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Justin Caouette

Marcus, how about asking students to put a (C) on their paper if they want comments to save time?

I assigned papers and gave extensive comments on each of them this past term. I still have 50% of the papers in my possession (with the comments I spent hours writing)so I'm not seeing how comments on the papers of students who don't care is helping anyone at all. To be clear, I'm not saying writing extensive comments is pointless. What I am suggesting is that students write a (C) for comments at the top of their essay if they would like comments.

Also, if someone did not initially want comments but changes their mind in light of their grade, then one could offer to look it over and return it to the student at a later date with comments. Even if this occurs with some students there would be substantial time saved if many do not care, as it seems that many might not.


Sorry, Marcus. I know people who use this method (and I am likely to implement it myself) and they love it and students love it. What's the point of providing feedback that 95% of students won't read or use? Why waste our labour? Rather, why not put the effort toward the students who *will* use it?

These aren't about shortcuts: they're about not utterly throwing away tens of work hours. I'm *happy* to meet with a student for 30min or even longer. I love this approach to grading.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Justin: Thanks for your comment. I guess I'm okay with that, at least for final papers.

Rachel: Thanks for your comment, too, but I think I gave my answer in the OP. First, I don't think 95% of students don't read or use comments. Second, I think students love and appreciate it *more* if you show that you care by going the extra mile. Third, I think it clearly is a shortcut, and makes us bad role-models for students. (There's a reason why the Daily Nous post was entitled, "Grading Shortcuts").

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

Some questions:

First, using your method, about how long does it (nowadays) take for you to grade a paper?

Second, about how long can you grade before you need to take a break -- and I'm construing "break" generously. So, having to stand up and walk around for 30 seconds is a break; having to get a glass of water is a break (but being momentarily distracted by a text message is not a break).

Third, using this method, how long did it take you to grade a single paper at first?


"First, I don't think 95% of students don't read or use comments."

Why don't you think this, again?

Like most, I used to leave extensive comments on papers. But I stopped doing it when, time and time again, about half of my students wouldn't even bother themselves to pick up their second and third papers each semester.

Jerry Green

I think your method can actually be a time-saver if done right. I do something smaller but similar, and I've noticed that:

(1) My students almost *never* bother me changing grades, b/c my explanation/justification is there in the feedback. You can lose a few hours every big assignment dealing with emails & office hours about grade appeals, and those hours can be rather unpleasant.

(2) You rarely have to reread assignments, b/c your feedback can double as notes on the assignment. This also helps if you have to write a letter of recommendation for a student, if you're taking progress into account for the final grade, etc.

(3) Good feedback early tends to make subsequent assignments better. And better assignments can be graded more quickly. So investing time early can pay off.

(4) Typing out a cover sheet allows you to paste in an explanation for mistakes that students frequently make. This is much faster than handwriting it over and over.

Not to mention, giving detailed feedback can be beneficial to the grader as well. All in all, I think its worth the investment.

Fight the good fight.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: I should probably clarify something at this point. I do *not* have a problem with asking students whether they want comments at the end of the semester (on their final papers). In this case, I am fine with it because, as you point out, almost none of them ever pick them up the next semester. But this was NOT what the Daily Nous article or the article it linked to were about. Both of them discussed "grading shortcuts" not merely as an end-of-semester deal, but rather as a *standing policy*. That is what I have a problem if. If you want to use shortcuts (viz. cut-and-paste rubrics) on end-of-semester final papers, that's fine. But, as a general practice, I find it abhorrent, and for the reasons I gave in the post.

Hi Rob: It's hard to say precisely how long it takes. It really depends on the course level. For an intro-level course, I'd say anywhere between 15-35/40 minutes per paper. I don't know if this sounds like a lot of time or not a lot of time, but I feel like I rip through them *and* do them justice (my comments are voluminous, and when I look back at them later -- before I assigning final paper grades -- I find them accurate). I think when I started it took me longer, but I've become a very fast reader and commenter.

