I have been teaching for almost twenty years, and I have learned a lot in that time, including how little students know about the work professors do. That is partly where this post comes from. When I assign a piece of formal writing in my classes, I tell students that it will take me one to two weeks to return papers to them. Occasionally, I get asked why it takes that long. I try to explain quickly, but it often doesn't feel right. So, I am creating this post so that students can understand how I grade. And I do not mean how I decide what gets an A, B, or C; my general grading rubric does that. This is the actual process I follow when I get papers from a class. It's not that amazing or interesting, but I just want to make visible something that is generally invisible. Too much happens behind closed doors, and it does not have to be that way. So, if you are in one of my classes, and you write an essay for me, here's what I do next.
First, I download all of the essays I have received, giving them clear names so I can distinguish between clean copies and copies that will contain my comments. That way, I do not return the wrong essay to a student. Because I use Dropbox as my storage system, all of those essays get backed up immediately, too, so there is no chance they will get lost.
Next, I count how many essays I have to grade. Then, I look at my personal schedule and see what is coming up for me over the next couple of weeks, how many meetings I have or other deadlines I must meet. At that point, I decide when I want to have these essays returned and how many I need to grade each day to meet that goal. For me, grading several essays in a row is a bad idea because I get tired, and the essays I grade last end up with fewer comments and less feedback. That is not fair. Therefore, I came up with this method. If I only have five essays to grade, I can grade them without feeling rushed.
Then, I start grading. I always grade essays in the order in which I received them. I open up the document that is supposed to contain my comments, and I start commenting. As I do this, I keep a copy of the prompt for the assignment close by so I can remember what the exact requirements are. Depending on the assignment, grading can take from ten to thirty minutes. Usually, I grade three and take a break. As I grade each essay, I write down the student's name, their grade, and a couple of words about why they received that grade on a legal pad I keep next to my computer. This helps me keep grades consistent. If I gave a student a B- because of lack of evidence, then I know that other essays with the same problem should get the same grade unless there are other issues are play, too.
After that, one of two things happen. If it's a small class of twelve students or so, I will grade all of the essays. Then, I review the grades to make sure I have been consistent. This means opening up some of the essays to review my comments or just checking my list of grades to see if anything seems odd. In the past few years, making sure I am consistent has not been an issue. After grading writing for almost twenty years, I know what I am doing. I just like to make sure. Also, this is when I develop the list of general issues that I plan to review during class. After this review, I email all of the essays back. In a class of about twenty students or so, I may email back the essays by students who turned them in first once I have completed about two-thirds of the grading. That is usually more than enough to ensure consistency and clarity on my part. And, if you have the chance to revise, it gives the students who turned in their work first a few more days, maybe, to think about those revisions.
When I grade formal essays, I attach the graded essay to a reply to the email the student sent that contained the essay. I include a generic message that describes how to find my comments and understand the marks on the page. I then hit "Send." If I am grading a revision, I generally do not comment within essays since students have already gotten such feedback from me on the first draft. Instead, in my email replying back, I will write a paragraph that states the grade the essay has earned and why. I will always be glad to go over revisions for any students who are thinking of revising them again for writing samples to go with graduate school or job applications.
If any essays are late but still within the time I will take them, which is stated on the syllabus, I will grade those after I have returned all essays sent on time. If I have multiple classes that all have essays due around the same time, grading late work can take even longer. I do not comment on late essays, but I do send an email back saying what grade that essay has received. As I say on the syllabus, we can review these essays in my office, especially if you have the chance to revise.
I should add that I do almost all of my grading at home where I have a big desk, large computer screen, and comfortable chair. Sometimes, I have the TV on playing some marathon of America's Next Top Model or Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, shows I have seen many times before and that function as white noise, blocking out anything that might disrupt me. Sometimes, I'll have the radio on, usually B96 on iTunes. Complete quiet makes too aware of every creak in floors or car driving by outside, which does discombobulate me. I always try to create a space and time where I can focus until I have met that day's quota. I know some professors who light candles and others who make sure they have certain (non-alcoholic!) drinks or snacks nearby. I stick with water.
If there is anything else anyone wants to know about my grading process, just ask. I really do think professors should make more of what we do clear to students.