How long does it take to grade 88 persuasive research papers?

31 hours, 48 minutes is how long it took. That’s 31 hours and 48 minutes between a Monday and the following Sunday, 31 hours and 48 minutes outside of my 40-hour work week, taken from my evenings, my weekend, the time I should be sleeping.

That was actually for 78 papers. The remaining ten are in various states of limbo to trickle in here and there. I can grade them as they come in. The big push is done.

I’ve been thinking a lot about just why I feel compelled to keep track of the time spent grading papers. There are a lot of reasons–the older I get, the more I resent the time I have to take from my life beyond the bounds of my work week in order to accomplish my job well. That’s a big reason. And I have projects I want to work on too–writing, research… hard to accomplish any of this when the teaching takes up so much time and energy.

And I guess I just want people who are on the outside looking in to realize what this job takes. I know lots of people have work that they take home from their jobs–we language arts teachers are not alone in that. I also know that my teaching colleagues all spend time beyond the contract day in various ways–the science teachers need to set up labs for example, and the fine arts teachers may spend hours outside of school rehearsing with their students for performances. But as education budgets continue to get slashed and teachers are asked to do more and more because the money gets tighter and tighter, there are real consequences for us in our lives within and beyond school. About 10 years ago my full teaching load was about 85 students, spread out among five classes. Now I’ve got that many students in three classes. And my other two classes have 33 students and 28 students in writing-intensive courses as well.

When I try to help people understand what kind of time it means for me to teach writing well to 150+ students, I get all kinds of well-intentioned suggestions:

  • What if you got pre-service teachers from the local university to come in and grade? Sounds awesome! But I can’t figure out how to be the right writing teacher for each one of my students unless I immerse myself into their writing and try to figure out how they think. The process of reading and responding to what they write is the only way to do this. I cannot hand this off to someone else and expect to be an effective writing teacher.
  • What if you convinced other departments in the school to teach more writing so you could teach less? Well, the other departments in my school already teach the writing specific to their disciplines–and a lot of it in many cases. No matter how much of this they do, it does not make my job any less. Yes, writing is a critical tool in all disciplines, but writing is central to the discipline I teach. I teach it through a different framework than my colleagues in social studies or math or science or world languages. My curriculum hinges on standards about writing, writing-specific skills and content.
  • What if you just assigned less writing? I could certainly do that, but I just won’t. Writers do not grow without writing. A lot. My students do tons of writing that I never see–informal writing in their writer’s notebooks for example. But if they rarely have to polish a piece of writing and submit it formally for feedback, they will not grow as writers. I will not send my seniors off to the next stage in their lives without encouraging them to learn everything they can about themselves as writers and thinkers, without challenging them to grow as writers and thinkers through the complex writing tasks I assign, without engaging them in dialogue with me and their classmates about their writing. And this kind of instructional work takes time beyond the classroom.
What I really need is simple: fewer students and more time built into my work week for reading and responding to my students’ writing. I know that structuring things so I could get it all done in a typical 40 hour work week is way too much to ask. I don’t mind (and actually rather enjoy) some work to take home. I just don’t want it to take over my life as it does when I’ve got what often feels like infinite stacks of papers staring me down.
And I want the conversation about schooling in our country to focus on issues truly significant to effective instruction to support student learning. If it’s all about the students and providing the best possible educational experience for them, creating working lives for teachers that support them in doing that work without great personal sacrifice should be part of the conversation.
What you’ll see below is my day-by-day play-by-play if you wish to read it.

Monday, 5 December, 8:25 pm.

Earlier today, my seniors turned in their persuasive research papers: 4 to 5 page papers taking a stance on an issue in society, including 8 credible sources.

Before I could even start grading, I had to get my grading system up and running in–loading the rubric, building my set of comments, etc. That has taken me some time, but I won’t include that in my running total of time spent on these papers.

The last stack of papers I tracked to the minute as I graded were the personal narrative essays, which took me a total of 12 and a half hours.

These will take significantly more time. The personal narratives were short–500 words or less to mimic the challenge of meeting a word limit in a college application essay. I only marked mechanical errors surrounding comma usage. There were no research sources to be documented, so nothing for me to assess there. And they were stories–reading stories uses a different part of my brain. Assessing someone’s argument takes me far more time.

