Last year I taught one section of an all-writing-and-presenting precalc course. I was spending 5+ minutes reacting to each student paper and students were turning them in at 3-6 per day. So, manageable … but I would get 2-3 days behind, then save them for the weekend, then not get to them on the weekend … pretty soon I was buried.

The superstar ELA coach at our school helped me collect and combine the comments I was writing most often, and the things I wished I were seeing, into a rubric. We then ran off 20 copies and sat down with 20 papers. I had a highlighter and a pen and a stapler. She had a stopwatch. On your marks … get set …

The first batch of 10 took about 10 minutes. The next batch of 10 took 8 minutes. I just highlighted away, with no further annotation except sometimes to elaborate one of the highlighted remarks or to write a quick note that didn’t get covered by the rubric. After a year of practice and tweaking the rubric I now am down near 30 seconds for many papers, and average less than a minute. The feedback for students is much better than when I was writing it all out.

The time savings aren’t just in highlighting vs. writing. It’s also that the rubric focuses my attention. Title. Intro-does it work? Can I follow the explanation? Is it correct? Bam, bam, bam down the page. It also prevents me doing the work for them. “Solution is not correct” is all they need to know. If I write out a correct one, they don’t read it, and if they do, they don’t learn. Better that they find the error, or if they can’t, that they come find me.

The rubric I’m starting with this year is the product of having used and tweaked it for hundreds of papers last year. You can find it around page 4 of this document. But if you want to make your own from scratch, start grading papers freehand and keeping track of what you’re looking for, what you’re always writing. After a few dozen papers you’ll have a good draft of what you need.

This post was inspired by a twitter conversation between @mpershan and @cheesemonkeysf—I know the latter shares my enthusiasm. If we can save even one life, it will have been worth it.