Can we give assignments that aren’t too time-consuming to grade? Part II

Last week’s blog post gave a few ideas of kinds of assignments we could give our students that are challenging for them, but perhaps a little less onerous for us to grade. Here are a few more ideas. I think the key factors for me are variety, brevity and student ownership. If the students enjoy doing the assignment or if the topic is personally relevant to them, the quality of their work will be better.

6. Shorter papers more often

Writing, and often, gives our students practice using the language of a discipline and gives them practice expressing themselves more clearly in a general way. Short, two or three page papers assigned every two or three weeks will give your students lots of practice and will force them to keep up better with your course, particularly when compared with a single ten or 12 page paper given at the end of semester.

I would rather grade a short stack of two page papers every couple of weeks than a huge stack of 20 page papers twice.  One reason is that the writing invariably improves. Another reason is I have a much better idea if my students are understanding the course material. And, of course, I’m done with each paper much faster.

For some of my senior seminar courses, I have required a weekly “response” or “reaction” paper that is two pages in length. Sure, it’s no fun to have a stack of grading every week of the semester. BUT, the papers are short and so I can easily grade them in a few hours. Most of the time, I have a check-check-minus type of grading system for these weekly papers. The important goal of the papers is frequent articulation of course material and making sure they have read the papers assigned for the class discussion. It’s particularly important to get the students in the habit of writing down their thoughts on a subject in an organized way. You can always front-load your semester with short papers in the first half of the semester and then taper off a bit the second half. (But beware your students “checking out”)

7. Blog or Moodle Posts

These are great. Short essays of one or two paragraphs directed by a query from you or as a discussion organizer, blog/moodle posts can help you gauge student understanding of readings. The posts can also help you plan a class discussion. The problem with these is that they are so popular that often students have to write a post for each course before each class session and they can get overwhelmed by what begins to seem like busy work. I’d recommend you use blog/moodle posts sparingly. The easiest way to grade electronic postings is with a check system, or you could provide a quick comment in a return posting.

8. Oral presentations

I’ve had introductory level students do brief oral presentations in small groups to give them a little practice standing up at the front of the room. If you are teaching cell biology, you could have students present about a particular kind of cell (liver cell, kidney cell, etc). Have them investigate aspects of cells that you covered in class. This kind of assignment is easy to grade and has a lot of variety. You can definitely tell if the students understand the fundamental concepts if they can speak about them clearly.

Presentations always take quite a bit of class time. However, students can cover a lot of ground in a short period of time (say, 8 or 10 min) if you provide them with specific instructions or a rubric as to what to include in their presentation. It’s easy to grade because you have those same guidelines. You could combine this kind of assignment with a “flipped” class where the students view a lecture or video in advance and incorporate that material with the oral presentations.

9. Poster presentations

This is a variation on a theme of oral presentations. Posters are particularly useful for student project presentations. They are a nice blend of written material and visual material. They are easy to grade- much easier to grade than to put together. Students usually put a lot of time into making their posters look good, so they are pretty pleasant to grade as well. I usually make myself a grading rubric to fill out as I go through each poster. The rubric keeps me even-handed with each poster so my grading is more consistent. The rubric also gives me something to write on so I don’t scribble all over the posters (although sometimes I do some scribbling anyway). You can either just have the students turn in their posters (sometimes I do this for integrative course assignments instead of a written midterm). Or, you can have students present their posters to each other (and you). This is pretty time-consuming, so you need to take time away from class material to do this. This gets unwieldy for large classes.

10. In-class group work to be handed in

This kind of assignment can take various forms. I recently tried an exam-style assignment that I allowed groups to work on together. I’m actually trying that again today because it’s a new topic and the reading for today has tons of great content and major concepts. Another great in-class small group assignment is making a concept map to link readings or to sum up a subtopic. Group assignment grading means you have fewer of them. If you give the assignment during class, you can observe the participation of each group member and get a sense for which students seem to be struggling or seem not to be prepared.

The kind of assignment you give should directly address one or more of your pedagogical goals and should allow you to assess student learning and understanding. It doesn’t have to result in a monumental stack of grading all the time (maybe some of the time). What ideas do you have to add to this list?