Assessment cannot occur without feedback, including specific and constructive criticism when applicable. A lot of teachers believe this means they have carte blanche to unsheathe their trusty red pen and start hacking away at your work. They seem to take pleasure in drawing Xs and Os and making comments and criticisms all over the once-orderly paper. Many teachers secretly enjoy leaving their marks, like dogs on fire hydrants.

The effect that this sort of grading can have on a student is enormous. Not only can it jeopardize their trust and comfort level with the subject matter and teacher, but it can leave the teacher open to reciprocal hostility. Teachers have to grade papers anyway, and it takes hours to grade them thoroughly whether the comments are meaningful or not. 'Might as well do it right.

Here's how:

  1. Throw away your red pen. Go buy blues and greens and oranges and any other color you think stands out against the student's work. Why? Think of how you felt when a teacher handed back a paper covered in blood--I mean red. What did you think? Red invokes panic, anger, and excitement. It is the color of STOP! and NO! and not at all the message you're looking to send.

  2. Before you begin grading, sit down and sketch out your expectations. Rubrics are always helpful, or just a brief outline of your point distribution. Ideally, your students should have had some sort of overview of this system. It's not fair to make up the rules as you go.

  3. Look over the class set briefly. Skim each paper or project without reading it too thoroughly. You're getting an idea for the average level of effort, focus and style. Grading is always somewhat subjective, so if you just dive right in you may be too easy or hard on the first works you assess.

  4. Now it's time to look at each student's work individually. At this point you should be reading, making mental connections and formulating feedback. Resist the urge to mark up the paper as you go; you need to get an idea for the whole picture before you hone in on any smaller pieces.

  5. Once you have a good idea of what you'd like to say to the student, pause. Are your comments specific, accurate, and helpful? Always have at least one more positive comment than you have negative ones. Also, you should have no more than 3 focus areas for each student, so you don't overwhelm them. Only then should you let that pen fly!

  6. Are you noticing the same mistakes on several papers? Look for commonalities among the papers and make a list. You'll want to prepare some sort of class review to cover any major reoccuring errors.

  7. After every student's work receives specific feedback and an overall grade, record the grades in your gradebook in pencil. Pencil can be erased, should you decide to make last-minute changes to the grade.

  8. The work should be handed back in a timely fashion. The day you pass back the work, you'll want to briefly review before each student receives their grade. If you pass back the work first, don't expect their attention to be focused on your lesson. They'll be too concerned about their grades to listen.

Teacher comments on papers shouldn't be a random smattering of one-liners or vague reminders. They should be created methodically and professionally, with respect to the student and his or her work.

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