These papers are longer, I need to check documentation and use of research sources, and I will mark mechanical errors beyond comma usage. We also studied claim/data/warrant structure for organizing body paragraphs, so I need to check that. I need to look at overall structure of the argument, how the claims within the paper work toward supporting the thesis, how well the paper grabs the reader’s attention at the start, how well the conclusion makes the argument important on a wider scale, whether students have found credible research and if they’re using it effectively to support their ideas … much more to assess here.

So, how long will it take?

I’m not sure, but I do know that the first few will take a lot longer than the rest. It always takes my brain a while to get in the groove.

And I MUST get these done within a week, else I won’t have the time I need next week to wrap up some other grading, manage finals, and do some planning for next semester before leaving for the holiday break. I need to be able to walk away from school for the break with no work to do–it’s been a frantic semester and next semester won’t be any better.

I’m hoping to get through five tonight, but I’d be happy with just one. I’ve been working on the first one already since about 8pm…

8:45 pm–taking a break to say goodnight to my kiddo and hear about her day.

9:04 pm–back at the computer.

10:51 pm–going to bed. Graded pretty solid from 9:04 save for the 20 minutes my husband and I worked on stashing trinkets in our daughter’s advent calendar. I conquered three papers tonight, tweaking my grading process as I went. Once I figure that process out totally, I should get more efficient at the grading.

Running total: 3 papers, 2 hours 12 minutes. I sincerely hope I do get faster at this…

Tuesday, 6 December, 8:15pm

After being at school until after 6pm with my newspaper staff, taking the long way walking home to get a bit of exercise in today, having some dinner, and getting caught up with email, I begin for the evening…

8:30 pm: graded one paper (that’s a better pace!). Need to help my daughter get ready for bed.

8:56 pm: back at it.

11:43 pm: time to go to bed so I can function tomorrow. I graded pretty solidly save for a 10-minute conversation with my husband before he went to bed and a 15-minute brain break on Facebook. I was able to grade seven papers this evening–definitely more efficient than last night’s efforts. We’ll call it two hours, 37 minutes for tonight.

Running total: 10 papers, 4 hours, 49 minutes

Wednesday, 7 December, 9:20 am:

I just wrote a blog post about grading and now I hope to use the 25 minutes I have before my first class for the day to grade at least one paper.

9:45 am: finished one paper. Time for class.

11:38 am: burrito time. I’ll try to grade another.

11:55 am: there’s the bell. Off to class. Finished one paper.

12:48 pm: my students are happily working away on their visual aids for their final speeches that happen Friday and during our final exam time next week. I’ve conferenced with each of them already and will again, and they frequently turn around in their chairs away from the computers and ask me questions–but I’m finding myself with some space here I could fill with grading a paper or two…

1:40 pm: graded two papers. Went a bit slow just because of stopping to converse with students as needed.

3:00 pm: hanging out with my journalism class. They’re busy with various things–writing the last few stories for our online paper before we leave for the holiday break, editing video content that accompanies the print version that comes out on Friday, etc. I’ll see if I can grade one more paper before school’s out…

3:46 pm: finished one paper. That took a while just because of conversations with my students that kept happening. Lesson: grading goes faster when in a room by myself. Time to head home to walk the dog, pick up my daughter, get dinner going, and head out to yoga.

9:26pm: Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Got back from yoga a bit ago–feeling great, almost as if I don’t have 73 research papers yet to grade. I had a bite to eat and now I begin to grade almost 12 hours exactly since I graded my first paper today.

11:35pm: time to call it a night. I really feel like I could keep going but then I remember how tired I was walking around school today. I shouldn’t push it. I knocked off five more papers. My pace was better, except for when the husband was sitting in the office talking to me. Second moment for the day where I’ve learned that grading goes faster when in a room by myself. But I can’t possibly grade exclusively and not talk to the people in my life, right? And I seem to be operating on a trend here: 3 papers conquered Monday, 7 Tuesday, 10 today. Let’s hope I can continue the trend of getting through more papers each day than the day before.

Running total: 20 papers, 9 hours, 18 minutes

Thursday, 8 December 2011, 2:05 pm

So tired. My sleep deficit this week is starting to catch up with me. I’m so tired that I’m having a difficult time focusing mentally on what I wanted to accomplish this afternoon–some curriculum planning for next semester. I think I can push myself to grade a paper or two instead here before I need to run home to walk the dog before the faculty meeting this afternoon.

