Managing the Paper Load

For faculty members and teaching assistants, dealing with a seemingly endless volume of student work is one the most challenging facets of teaching with writing. Careful planning can allow you to both maximize your time and provide useful feedback.

The following guidelines (along with guidelines for effective grading practices) can help you manage the paper load and make the inclusion of writing assignments in your course more feasible.

  1. Remember that you do not need to read and comment on everything students write. To paraphrase Peter Elbow, if you are reading everything your students write, then your students are not doing enough writing. For informal, exploratory writing, it is often sufficient to provide a brief comment or have students share and respond to each other, or read a subset from a whole section to use as a basis for oral comment in class. This is especially true if the writing activity is coordinated with a future assignment, activity, or discussion. As detailed in the responding to informal writing page, many writing assignments require very little or moderate instructor response time, while still providing great benefit to student writers.
  2. Comment before giving grades. Research suggests that many students interpret comments on graded drafts as justifications for grades rather than as formative feedback to be applied to future work. Comments made on end-of-the-term papers and projects are the least likely to be read meaningfully by students. To save time while still providing important support for student writing, consider using a rubric, supplemented with a few important comments. Extensive commentary on assignments that students will not actually revise or apply to a future assignment has limited pedagogical value.
  3. Use a minimal marking strategy. Research has shown that making a checkmark or an exclamation mark in the margin can be enough to draw a student’s attention to successful moments in their writing, signaling where they have supported a key idea, etc. Likewise, a squiggly underline or a question mark can indicate places where you are uncertain of the main idea the student is presenting and the need for clarification. While minimal marks alone cannot suffice for full feedback, they can save you some time to write a few important comments elsewhere in the paper, and they can serve as a roadmap should you decide to conduct a brief conference with the student. For instructors who use a minimal marking strategy, providing a key or guide will allow writers to translate the instructor's minimal marks into meaningful feedback.
Person writing on wooden table near mug, phone and notebook.
  1. Be highly selective about marking sentence-level errors. Correcting mistakes requires much time while helping students very little. Studies have consistently shown that time instructors spend editing for  grammar is largely wasted because it prevents students from learning the conventions through their own proofreading. Studies also show that when instructors focus on sentence-level mistakes, they tend to neglect more important content-oriented comments. 
  2. Prioritize comments that address the key learning objective for the assignment. What are the assignment’s primary objectives? What writing-thinking moves will count most in the grade? What is going well? What actions can the student take that will lead to improvement? Fewer yet effective comments that indicate a clear scale of concern are cognitively more manageable for students than a welter of feedback.
  3. Keep a list of common concerns to address to the class. A timely five-minute revision workshop that addresses an important and symptomatic issue in student writing can be offered for many students. Brief classroom activities can save you the hassle of duplicating the same comments on a number of student papers. 
  4. Develop a digital bank of common comments. If you are responding to student writing in a digital format, you can copy and paste comments that you find yourself writing repeatedly. Such comments need not be overly generic to be reproducible. For example, “I’m having difficulty following your line of reasoning here” might easily apply to more than one or two papers you read. 
  5. Include students in the process of feedback and reflection. Research shows that using peer response benefits students on more than one level, and it can help you manage the process of drafting and revising in ways that do not diminish or negate important stages of the writing process. Research also underscores the value of asking students to reflect on their writing throughout the writing process.
  6. Explore other feedback strategies. If you are feeling especially burnt out out by your typical approach to commenting on papers, consider using other formats to change your routine. Some instructors have had good success and renewed energy using audio and video features for responding to student writing.
  7. Be candid and transparent with your students. Letting your students know that you have X-amount of student work to read in one week and that you can spend X-amount of time on each piece of student writing in order to return them in a timely fashion can humanize the process of teaching and learning.