean that you need to come up with some fancy sticker chart system - I mean if you’re about, you do you boo. But I’m just not that warm and fuzzy.

The message I want to send to my students here is what matters - and so the process of note taking for my students was documented, as was their completion of stations and various activities that aided them in their learning process and ultimately led them to mastery.

That documentation process then served the student because it allowed me to have one-on-one conversations with them about their effort and performance in class. I was able to take them time to address those red flags - like not completing notes for class - with students in a more effective way than any zero in the grade book ever could (for most students that is).

Not grading notes allowed my students grades to remain valid and true measures of their mastery without me discounting the hard work they’ve done (or not done) to obtain that mastery.

So again, eliminate the grade but validate the work.

Step three - Find a way to more sustainably grade this.

For the assignments you still have left, which should almost exclusively be assessments at this point given the points I’ve laid out in this episode so far, there’s got to be a more sustainable  way to grade them.

It’s important to establish also, that given you’re grading only assessments, you want the grade and the feedback to truly serve the learning process here.  The only way that can happen is if students are actually reading and responding in kind to your feedback.

I can almost hear teachers rolling their eyes at what I just said there because there’s no way students are going to do that, am I right?!?  Well, yea, you’re right if you don’t make it a routine in your classroom.  Stay tuned for more information about that in the future, and it’s something I teach about in my courses that you can learn about by going to teachonamission.com/blended classroom.

So, back to my point of making it more sustainable.  Providing more feedback might seem less sustainable, right?  Well yes, if that feedback isn’t used to empower students to take ownership of their learning.

But if students take ownership and respond to your feedback, you are saving yourself so much more time in remediation and responses to students' needs in the future.

The way in which you provide the feedback and ultimately the grade could be more sustainable too.  Now this one is totally dependent on what you grade, the skills you’re grading, and how you’re grading it.  But I would like to offer up some ideas that could make grading more sustainable for you.

If you’re grading with a rubric, you absolutely should be using the grading rubric features that are available in learning management systems like Google Classroom.

Another tip that I can offer that you could use in tandem with the rubric system or instead of, especially for those of you who don’t have a rubric system, is recording yourself grading their assignment right over top of the assignment.  The way I do this is to have the digital assignment up on my screen.  I open up Screencastify (another great tool is Loom) and take no more than five minutes to record myself grading the assignment and providing feedback OUT LOUD.  Then if you need, you can type a few things out if necessary, but honestly, just send them the video and boom - that’s better feedback anyway.

Another tip is to use a feedback marking system.  If you are finding common mistakes within a pile of papers or essays, determine a  sign you could use for each of those common mistakes and instead of writing out the same feedback over and over again, just use the  sign.  Then when you remediate the assessment in class you show your key and even talk about each of the common mistakes.

There are also tons of text expander apps and extensions you can use that will allow you to  create keyboard shortcuts for commonly typed responses.  You could totally use one of those for your bigger assessments.

So let’s do a recap real quick, and remember that you can see all of these steps and tips on our website.

To work toward more sustainable grading systems... 

Step one is to determine the purpose of grades as a whole and individual graded assignments in your class.

Step two is to eliminate the grade where you’re able but validate the work through documentation and more clear and consistent communication with students that happens outside the gradebook.

Step three is for the assignments, mostly assessments that is, that you’ll  still be grading, think of ways to do so more efficiently - like develop as key system for the common mistakes, provide quality feedback and empower and train students to respond to it, and maybe even record yourself grading and provide feedback in a quick video for individual students.

Alright my friends, that’s all I have for today's blog on sustainable grading systems. 

Until next time teacher friend, go conquer the world.

P.S.  If the message in this post resonates with you and you'd like more directed guidance in building a sustainable classroom, then the Sustainable Teacher 7-Day Challenge is for you.  It's a totally free challenge that we'll send you with 7 daily tasks that help you take baby steps toward sustainability.


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