2:38 pm: Off for a walk. I think the sun is shining. That should be good for me. Graded one paper.

4:24 pm: Yes, the sun was shining. That was nice. Hurried back to school for 3:30 faculty meeting. Just got out of meeting. Will attempt to grade one paper until it’s time to head to daughter’s basketball practice.

4:53 pm: Graded one paper. Time to head out.

5:23 pm: Hanging out at a coffee shop during my daughter’s basketball practice–should be enough time to grade one or two before practice is over and I join my family for dinner.

6:24 pm: Time to meet the fam for dinner. Graded two papers.

8:02 pm: Home. Sitting at my green desk. Ok, so maybe it’s just a green Ikea table top on four silver Ikea legs. Space heater cranking at my side. I can put in a good two hours and still get to bed at a good time–which is important because I feel like I could be starting a cold and I need to sleep to fight it. Can’t. Get. Sick. Right. Now.

8:39 pm: Okay NOW I’m starting the grading. I had to do some prep work for tomorrow–getting links to students’ visual aids for their speeches all organized in one place, responding to student emails, etc.

8:58 pm: No, NOW I’m starting to grade. I keep finding things I need to address for school tomorrow. And there goes an hour when I could have graded possibly three papers. But really, now I will grade.

10:37 pm: graded four. I feel like I could keep going but that might be catastrophic. I need to sleep. Conquered a total of eight papers today.

Running total: 28 papers, 13 hours

Friday, 9 December, 8:37 am

Sitting at my desk in my office. I feel better today after a good night’s sleep. I still think a cold is threatening to take over, but as long as I try to sleep every night, I should be able to keep ahead of it (I hope). Grading one paper before my first class this morning…

Bell rang at 8:55–paper not finished. Off to class.

1:05 pm: Eating lunch (bagel and cheese toasted in the toaster oven in the teacher mailroom). Will try to finish that paper I started grading this morning.

3:42 pm: Ended up talking with a colleague over lunch instead. Now I sit at a cafe I walked to after school got out. I have a couple of hours before my annual book club holiday dinner. Here I go…

5:29 pm: My family will be here momentarily to pick me up, so I’ll stop. I graded four papers.

5:46 pm: Home. I have about one hour before I need to leave to join my book club for our annual holiday dinner. Grading until then…

6:37 pm: Conquered two papers. Time to get ready for book club dinner. We’ll see how I’m doing when I get back. Maybe I can try to bring today’s total up to 10 (I’ve graded six today).

10:30 pm: Home from book club dinner. Will attempt to grade two papers before I go to bed. Can’t stay up too late–I have a meeting at 9 in the morning.

11:30 pm: Two papers. Time for bed.

Running total: 36 papers, 16 hours, 56 minutes

Saturday, 10 December, 1:28pm:

I’m here at my local cafe, fueled up on burrito, somewhat exercised (walked here briskly from campus where I was this morning for that meeting), ready to rock and roll today. I was pleasantly surprised when I opened up my computer here and noticed that one of my students from last year posted a graph he made for me of my grading progress (I’ve been posting my running totals as my FB status update every evening). The chuckle I got from that and the encouraging comments other former students left in response to the graph have energized me a bit. I’m grading solidly until it’s time for my daughter’s basketball game, which I will NOT miss today, despite the hours I still need to finish these papers.

But maybe the grading force will be with me today and I’ll be able to work more efficiently than I have been able to so far. I’ve been averaging about 27 minutes per paper. Let’s see if I can speed that up here.

3:49 pm: Family just arrived for a little snack break before we head to my daughter’s basketball game. I graded six papers.

7:41 pm: My daughter’s team played well but lost the game. They’re only eight years old so they’re all learning. We went out for a quick bite after and now I’m ensconced in the home office to grade for as long as I can keep my eyes open.

11:51 pm: Fourteen papers. That makes 20 for today. That kind of rocks. And that actually only leaves me 22 papers for tomorrow because there are a few out there that have not yet been turned in. I think I might be able to get these done by the end of the weekend… (hopeful at least). I could keep grading now, but I think it would be wise to get to bed so I’m able to get up at a reasonable hour tomorrow and keep working. I averaged just under 18 minutes per paper in these last four hours, by the way.

