Give Yourself Permission Not to Mark

The following is a reflection upon Episode 121: How to Streamline Assessment and Spend Less Time Grading, a podcast by Angela Watson.

Procrastination about grading has been a consistent part of my life as an educator. Too many of my weekends are spent feeling guilty about the pile of marking I should have forced myself to do during the week. Sunday generally revolves around the drawn-out processes of getting myself into the headspace to tackle the task. My quality of life would obviously improve if I were disciplined enough to set aside specific times each week for marking and to make sure I did everything before the weekend. On the other hand, devotion to this kind of disciplined practice would not reduce my actual workload. A more appealing plan would be to eliminate work altogether.

Most educators have had students placed in our class partway through a course or school year. It would be surprising to hear of a teacher dealing with this situation by handing the students a bundle of work that was an exact match to what the students who had been there all along had received. Most educators would examine their outcomes, decide what was essential, and scrap assignments that didn’t directly relate to achieving these outcomes. If educators can focus their expectations to match the outcomes when under pressure, they surely can find a way to do it on a daily basis in order to safeguard the wellbeing of students and themselves.

Angela Watson says, “Do less, better.” We convince ourselves that we need to have several assessments to demonstrate the outcomes have been met. Assessments done right after the introduction of a new concept or skill are not as effective as those done after repeated lessons. Teachers would save themselves much time by not formally assessing assignments given during the formative period. We are afraid students will ignore everything that does not affect their report card grade, which would result in the final assessment becoming formative. The teachers on Angela Watson’s podcast confessed having this worry. They also pointed out the other side, which is that we do not want our students only to be motivated by grades. One teacher admitted he needed to be a little unpredictable. He didn’t necessarily tell a student if an assessment was going to be considered Formative or Summative, which kept the students on their feet. During the podcast interviews, another teacher said she tracked the assignments she that weren’t assessed formally as Collected or Missing.

(Nicole) “Most work, I only track as “collected” or “missing.” I only take the time to formally grade things that are summative assessments. We use standards-based report cards, and you don’t want an average of everything they’ve ever done on the topic. You want a measurement of where they are at currently. I use this to guide my decisions about what to grade. If it doesn’t give me an accurate reflection of where they are currently at in their learning, it doesn’t get a formal grade. To this end, I also tend to record more grades later in a term than early in a term, as I know those earlier scores won’t be an accurate reflection of what they know in another month or two.”

My students tend to skip over anything you tell them isn’t being formally assessed. I think I would take most of Nicole’s advice, except I would average those Collected and Missing assignments as a small percentage of their formal assessment. Considering what I heard in this podcast, I think I would also try Erin’s approach.

(Erin) “I try to take the “they write way more than I could possibly grade” approach. Whenever I can, I’ll give the students the option: “You wrote two op-ed pieces: pick one to turn in.”  I also try to look at it from a skills perspective: What am I trying to assess here?  Have I assessed this before, and if so, am I happy with their progress? I used to think planning out as far as I possibly could was the best method, but now I’m seeing the value in finding a balance between planning ahead and leaving myself the flexibility to add or subtract assignments or slow down planning based on how that particular class is performing.”

My plan for the final term is two-fold:

a) Use my modification of Nicole’s approach, giving Formative assignments a mark based on whether they were Collected or they’re Missing.

b) Try Erin’s approach in the form of portfolios. I want students to take ownership of their work by letting them have a choice in what gets counted as Formative or Summative. This will allow them to select their best work, and take me off the hook to formally assess every piece of work.

Another huge time-waster when it comes to assessment is the need as an English teacher to edit and write comments on each assignment. The first strategy I am going to try is selecting one particular grammatical issue to concentrate on for each assessment. The second one is based on something Erin says in Angela Watson’s podcast:

(Erin) “This one I have to thank Dave Stuart, Jr. for. I keep the stopwatch feature of my phone clock open when I grade and use the lap timer feature to keep myself on pace.  I also keep a sticky note next to me and jot down error trends I see that I can address to the class when I pass them back or plan mini lessons around.  It saves me from writing “awkward” or “show, don’t tell” dozens of times on each individual paper.”

I love the idea of collecting error trends, then teaching a lesson that addresses these trends. We all want our assessment to be an opportunity to learn. I think the sticky-note trends strategy will save me an enormous amount of time, while also providing an opportunity to learn from errors.

Check out my fiction on Wattpad

Second Self

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