JG: Thanks for the comment! I find it a time-saver too. I'll keep fighting if you do. :)

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rob: I just realized I forgot to answer part of your comment. I usually grade 2-3 papers at a time, then do something else for an hour or so (lectures, paper revising), then do 2-3 papers, repeat. I used to try to just power through stacks of papers in long sittings, but that was just brutal -- and I found my paper comments got angrier sounding the longer I was at it, which is not a good thing! I've found the task is far more tolerable, and my comments more supportive, when I space grading out as above.

Euan MacDonald

Thanks for this post - I found it very interesting, as I am considering implementing this kind of policy (with a written comment opt-in for those who can't make or don't want a face-to-face meeting). Over the past two years I have done a mixture of both detailed written comments and in-person discussions: my sense is that the students appreciate both, but that the majority prefer the latter, simply because they can direct the feedback, follow up any points they aren't clear on, etc. I don't see offering every student in the class a 20-30 minute meeting at all as a shortcut; simply as a more efficient method (from both ends, as it were) of going the extra mile.


How can a student learn to write bearer papers (surely one goal of papers) without fairly detailed feedback? This is part of the job.

Michel X.


On the other hand, how can students learn to write better papers if only 50% of the class picks theirs up by the end of the term? That was the case for me this term, despite handing them back in class (among other things!). It's disappointing, and more than a little demoralizing when I stop to think of the amount of time I spent commenting on (not just grading) those papers. It's also disappointing, however, because that time probably would have been better spent commenting even more thoroughly on the other papers (or otherwise devoting it to those students).

I don't mean to take a position one way or another with respect to the issue of whether to allow students to opt out of comments, but I can't help but indulge thoughts like the above when the pickup rate is so low.

Rob Gressis

Hi Marcus,

I have to admit, I was assuming that you're some kind of super-being, someone who could grade seven hours straight with literally no interruptions (I have a colleague like that in my department), so I was gearing myself up to say, "Marcus, you're special, the rest of us are not like that." But it turns out your threshold isn't too much higher than mine is. That said, I assign about two papers per semester per student, and I teach between 90 and 130 students per semester. So, using your method, I would have to spend between 90 and 130 hours of grading per semester (about 60 minutes per student). I take it that's about what you spend?


Require them to pick up all but the final papers (I'm ok with no comments on those, save for students who want them, for the reasons you gave) and if you like give assignments like rewriting that require students to read and respond to the comments. Teachers are supposed to teach. Good, concrete specific (and timely)Feedback is critical to that. There is lots of evidence for this. This looks like just one more way to avoid the work of teaching (which, when done right, is very difficult). I think this is one reason why many are growing disenchanted with the academy.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rob: I have no idea how much time I spend. I typically have 75 students per term, but in addition to two term papers -- the first of which I encourage them to rewrite multiple times (with detailed comments by me on each draft) -- I also have them turn in daily 1/2-page assignments, as well as daily in-class group assignments. I spend a ton of time grading -- but it's worth it. And it doesn't overly interfere with my ability to do research.

Michel: I can't believe that only 50% of your students pick up their papers during the term! I'll have *maybe* one or two students fail to ever pick theirs up. Also, there are ways to encourage them to pick up, read, and learn from comments. For instance, I am a *brutal* grader, but I also let me students rewrite their first term-papers as many times as they wish (with comments each time). Anywhere between 50-75% of my students avail themselves of the opportunity, and improve their papers (and writing abilities) immensely.

Trevor Hedberg

I probably have less teaching experience than most people here, but in my four years of grading papers, I have always left fairly detailed in-text comments and a rubric at the end evaluating the paper along five metrics: comprehension, clarity, quality of reasoning, originality, and grammar. During that time, I cannot recall a single instance of ever being thanked on a student evaluation for the detail of my comments, even though I know they are more elaborate than what students typically receive on their papers. Moreover, while there are some students who improve as a result of my comments, it is far more common for students to make the exact same mistakes on their second papers that I flagged on their first papers. In some teaching workshops I have attended at the university, some faculty and others have also mentioned that leaving comments that are too detailed can overwhelm the students and cause them to have difficulty deciphering the central problems that they need to fix to improve their work. (I admit that I cannot recall what research was presented to support this data.) Some students will also just be too lazy to read thorough comments and just glance at the numerical grade near the end; these students will benefit more from a numerical rubric offering a concise summary of the paper's strengths and weaknesses than any in-text comments.

