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Podcast: Strategies for Effectively Grading Online Assignments

Podcast: Strategies for Effectively Grading Online Assignments

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen
Faculty Director, School of Arts & Humanities, American Public University

The COVID-19 pandemic created a major shift in U.S. education. K-12 schools, colleges and universities switched from in-person classes to online education, a transition which was challenging for many instructors and school administrators.

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Grading assignments in online classes can be difficult and time-consuming due to the high workload and lack of support that’s often found in traditional classrooms. In this podcast, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides a comprehensive strategy for online teachers to effectively grade assignments. Learn about FOCUS-EQx2, a teaching strategy to help online instructors streamline their grading and manage their time so they can provide students with effective comments, feedback, and evaluation.

Read the Transcript

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

If you’ve taught in traditional settings, traditional on-the-ground universities in live classes, you’ve likely used a lot of different approaches to grading your students’ work. Here are some that might be missing when you’re online teaching.

First of all, in a live class — especially at larger universities — there might be a testing center. A testing center is a place where your students can go — their identity is verified, they are monitored to ensure they’re doing the work honestly and without tools, notes, or other items, and then the answers might be run through an automation that grades it. For most online teaching, there is no testing center, especially if your students live far from the university or the college.

You might have a second tool like teachers’ assistants who took your class previously and now they’re back because you trust them. And those teaching assistants might’ve taken attendance or collected assignments and graded students’ work for part of the class or even much of the class. Teaching assistants have lightened the load for faculty to focus on teaching strategies and methods, so you can help your students learn most effectively.

Teaching assistants are largely absent in online education. I’ve seen some universities try this approach, and there are a few pilots out there doing it. But it really is a lesser-known model in online higher education, so it’s unlikely that you have a teacher’s assistant helping you grade your work.

Thirdly, you might’ve had peer-evaluation practices. On an assignment, this might help everyone improve and you might use an entire class session where students do sort of a workshop together. And when students see the assignment from an evaluator standpoint, they take on a new perspective and they might make some more connections to the subject matter.

Peer evaluations can be a really great way to help students improve their work while they’re lifting your grading load. And usually, this activity is done in real time and you’re guiding it and telling them what to do with each other and what to look for.

Now, this can be done online, but it does require a lot more guidance to be done well. That’s helpful to know; peer evaluation might not be totally absent, but it’s not as strong of a practice.

In your online teaching, it’s very possible that you’re missing these elements and so your grading load is a little bigger, but also we have the physical demand. And instead of writing just a few comments or a grade on the paper, giving it back to the student face-to-face, and talking about the general strengths and areas for growth to an entire class when they’re seated right in front of you, all that you need to tell the student must be typed on the essay.

It actually has to be typed somewhere, unless you’re using a really innovative strategy of providing something like video feedback, which can also be time-consuming. So there is a physical demand involved in online grading.

And lastly, the truth, right? Some teachers just don’t like grading, and it’s easy to put off. If you’re a person who dislikes grading and when you get a large number of assignments all at once, it can feel like a huge task to evaluate them quickly and to get them back to your students in a timely way.

Managing that time and the work of doing it is very challenging if your favorite part of teaching is the class, the face-to-face stuff where you’re helping others explore the subject.

With all of this said, I want to dive into the idea of effective online grading. And I’m going to give you a strategy today that I hope will really help you rein it in, put some limits on this and make it more manageable for you.

The problem is that grading assignments and online classes can be difficult and time-consuming. And if you’re typically a face-to-face teacher and now you’re teaching online, it’s also a big mindset change. There’s a lot that’s different about this.

Now, at a basic level, the work your students are going to submit does need some kind of grading and evaluation from you as the instructor, and this grading needs to be clear. There are a lot of different ways you might grade things, which could include rubrics, grading to a standard or a set of standards. You might have a pass/fail type of grade depending on the item, grading on a curve, and there’s also holistic grading.

Whatever approach you’re going to use, your students just need to know it up front before they submit their work. And they need to receive your grading clearly tied to whatever method or model you’re using.

For example, if you’re using standards in your grading, you would want to include these standards in the assignment description so students know it. If you use a rubric, you would provide a copy to students with the assignment description and then return a marked-up rubric with the graded assignment so they can see their performance in each area.

