How Long Does It Take to Grade an Essay?

by Tina Blue
November 26, 2003

          Most of us who teach lower-level courses in college these days are either GTAs or adjuncts.  That means there is little in the way of monetary reward for our efforts. GTAs teach because they are training for a career in the profession (good luck!).  But we who are adjuncts almost always do it because we love our subject and really, really love teaching. I love teaching so much that I have often said, only half-jokingly, that teaching is my religion.

          But though almost all of us love teaching, I honestly do not know
who even slightly enjoys grading papers. We hate grading papers. Grading papers is the bane of our existence. It is a burden so heavy that it exhausts us not only physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. When faced with a set of essays to grade, almost every one of us wonders why we didn't go into coal-mining instead.

          It's bad for everyone who has to grade papers written by undergraduates--even in history, sociology, Western civilization, psychology, etc. But it is far, far worse for those of us who have to grade papers for English composition and literature courses. Why? Well, because unlike our colleagues in other disciplines, we have to care about whether the student can write literately. We can't pretend, as I believe many other instructors do, that all that matters is whether they get "the ideas" right. We have to concern ourselves with whether they present them logically, coherently, and in grammatically acceptable sentences. We have to care about the structure of the essay, the structure of the paragraph, the structure of the argument.

          Sure, some instructors in other subjects concern themselves with these matters, too. And though it should never be the case, some English instructors also ignore grammar and usage, "style," and "organization" and check only whether the "content" is "acceptable."  I put these words in quotation marks, by the way, because I think the separation of "ideas" from the way they are presented and from the logic of the argument is not just artificial but impossible.

          Recently I read an article by Max Clio (a pseudonym) from The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled "Grading on My Nerves."* In it the author, a history instructor, complains about how discouraging it is to grade our college students' essays, and admits to procrastinating right up to the last minute whenever he has a set of essays to grade. Of course, that means he has to get up at 4:00 in the morning the day he must return the papers, just to get them done in time.  Frankly, I have never found 4:00 a.m. to be early enough. Usually I either get up at 2:00 a.m., or else I just forget about going to bed at all and simply grade right through the night.  (Sometimes right through two or three nights in a row!) 

          "Max" admits that he lands in this predicament even when the papers come in at the end of the week and he thus has a whole weekend to grade in. That's true. We will find anything else to do the weekend when papers come in, because it is so difficult to face the task of grading essays. We will do laundry, wash dishes, clean the cats' litter box, schedule a root canal--anything at all to avoid dealing with a set of essays that need to be graded.

          Yet I don't think that's the whole story.  Because most of us who teach freshman-sophomore English are adjuncts or GTAs, that means we make so little money that we must  have other jobs to make ends meet.  And since we are tied up much of the time teaching, grading papers, and having conferences with our students, we usually have to squeeze our other jobs into the non-primetime hours of evenings and weekends.  Since I often tutor or do other part-time jobs evenings and weekends, the weekend is not a vast stretch of unoccupied time free for grading papers.

          Furthermore, grading papers is a mentally strenuous task.  It requires every ounce of my intellectual energy, and sometimes even that seems to be inadequate.  It is hard to sit down to grade essays after spending several hours on some other mentally strenuous task, like "crisis" tutoring, which is what a lot of tutoring jobs amount to.

          Officially, most English departments expect us to spend about 15 minutes grading a student's essay.  But every English instructor I know will tell you that 30 minutes is a minimum, and that spending one or more hours per paper is not uncommon.

          Why so long?  Well, that's because our students manage to do so much wrong in every single paper that the task of marking their atrocious grammar and usage, correcting their factual inaccuracies, untangling their essays' incoherent structure (at both the paragraph and the essay level), and sorting out and explaining their logical fallacies requires an effort equivalent to that which Hercules expended in mucking out the Augean stables.

          "Max" complains primarily about the fact that there is so seldom anything like striking thought in the essays written by his college students:

       Even so, at the other research institutions where I taught
         before arriving on this regional campus of a major state
         university, student papers were different. The typical batch
         contained a far larger proportion of talent and merit, and a
         far less demoralizing proportion of illiterate and
         semiliterate scribbling. Essential to a grader's morale is
         that occasional breathtaking paper that proves conclusively
         that excellence is attainable and expectations can be met.
         Those are the papers that sustain hope in the face of
         overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I don't get many now.