Our semester only ended a few days ago, and in light of these experiences and observations, I have been contemplating some changes to my grading procedure. While I think we do have an obligation to give all students some form of feedback on their papers, I don't think there is anything objectionable about searching for ways to do so efficiently. Marcus, it almost seems like your primary objection to the post on Daily Nous is its title: "Grading Shortcuts." On your view, there is something wrong with communicating the message to students that its okay to take shortcuts with regard to our professional obligations. But if the post had been titled "Grading Efficiently" and the central considerations recast in that light, this objection disappears, since I suspect we do want our students to work efficiently on whatever tasks they need to complete. "Taking a shortcut" suggests slacking off and trying to cut corners to do the bare minimum of what's required; "Working efficiently" suggests using one's time effectively and finding speedier ways to achieve the desired results. I see nothing objectionable about trying to "work efficiently" in this context by using a rubric, abbreviation system, etc., to achieve comparable results to detailed in-text comments in less time.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Thanks for your comment.

I do not merely have a problem with the title "grading shortcuts." The *only* time I think it is okay to give the students a "comments option" is on the final draft of the final paper, as they are unlikely to pick it up after the semester is over. I think is *is* a shortcut -- in a problematic sense -- to merely use rubrics or "comments option" on any other assignment.

As you note, using your time efficiently is using time effectively to achieved desired results. But what are the desired results here? Answer: student learning and improvement. This cannot be done without extensive feedback. Sorry, it can't.

I also think, again, that the claim that most students don't care is false. Here are a few student comments I received just this semester:

"I have never received such detailed feedback from a professor."

"He really showed me my mistakes without appropriating my writing."

"Really good detail."

"Paper feedback was extremely helpful."

"Extensive feedback with detailed critique, excellent."

"Feedback was thorough and accurate."


Marcus,I appreciate your passion for your students; however, I have been grading for almost 16 years, always providing extensive comments, requiring between 45 minutes to one hour per essay. I read every word, mark every error, and provide suggestions for improvement. When I arrive to class following the return of an essay, most of my class greets me with sullen stares. When one student finally says, "I don't know why I made the grade I made, everyone erupts in protests with comments like, "I've never failed an essay in my life!" I had my high school AP teacher look at it!" I calmly reply, "Did you open it, click on the vertical, red line in the left margin, and read my comments and suggestions?" Most just sit and stare again. Others say, "I didn't have time" or "No, I only wanted to see the grade," which is on the rubric in Angel, by the way. I ask, "Well, Did you view the rubric?" Again, the same blank stares.

The real issue is I put in more time, more thought, and certainly more detail into grading their essays than they do in writing them. I teach SIX English classes with between 20 - 25 students. I have no private life, my health has seriously declined because of all the hours I spend sitting on my booty grading. I'm going to implement this grading strategy and offer a line-by-line assessment during office hours should they wish one.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jennifer: Thanks for your comment. I am very sorry to hear that your health and well-being are suffering. You are certainly right. One's grading standards and practices must be balanced against other things. In any case, the real problem seems to me to be your workload. Six classes of 20-25 students is an incredible teaching load. I'm sure you have good reasons to teach that many classes, but it certainly does seem to me to be too many, at least when it comes to balancing one's duties as an instructor and one's duties to oneself.


Today, I just collected final exam essays from my 130 students in various humanities classes. I collect them on the very last day of class. I tell them that I am happy to provide detailed comments for anyone who wants them. All they have to do is attach a self addressed stamped envelope. Today, six people turned in finals with an envelope. I'll mark up those six, approximately an hour each, and the other 124 I'll read, grade, and move on. Sometimes I get more envelopes, but rarely over 20. The funny part is that it's almost always the best students (probably because they read their comments) that turn in envelopes, so I usually massively enjoy reading and commenting on my "envelope people" papers. To me, it's a win/win.