Understanding your grading is the most important thing here because if you give a student a B, or a C, or a D or whatever on their assignment, they definitely need to know how they earned it, why they got that grade, what they need to improve in the future, and so forth. All the different information that you need to give your students is in your grading and evaluation process.

For anyone who normally teaches live classes in higher education, when you begin teaching online and students are not coming to campus, your experience is missing a lot of those supports that used to be there to minimize the grading workload and to make it a lot easier.

Your online teaching experience is basically asking for much more from you in the grading and evaluation of students’ work. This is why grading assignments for online classes can be difficult and time-consuming, especially if you compare it to traditional experiences I’ve just described.

You might be feeling a little bit overwhelmed with the way your workload has changed and maybe some of the ways you need to evaluate your students’ work.

So let’s look at what will happen if you don’t give students the clear grading and evaluation of their work. First of all, they’re going to continue to make mistakes, or they will fail to grow in their learning. It’s difficult for a student to know if they’re even on track when they don’t get feedback. And of course, there’s the possibility that they will complain that you are not helping them, and they will eventually appeal the grades you give them and the final grade for the course.

Your grading and evaluation must be supported and without support, it’s very difficult to defend it. What will happen if you’re too thorough? Have you ever been too thorough when evaluating your online students’ work? I know I have, especially early in the game when I was first learning how to do this.

And if you’re too thorough, this takes a lot more time, and it can be overwhelming when you have many classes to teach and a lot of assignments to grade. Ultimately when you’re teaching online, you need some kind of strategy and you need a few tools to help you give your students effective, genuine guidance through your grading and evaluative feedback. And you need a system that’s going to help you have efficiency while you’re doing it.

Today, I’m sharing a strategy for grading online students that I’m calling “FOCUS-EQx2.” This strategy is going to help you effectively move through a student’s assignment while you provide the evaluation and feedback. The FOCUS-EQx2 strategy is going to give you specific areas to look at for truly effective grading, and it will help you focus your evaluation overall.

Now in a future episode, I’m also going to tell you about a few tools to help you become more efficient so that you can manage your time well and create a system that works for you. So we’re not talking about tools today; we’re talking about strategy.

Now, let’s dive into this strategy. I’ve been an educator for 25 years, and I’ve taught online for more than 10 years in higher education. I’ve managed hundreds of faculty at an entirely online university in two different schools and in six different departments.

I’m only sharing this background with you today so you know that there are a few details about my background really pertinent to this topic, and I have some perspective on these teaching topics and particularly grading. When I’m managing faculty, one of my roles is to evaluate them and I’m often looking at the quality of their grading and the type of grading they provide.

Now, I want to tell you a little bit about my early experience when teaching online. I struggled to know what I should include in grading comments. I really wanted to help students and I evaluated essays and pretty soon I was putting a lot on there.

It seemed to take me just a lot of time, and it was a lot of effort to provide all of those comments. Some were about grammar and writing and some were about the content and some were about the way things were organized, but it was really just all over the place. So I was making a lot of comments and thinking about a lot of different areas of grading all at once.

And I’ll give you an example of why this was such a big deal. I had one eight-week upper division writing class that I was teaching, and it had one written assignment every week. Each assignment built on each other until the final Week 8 essay, which was a 10-page paper.

Now, all of these assignments needed comments and guidance from me on the paper itself, and they all built on each other leading into that paper, so the feedback was critical. Now that final 10-page paper also needed detailed feedback. You can imagine with very many students this is a large load of grading, right?

Every week, this feedback had to be returned quickly. I was teaching several other online classes at the same time and I sat for hours at the computer; I found it to be really challenging. There were some really late nights and giving all of this evaluation was taking away from time I wanted to be putting into other parts of my teaching, like being in discussions and sending messages to less active students and all those kinds of things, and maybe even making some instructor videos or creative announcements or things like that.

I asked a colleague for tips about how to make this more effective; I really wanted to focus my strategy. She suggested looking at a few key areas and doing them well, and she listed them for me and I started to do them.