But I disagree.  I don't think most of us expect anything "breathtaking" or particularly "excellent" from our students.  Nah.  I think most of us would be pathetically grateful if many of our students attained the level of basic competence.  We are not discouraged and demoralized because none of our students are writing brilliant, breathtaking papers.  We are brought low by the fact that they are not writing even at the level of competence that was once required of third-graders.

          That's right.  Third-graders.

          This is an absolutely true story.

          When I was in third grade (1958), our teacher, Mrs. Colona, would come in twice a week and present us with an essay topic. We had no prior notice of when we would write our essay or what the topic would be. But we had 45 minutes to write a 500-word essay on that topic, and we were required to do it right. Mrs. Colona took off points for everything we did wrong.  We had to follow her formatting instructions to a T, and if we put our names in the wrong place, or didn't leave appropriate margins, if we forgot to number our pages, or if we wrote in pencil rather than ink, we lost points.

          We also lost points for errors in grammar and usage, for structural flaws, and for stylistic weakness (e.g., writing short, choppy, repetitious "Dick and Jane" sentences or using vague or inappropriate words). 

          Now, Mrs. Colona did not give us "deep" topics to write about.  One I remember was "Write about your favorite holiday memory, and explain what makes that memory so special to you."  But you know what? Almost none of the college students I have taught since 1972 could write a 500-word essay on that topic in 45 minutes without that essay's being marred by numerous errors or infelicities in one or more of the following areas: grammar and usage, diction, style, formatting, structure, and logic. I know this for a fact, because we often do give such simple topics as the first essay assignment in English 101.

          When even our brightest, most "competent" college students cannot write as well or as quickly as most third-graders could in my elementary school in 1958, that means something has gone very wrong with their instruction in writing.

          Just for a start, I have not found many college students who can follow the most basic formatting instructions when submitting their papers. In fact, I have written and posted an article about that very subject, "The Importance of Manuscript Form." 

          I am not talking here about arcane or idiosyncratic requirements imposed by monster-teachers--you know, the ones who require that the staple be a precise ¼ inch from the upper left-hand corner of the paper.  I am talking about the basic requirement that papers be stapled, rather than having their left-hand corners folded and torn as a means of hooking them together.  I am talking about the fact that a college student's essay should not be written on both sides of the page, in purple ink on pink paper torn carelessly out of a spiral notebook.  I am talking about the fact that a paper should have the student's name, course, and assignment label on it in something like this form:

                              Sam Smith
                              English 101; 8:30 MWF
                              Essay #1

          I have also not found many college students in my nearly three decades of teaching who can write a 500-word essay on any topic, however simple, without violating numerous grammar and usage rules of the most basic sort: subject-verb agreement, sentence completeness, pronoun-antecedent agreement, spelling (even of very simple words), etc. 

          Where do you start when college students do not know that "women" is the plural form of the noun?  Easily half of my students always write "women" when they mean "woman" and "then" when they mean "than."  No, it is not a momentary slip.  The same error will appear a dozen times in a single essay--even in a handwritten essay, where the spell-checker excuse doesn't pertain.

          When each essay has so many errors at so many levels that must be marked and explained, it can take approximately a decade to properly mark a single essay. Okay, not that long, but it sure does feel that long.  Sometimes I will be hard at work untangling the problems of an essay, only to raise my eyes to the clock and realize that I have been working on that paper for an hour or more.

          I have found one way to reduce the time I spend on certain kinds of errors. I have 81 articles on my "Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert" website.  Almost all of them deal with very specific and very common problems of grammar and usage.  On a website I maintain for my students, there is a page called "Number Code for Grammar and Usage Articles," which consists of a list of numbered links that will take a reader directly to a given article on my "Grammar and Usage for the Non-Expert" website.  Now, when a student makes a grammar or usage error, I simply circle the error and write the appropriate number next to it.  That way, the student can go to the numbered link and be taken to a short article that explains the error and how to fix it.

          One particularly nice consequence of this method is that a student will have on each paper a clear diagnosis of which errors he characteristically makes--and even of which ones he makes most often.  If they are native speakers of English, even fairly weak writers tend not to make more than five, ten, or maybe twelve grammar and usage errors. But they make those errors so frequently that we might have to mark fifty or more errors on a single short essay. However, with my method of numbering their errors, my students can find out which ones they do make, and if they are interested in improving their writing (many are surprisingly so), then they can use the numbers and the corresponding articles to systematically tackle their own errors, as I explain in "Is There an Easy Way to Correct My Own Grammar and Usage Problems?"