Running total: 56 papers, 23 hours, 27 minutes

Sunday, 11 December, 10:21 am:

Good morning. I’ve had my daily oatmeal and my sliced pear. I had a decent sleep. I’ve sent off a few e-bills that arrived in my email the last few days. I’m ready to dive in. My plan? Get half done, go for a run (during the warmest, sunniest part of the day!), do the other half. I’m working from home today. My family is going to head to my parents’ house to watch the Bronco game this afternoon. Here’s hoping for efficiency this morning…

2:14 pm: 12 done. Time for a run.

5:02 pm: The run was great. Got back and stretched. Took a bath. Had some food (since I never really ate lunch today). Now I’m back at it–10 to go and I’ll have finished all the papers I have at this point…

9:30 pm: Just finished the last 10. They took me forever for a variety of reasons–had to track down a few sources students used to gauge credibility, had to fight my own desires to not be doing this any more. My husband reminded me it was like the last three miles of a marathon. Sometimes they don’t go so well. I’ll do my final reflections and post this later. Right now, I wish only to sit on the couch for a bit and read a magazine.

Total: 78 papers (10 still to come in some time this week), 31 hours, 48 minutes

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10 Responses to How long does it take to grade 88 persuasive research papers?

  1. Preyanka says:

    I love this Sarah! And I think it’s important to note that teachers who do NOT give copious and timely feedback are considered bad teachers (even by other teachers). In other words, teachers who do not spend hours of their free time every week doing work they aren’t paid for are bad teachers! It’s insane. The REAL work of being a teacher needs to be figured into FTE and salary. I’m happy that I work at a school where I DO get time to plan and grade and am paid well. As a full-time high school English teacher here, I have half the number of students I had in the states (and I teach two fewer preps!). But it’s sad that I had to move half way across the world to teach at one of the most expensive schools in the world in order to get what all teachers everywhere deserve. And it’s even sadder that now I don’t think I could ever go back to teaching in the states where I’d have double the work-load and half the pay. I’m just not that selfless or dedicated, I guess.

    • DocZ says:

      Hey Preya! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. When oh when will we figure out here how to include the REAL work of being a teacher into FTE and salary? That’s the big question…

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  3. Andy Adams says:

    Very interesting. I’ve often thought about doing this for my own grading, but with college-length papers it gets even more daunting. I’ve noticed I get faster as I go along, too, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve cemented what I’m looking for, or if I’m growing tired and letting things go (or just not seeing) in the later papers I wouldn’t have in the early ones.

  4. Diane Arnold says:

    Thank you for this. A clueless friend thought I must be “overdoing it” to spend so much time on my “six-hour a week job” (two adjunct classes). I googled to see what others have written about the time it takes them for grading. Your numbers are very similar to the time needed for evaluating my students persuasive speeches, content and delivery, with 5-7 page written speeches. That’s if I rush myself and use evaluation sheets that have many of my comments pre-written and ready to be checked off. Any less time, and it’s close to meaningless, reduced to a numerical judgement as a grade, and not true feedback.

    I’m waiting for the day when that friend finishes law school and has to explain to clients that time in the courtroom, like our time in the classroom, is merely the tip of the ice burg of the time we spend for our students. She’ll want to be paid for ALL of the hours she works, not just the hours of “show time”.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading! Imagine if we actually got paid for all the time we spent? Billable hours for teachers?

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  7. Angela says:

    I never had a college course with less than 25 students in it.. n some ways, you have it easier than Professors in the past. Everything is typed and there are plaigarizing programs to check work that you don’t have to. Imagine trying to read hand-written papers instead of neatly typed research papers. You knew, or should have known what you were taking on when you got into teaching. Many of us work extra hours besides their regular hours and without rxtra pay. Get used to it.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Thanks for reading. Yes, reading hand-written work is a different challenge entirely. And I do read a lot of that too. Most teachers I know (college and K-12) put in many extra hours beyond regular school hours, as I continue to. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work toward healthy work/life balance and support each other in doing so. Part of why I wrote to document a week of grading a huge stack of research papers was so I could examine the process, look for places to work more efficiently, and think about different ways to approach assigning and reading student work so it wasn’t so overwhelming for me. In the several semesters since I wrote that post, I have figured out some different approaches toward a better work/life balance, but it’s a continuing journey. I’m a better teacher for my students when I’m not exhausted and overwhelmed from grading papers. Thank you for your comment!

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