Since then, I’ve added to that strategy and it has made my grading so much more effective. This is going to reduce your overwhelming grading load, it really is, and it reduced mine. It also gave me a lot of focus to the process and made the whole practice of giving effective feedback much more streamlined and much more effective.

The strategy can easily be remembered through this acronym: FOCUS-EQx2.

Focus stands for formatting, organization, content, understanding and support. And EQ stands for editing quality, and it also stands for evaluation and qualitative comments. There are two EQs in this strategy and that’s why I’m calling it EQx2.

As you begin to read your student’s paper, you’re going to notice that each area of the FOCUS-EQx2 strategy is going to change. It’s going to be based on and the type of assignment that you’re looking at.

For example, if you have a formal essay or a research paper, we’re going to use all of these areas in detail. And if you’re a grading a multimedia assignment or just a short written reflection, maybe you’re only going to use a few of them.

Regardless, it doesn’t really matter what kind of assignment, having a helpful strategy like this is just going to help you keep yourself organized and avoid getting runaway with just one part of this process or ignoring things that you should really pay attention to.

Let’s talk first about formatting. For each assignment, your students are going to submit, there’s some kind of formatting involved. These are things like the appearance of the assignment and the heading that might be used, the way sources are formatted at the end, how the spacing is between the lines, those kinds of things.

To evaluate the formatting, you can just scan the visual appearance of the assignment. And if that paper should be double-spaced or have a heading in a certain spot, or maybe it needs to use a style like APA or MLA or Chicago, you can add a brief note to commend the student for their excellent formatting or give some guidance about their errors and how to fix them next time.

It’s really important to give this kind of feedback about formatting because we want students to keep learning throughout their education. And we also want them to know what academic writing or different formats that you might be asking them for should look like.

The truth is formatting is very superficial; it’s a really small part of any assignment and you shouldn’t overdo it here. You just want to give it some attention, make a comment, keep it brief and move on quickly.

Second, look at organization. As you start to read through your student’s assignment, you’re going to look for the way the information and the ideas are organized. You’re going to give some feedback here. And in the case of something like a formal essay, maybe the paper usually begins with a paragraph that introduces the topic.

That’s going to give some kind of thesis that tells the main point or the argument or the claim that you’re going to read about in the paper. There’s going to be a body paragraph or many body paragraphs, and each paragraph should be clearly about a topic or an idea that’s organized in a way that makes sense.

Most of the paragraphs in the essay should have a topic sentence at the beginning and the topic sentence really just tells what’s in that paragraph. At the end, there should be a closing paragraph or a conclusion that ties it all together, restates the main point, and brings the important ideas to bear.

When you look over the assignment to evaluate organization, thinking about this kind of structure, all you need to do is look at the opening paragraph and read the first sentence of each body paragraph, and then read the last paragraph to see the organization.

If you can’t find the flow of the topics or really get an idea for what the student is writing about just by reading the topic sentences, then there’s probably a problem with the overall organization of that assignment or essay.

Here you might need to make a suggestion. Maybe you want to suggest using topic sentences in the paragraphs, or you might have bigger advice to give about the overall way that the paper is laid out and organized. Either way, the organization will either be very clear or somewhat unclear, and you can give some commentary and some feedback about that without dwelling on it too long.

The third area is content. This is, of course, one of the bigger parts that you will be evaluating and this is what the student actually addressed. Did they use the right topic, for example? Did they use the academic words they’re supposed to be using? We call that academic vocabulary.

For example, if I’m teaching a music appreciation class, are they using words like tempo, dynamics, form? Are they using those words correctly? Are they actually giving enough description that I can tell what they’re describing? Is the scope of what was covered appropriate to what should have been covered?

Now, that area you want to really focus on because that is the main point of the assignment, right? To cover the content and the next couple of areas, understanding and support.

So when you start to make comments on the content you can do this by way of suggestion, you can make a statement; you can note where they actually covered the key points that you’re looking for. Either way, there should be some kind of comments you’re providing your student about the content.

The fourth area, the understanding, now this is where you’re going to find out the student’s ideas. There are many, many areas that they might go into.