          (By the way, as an aside here I would like to recommend that those of you reading this article make use of both my method and my articles on grammar and usage. Simply make a copy of the article index, number each article, and turn them into links. You will save a huge amount of time that would otherwise have been spent labeling each error and explaining it on each paper.)

          My students tell me that my grading method is a brutal shock to them when they first get a paper back from me. Most of them say that no one has ever lowered their grade for the sorts of errors in style, mechanics, formatting, structure, or logic that I count so heavily when I grade papers. "My teachers just always graded me on whether I had good ideas," they say. 

          I don't think so. I am not seeing all that many "good ideas," either.  In fact, what I often see is incorrect or ridiculous. For example, when they read a short story or a play for class discussion, many of them cannot get even the most basic details of plot and character straight--even when, as with plays, I show them a video of an excellent production. And their "ideas" about a work of literature are often drawn from Hallmark card or Miss America psychobabble clichés.  For example, I have had many students insist that Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" is about achieving "closure," because each time one door closes, another opens, and something better might be behind that other door. (Not even close.)

          Then there are those students who think that Nora is having an affair with Dr. Rank in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House, or that Antigone's mistake was in not accepting Creon's right to tell her what to do, since a king is by definition always right. How can they get such things wrong after reading a play, seeing it on video, and analyzing it at length in class?

          The answer, of course, is that a lot of them really are not paying that much attention. They are reading the summaries (not even the analyses) in Cliff's Notes or the online Sparknotes, and they are daydreaming or doing other things rather than paying attention to the video or the classroom discussion of the work.

          Sure, many students are attentive and engaged, but all too many are not, and their disengagement shows, big time.

          But even those who do try often make bizarre mistakes, because their education has not trained them to think carefully and analytically, to argue coherently, or to express themselves precisely.  Language is the tool we think with, and a person whose language is merely a blunt instrument is not going to be able to think at a very high level.

          Back in my undergraduate days (long ago when the Appalachian Mountains were still pointy), I studied French and Spanish.  In the more advanced classes, I had to write essays on literature.  Even though my approach to literature is complex and sophisticated, whenever I had to write about the subject in a foreign language that I had far less skill in than I have in English, I had to dumb down my ideas, simply because I did not have vocabulary or language structures that were adequate to the expression of my more complex ideas.  I often see this effect in international students writing about literature in English. Usually they understand the literature at a very high level, but their English is not up to the task of expressing their ideas, so they have to simplify their ideas to match their command of the language.

          But for too many of our American students the problems is far more serious.  They don't have the vocabulary or language structures in their
language for thinking clearly and deeply about a subject, much less for expressing themselves with any sort of sophistication or precision.

          What we are faced with when we sit down to grade a set of essays is approximately twelve years of miseducation.  That is why we find the task so desperately discouraging. A half hour, an hour, or even longer will not suffice to address the faults in their writing--or in their thinking--or their astonishing lack of knowledge.  How can we even begin to untangle the mess?

          Fortunately, not all students are kiss-offs.  Many of them are more than willing to share the burden. They struggle heroically with their deficiencies as writers and thinkers, and they manage amazing improvements in a short time.  That's what I mean when I insist that they are not stupid--the "wattage" is there.  Smart people who want to learn
learn, if they are given half an opportunity to do so.  Usually that opportunity involves interest and guidance from a teacher.

          I don't want you to think I am blaming junior high, high school, or even grade school teachers for the miseducation of our students.  No doubt, some are bad teachers, but then so are some who teach at the college level.  The fact is, our public school teachers are trapped in a system that makes it difficult for them to accomplish what they need and want to accomplish with their students. One reason why there is so much burnout and so many new and experienced teachers leaving the public school system is that while they are willing to put up with low pay and long hours, they can't bear that their efforts to really educate their students are so often thwarted by the conditions they must work under. 
          Misguided parents and our entire social milieu must also bear a large share of the blame for the anti-intellectualism and misplaced focus of our students, which would make it hard to teach them even if the conditions we teach under were not so difficult.

          So let me answer the question I started with: How long does it take to grade an essay?  Oh, for a typical 500-1000 word essay, I'd say about five or ten minutes, depending on how fast the teacher can read.  As soon as we have read a paper we usually know what sort of grade it deserves, and most of us can read such papers pretty quickly.

          But marking a paper, showing the student what he has done wrong, what he has done right, and what he needs to do to improve his thinking and his writing--now that can take a very long time indeed.
*This journal is subscription only, so you won't be able to access the online version unless your institution has a subscription to it--or you do.
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