Matt Drabek

This is a big labor issue, and the use of Dennett as an example makes that particularly clear. I mean, how many total students does Dennett even have in a semester? 15? 20? 30?

For people teaching 4/4 loads with up to 150+ students (and probably 200+ students for many), this model is extremely labor-intensive, and it's hard to see how it would be a fair expectation to place on the instructor.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Matt: Like I said in my above response to Jennifer, I agree. One must find the right balance, given the labor constraints one faces. But, I would add, this just goes to show that current labor situations are terrible, both for many faculty and their students. If prevailing labor situations require us to choose between our own well-being and doing right by our students (in terms of how we grade them), that is, indeed, an awful situation.

Amanda Austermann

I give a ton of feedback. I spend about 30-45 minutes per paper on poorly written assignments and around 10 minutes on those written well. I have 165 students so I assign major papers before fall break and spring break so I have time to grade them. I used to find that students would just take a poor grade and not read my comments. So now I have labeled each row's last column with the words (0-automatic rewrite necessary)
This means that in the grade book the entire paper is marked as a zero. Yes, even if they hit every other part of the rubric perfectly. The comment code I use is NR-which leaves the comment "student's assignment could not be graded as is due to not meeting minimum expectations. Student will be required to revise.
They have to write all my feedback out on their "revision action plan." The zero stands until I receive the paper back fixed. Their final grade on the paper is an average of the two scores.
Honestly, it takes me just as long to grade them but now I know that I'm not doing it for nothing. I don't want them to fail, but I will not pass the crap they try to turn in. This way they have a chance to learn from their mistakes. These major papers are heavily weighted, so a zero on them typically means an F in the class until the paper is revised.


I have experimented with including offers like the following in detailed feedback: "I am withholding the 5 additional points you earned on the Writing segment of the rubric because I would like to discuss some areas where you could improve your writing further. Please contact me during office hours for a brief chat, and I will restore the extra 5 points." Guess how many out of several dozen took me up on it? Zero. Other similar experiments confirmed approximately 80% of students did not read the feedback I spent hours writing.

Marcus Arvan

DJ: try a more substantial reward instead of minor reward or punishment. In this case, I think your withholding the 5 points is too minor for students to care, and can be read more as an implied punishment for failing to do something (visiting your office). My experience is that students respond much more positively to more significant reward opportunities that encourage them to learn from their mistakes and improve their work. I let students revise and resubmit their first term-paper as many times as they wish up until the final exam. I write 1-3 pages of single spaced comments on every paper, in addition to in-text corrections. About 50% of students take me up on the offer, and some of them submit 3-5 drafts. It is a lot of work for me, but it is the same opportunity I was given by Dan Dennett in my first philosophy class--and it leads to real results: hard work and great improvement for most of the students who do that. Students these days want someone who is on their side, and who will reward hard work. Not everyone thinks we should have to put in that much work for our students. I do. I doubt I would have ever become a professional philosopher without the opportunity being given to me when I was a student. It made that much on an impression on me, so much that I have not forgotten it 23 years later.


I have a question about your approach, outlined above, in response to DJ. Do the students who are revising their papers numerous times also keep up with the current work in the course? My worry would be that they would focus on that graded element and let the other stuff slide.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Brad: Yes, the vast majority keep up. My classes are very demanding on a day to day basis, with graded 1/2 page reading responses and in-class group assignments on the day's material. Students know this from Day 1, and have said that while my courses are intensely challenging, they feel like they are truly getting their money's worth. There is always a very small percentage of students (maybe 1 or 2 per class) who cannot hang with all of the work, but most do. I also get a good number of students who drop the course the first week of the term, so those who stay in the course are usually the motivated ones who want a challenge. I have no pedagogical problem with this. Real college work (the way it should be) is not for everyone, and I want students who want to be there and put the work in.

Matthew Ammon Whiting

I'm Just a random college student surfing the web, but I just want to take some time to thank you Marcus for your willingness to both have high expectations for your students AND be on their side. It's refreshing to me to see a professor who doesn't see students as an annoyance, but rather as their purpose. I wish all professors shared your belief in the potential of college students.

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