For example, a student might describe something; they might discuss it. They might have analysis that they’ve created. They might make connections between two different ideas. They might show how they demonstrated their understanding and learning through what they’ve written, but what they understand about the topic that they’ve written about, it must be obvious and it needs to be clear.

If you have a student who is taking a lot of sources, they’re paraphrasing and they’re quoting a lot and there’s just not a lot of content they wrote, it’s very difficult to see what they understood. This area could be missing entirely or it might be incredibly pervasive throughout the whole assignment, but you want to look for understanding and evaluate it and give some feedback about that as well.

And then lastly, the support. Support is a tricky area. This is the details, the examples and evidence that were used to support their ideas. And it also includes sources — how they were used, how and where they were included — and potential plagiarism.

If a student uses a lot of supports without citing them and quoting them and all of that kind of thing and if it shows up high on your originality checker, whether it’s SafeAssign or Turnitin or something else, you definitely want to address that. Coach students, if necessary. Deal with the plagiarism concerns and so forth, so support is both about ideas and also about sources.

As you review each area, you want to find a way to at least evaluate and give a little comment about those things. You’re coaching the student in their academic learning, but you’re also mentoring them somewhat in the subject itself.

Now after you’ve reviewed focus, formatting, organization, content, understanding and support, the next area is the EQx2. And this is the editing and quality, and finally the evaluation and qualitative comments.

The editing would be just notes that you might make about writing errors. For example, if you think they’re not using capital letters, if they’re using texting lingo, if they talk about themselves in first person but it should be in third person. If there are just run-on sentences or fragments, things like that, I always suggest marking a few of them in the beginning paragraphs and not dwelling on them throughout the rest. It will take all of your time if you spend time editing a student’s paper; that’s not your job.

If you use something like Grammarly or if you use the features in Turnitin’s GradeMark suite, there is an editing area there and you can actually have students find the editing mistakes themselves. If there are a lot of errors you want to make some kind of comment about that, and you might even direct them to writing help or a tutor if those things are available to you.

The quality is the writing quality. So that also has to do with their tone, their language, the way they’ve presented their writing overall, and again, if necessary, a comment or two could be made there.

Now in the evaluation and qualitative comments, I consider these to be the summary comments you would give at the end of the assignment. So all the rest of these things that I’ve mentioned would be given on the body of an essay or an assignment, or depending on your learning management system you might actually have the ability to highlight, tag, or put little notes next to the paper.

There’s a lot that can be done nowadays in a learning management system, but also in Turnitin’s GradeMark suite. Or if you really want to download the student’s paper in Microsoft Word and just use track changes and put reviewer’s comments and bubbles on it, you could do that as well.

All of the things I’ve covered so far under focus would be brief comments made on the actual assignment. These last two, evaluation and qualitative comments, those could be done at the top of the essay or assignment just in a paragraph. Or they could be done in the grading feedback box when you’re returning this assignment to the student.

The evaluation is your overall statement about the essay. What did they do well, and where do they need to improve?

What did they do well is really important. As faculty and as teachers, it’s really easy for us to always be looking for mistakes. That’s also the default of the human brain; it’s a problem-solving machine so we’re often looking for what’s wrong.

When you give your evaluation, be sure to say something that was strong in the paper, even if it was only the topic choice and is a very weak paper overall. Give some encouragement through that evaluation, but also be specific and tell them what the main area is to focus on for improvement.

And then, the closing is the qualitative comments. That’s part of your summary and that would just be your pros, what you’re writing to the student. You want to say something encouraging and close it and wish them the best on the next assignment and move on.

When you use this method of FOCUS-EQx2 a few times, at first it’s going to take a lot more thought and effort to touch on each area, but soon this strategy is going to give you the effective grading and evaluation that you’re really looking for to help your students the most.

You also want to give structure in your approach to keep it organized and help your time stay in check, and this FOCUS-EQx2 strategy will do that for you. Although your online teaching asks a lot more of you in grading and evaluation detail, this is also an area where you can keep teaching and keep getting to know your students.

I encourage you this week to try the FOCUS-EQx2 strategy on your next round of grading, and I wish you all the best in your online teaching.

About the Speaker

Bethanie HansenDr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities at American Public University. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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