Climb that mountain of ungraded papers with confidence… and smart skills!

Grading papers sucks.

There. I said it.

Most of us got into our profession because we love teaching. When we design courses and lessons, when we interact with our classes in discussion, when we see the look of wonder on our students’ faces at the moment of significant learning, we feel a charge of accomplishment and authentic meaning. Sometimes we feel that in the best student essays we read, too. And then…

What kills us a little each time is different for different teachers. Maybe it’s the frustration of noting the difference between genuine student struggle and a genuine lack of effort. Maybe we chafe at the instructions unfollowed, or the writing mechanics still unmastered (and unproofread). Or maybe it’s just the mountain of paper at the start of the process. Mountain climbers may climb the mountains because they are there. We aren’t freaking mountain climbers. We never asked to be, we never trained to be… and the threat of the seemingly insurmountable task can hit many of us (especially the serial procrastinators among us, myself included) with a sense of paralysis.

Of course, pro mountain climbers don’t just gambol out into the wilderness with a rucksack and a jaunty song and start climbing. Through knowledge of appropriate equipment and safety rules, and the wisdom that comes from reflective practice, they have learned how to prepare and proceed in order to reach the summit most effectively — at the right pace, applying the best practices, and avoiding the slippery spots that can send the unwary off the edge. And by climbing those mountains in the right way, the pros can forego the dread of “inevitable” risk and enjoy the purpose of the climb.

Rick Reis of the tomorrows-professor listserv introduces us to a fellow climber, Brian Martin of the University of Wollongong. He reminds us of some important best practices in essay grading that can keep us safe and sane, and thus help us approach grading’s true purpose: as the assessment-as-teaching needed for effective student learning.



The posting below gives some excellent advice on how to approach the task of marking, or grading, student essay assignments. It is from the September 8, 2014 issue of the postings on a blog by Brian Martin, professor of social sciences in the Humanities and Social Inquiry department at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and is reprinted with permission. More information about his blog and how to subscribe can be found at:

Rick Reis

Marking (Grading) Essays: Making it Easier and More Fun

It’s worthwhile discovering methods to make marking more enjoyable. The same methods can be used to tackle other dreaded tasks.

Sitting on your desk is a pile of essays that need to be marked. There might be just 10 or 20, or maybe 50, 100 or more. For most teachers, this is not an eagerly awaited task. Is there some way to make marking easier and more enjoyable?

I’ve been marking undergraduate essays for over 25 years and have tried out various methods to make the task less onerous. Gradually I’ve discovered ways that work well for me. You may or may not want to adapt these for your own circumstances. In any case, I encourage you to undertake your own search for better methods. If you’re looking ahead at 25 years of marking, surely it’s worthwhile to explore better ways to go about it.

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Why Saving Work for Tomorrow Doesn’t Work

As we all know (but often try to forget), procrastination is a professional killer and a personal stressor. Whether it’s that nagging pile of essays that need grading or that essay submission that needs reviewing, the impulse to put it off usually causes more problems than it solves. This piece by Elizabeth Grace Saunders in the Harvard Business Review provides some important perspective, as well as two useful strategies for keeping your inner procrastinator at bay.

Unlock your students’ superpowers with team work!

Any comic book geek can tell you the value of teams. Sure, when we think of the “team” concept, many of us default to sports — football, baseball, etc. But I’m thinking of the Avengers, the Justice League, the X-Men: not only do these teams repeatedly save the world, but their success stems in part from their optimal mix.

Consider the Justice League’s Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. This mix involves not just their unique superpowers (invulnerability and strength; intelligence and stealth; magical weapons), but also their singular identities that can often clash, but still complement and complete each other (optimism and a clear moral compass; cynical skepticism and ruthless pragmatism; power and resolve informed by gender identity).

Teams can be powerful things. If done right, not only can they accomplish important things together that they never could individually, but the interactions of teams can help folks of diverse backgrounds, personalities and skill sets learn from each other by learning about each other. A confident consensus has built around the notion that collaborative opportunities are high-impact practices for deep student learning.

This assumes, of course, that the opportunities are designed and led in ways that are productive rather than self-defeating… because there are few things students loathe more than high-stakes projects involving a dysfunctional group.

I am super happy to have David Gooblar on the Augustana team. He teaches writing for us, and is a central player on Pedagogy Unbound, a great blog on great ideas for teaching. You should follow it. And read what he has to say on team-based learning (TBL).


How—and Why—to Split Your Students Into Teams

July 23, 2014

Want more teaching tips? Browse the Pedagogy Unbound archives.

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but we’re coming to the end of July. That means that summer, which seems as if it just got started, is already past its peak and a new semester is just around the corner. If your term doesn’t start until September, you can go back to your cocktail and your Edan Lepucki novel (or, more likely, iced coffee and furious writing on the research you don’t have time to do while teaching). But for the rest of us, it’s time to start thinking about teaching strategies for the term ahead.

Now, before everything gets super-busy again, is the time to begin thinking about overarching ideas for the courses you will teach this fall, ways you might approach the structure of a course from top to bottom. One such systemic approach is “team-based learning,” first developed at the University of Oklahoma business school in the late 1970s and popularized by Larry Michaelsen. Building on research that suggested that students learn better when they collaborate with their peers, team-based learning has evolved into an elaborate system of best practices designed to get the most out of group work. The website for the “Team-Based Learning Collaborative” and, more succinctly, this 12-minute video from the University of Texascan give you a good overview of the system if you’d like to use it.

But if you’re like me, you’re a little reluctant to adopt a pedagogical system whole hog. I’m more likely to look to marry aspects of a number of systems, taking strategies from here and there, hoping to construct an approach that suits my style of teaching and the specific courses I have to teach. So I thought I’d share with you a couple of ideas worth taking from team-based learning (henceforth TBL) and importing into your own individual teaching style. This column will look at a smart way to form groups, or teams, and my next piece will look into a great way to make use of teams to help students learn course material.

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