Why I Returned to Hard-Copy Grading

tumblr_maccshmi241rvog5q.gifGrading, grading, grading.


As the kids say, I literally cannot even.

Where do I begin?

Grading, to me, is one of the necessary evils of education–along with mandatory monthly fire drills, whole-building staff meetings, and standardized tests.  I have disliked it for the duration of my teaching career, as I have disliked all of those things, but I still have not found a way to avoid it.

When I left the high school classroom last May, one of the things I was happiest to let go was grading.  (That and those damned fire drills.)

But I didn’t expect to come to loathe grading even more when I began teaching college students.

There were a few reasons I disliked grading in my new job:  first, I found that, by dint of the course designs I inherited, that the only “grades” given were at the very end of the semester.  This meant that what little formative feedback was built into the course wasn’t seen as valuable–by the students nor the other instructors I was working with.  I sat in meetings where a colleague complained about “having to do all that reading and write all those comments for nothing” (“nothing” being no grade).  I thought to myself, wow, you’re missing the whole point of formative feedback.

Another thing I loathed was that most everything was electronic.  Any assignment due was expected to be turned in via email/eCampus/Google Drive two days prior to the class meeting, and the instructor was to give feedback and a grade before class began on Friday.  This meant that the only feedback about a student’s work was always only given by the instructor, and that students never saw one another’s work.

So, as the semester moved along, I began to make some changes to the course design:  more formative feedback, more frequent turn-in checkpoints for large assignments, lots of ungraded, low-stakes drafting of ideas in class.  We all hobbled to the end, adjusting assignments and expectations as we went.

But over the winter break, as I reflected and gathered the many post-its of ideas I’d stuck here and there, seeking to refine our syllabus and clarify our goals, I thought of one major change I could make that would solve a lot of my problems with the course.

Return to paper.

img_7291Good, old-fashioned, print-it-out-and-bring-it-to-class-and-turn-it-in assignment submission.

This practice has had a few key benefits for me so far this semester.  First, I am seeing much more clarity of thought in my students’ talk in class–I suspect because they’re treating their weekly one-pagers as first drafts of their thinking, and then re-reading them, as evidenced by their frequent typo corrections or asides to me in the margins.

Second, the issue of opacity between students’ assignment submissions is gone.  Each class meeting, I try to build in a time to share our writing, whether by trading papers, using our papers as an artifact to support some talk, or asking students to comment on one another’s work.  I ask students to read not just for content, to glean multiple perspectives, but also to read for structure, to see how other writers think through the issues we’re grappling with.  As a result, I’ve seen a great deal of growth in how students structure their writing, as well as a transformation in the confidence of their writing voices as they engage with (and often question) the ideas in the texts we read.

Third, we’ve been reading Visible Learners this semester, which encourages the practice of documentation for the purpose of reflection.  By having concrete documentation of our thinking in the form of hard-copy papers, as well as hard-copy documentation of responsive thinking in the form of my comments or their peers’ in the margins, it is much easier to trace patterns and progress in our thinking.

Fourth, I’ve found that removing laptops or tablets from the equation when students share work actually improves the quality of their conversation.  I’ve been reading widely about how detrimental our devices can be to our talk, so I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce our screen time in class.  Fewer devices lead to more robust dialogue, which leads to better thinking and writing and time together overall.

Finally, my students are now accustomed to receiving frequent formative feedback and have come to expect and welcome it.  Initially, the students were a little wary when they saw my scribbles, assuming they were all corrections, but then were delighted when they actually read the feedback a peer or I had left.  Now, they hunger for the moments when a friend hands them back their paper with a handwritten note, or I return assignments the next class.

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Switching to hard-copy grading has improved a great deal of my work with my students, and although I still haven’t come to love grading, I am enjoying it a lot more this semester.

Now to tackle that huge stack of one-pagers that’s been staring at me all morning…!

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

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11 thoughts on “Why I Returned to Hard-Copy Grading

  1. […] This year, I’ve gotten away from a focus on online reading, writing, and grading, and returned to paper. […]


  2. Alan Frager March 20, 2017 at 7:26 pm Reply

    I’m so glad that you are interested in and aware of the importance of classroom talk! This is the essence of college education IMHO. It also makes going to class more interesting because the conversation slowly but surely builds teacher-student relationships. My pet name for this method is “teaching with your ear.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 21, 2017 at 5:50 am Reply

      I’ve been working on refining my practice when it comes to talk. I’m thinking and reading about it often and still trying to articulate my writing about it, but I’ll get there eventually! Haha. Love that phrase, teaching with your ear. Thanks, Alan!


  3. The Paper Mountain | booksandbassets March 15, 2017 at 7:16 am Reply

    […] find that a good process for me. I was feeling a little behind then times, until a colleague shared this article about the value of hard copies. […]


  4. Amy Rasmussen March 10, 2017 at 11:23 am Reply

    I am getting close to the back-to-paper thing myself. When I can write on the page, I can more effectively give students time to read the feedback during class. Tech is great for many things, and I guess it should work for giving time to reading the feedback in class, too — but kids and tech often means off-task with tech.

    Thanks for this inspiring post — and the reminder that I need more Flair colors! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 10, 2017 at 1:16 pm Reply

      Yes! I agree. Somehow the idea of leaving those kinds of comments electronically just seems so onerous! And I think you’re spot-on that tech equals off-task, more times than not.

      I’ll ship you some Flair ASAP! Haha.


  5. Ruth March 10, 2017 at 10:08 am Reply

    brav, you!!!! I love that you are returning the human interaction piece to the college classroom. Whether your students are pre=service teachers or not, personal interaction is vastly more important than any automated grading system. Even IF a system has room for comments, they are, at best, stilted and meaningless.
    Regarding grading pens. I always wear purple, so I always opted for purple pens. Flair pens bleed and re too think in my estimation. Fine tipped easy flow pens in a signature color have worked to my advantage.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shana Karnes March 10, 2017 at 1:18 pm Reply

      Yes! Somehow, things like Turnitin just seem awful to me–it takes out the whole entire point of having students turn things in. Grading is just one more opportunity for personal interaction, if we approach it the right way!

      I recently gave up on Flairs too and switched to the cheap PaperMates in the picture. But I have so many Flair pens left over I usually just use them as an accent color in my notebook!! 🙂


  6. Amy Estersohn March 10, 2017 at 8:21 am Reply

    You gave me a great idea that I’m going to modify for my own class to have students respond to each other’s finished literary essays.

    Also – flair pen? How do you use it? I am always looking for the right grading pen… which is why I do most of my grading online these days anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm Reply

      Ha! We should invent the perfect grading pen–one that works well for cursive or regular handwriting, that won’t bleed onto the backs of papers, and that stands out from the basic black of type. We could be millionaires!!

      I just use the flair pen for accent in my notebook primarily, and the junky PaperMates that actually flow really well for my marginalia.


  7. Smith-Chavira Terri March 10, 2017 at 7:42 am Reply


    Liked by 1 person

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