How to Grade Faster and Foster Student Learning

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Grading is an age-old source of frustration for instructors, with many feeling torn between evaluating student performance and fostering student learning, as they struggle with less time to do either. However, one does not have to forgo student learning to attain more efficiency in grading.

In her piece “How to Grade Faster in 2020,” Deborah J. Cohan suggests that instructors can begin to grade more efficiently by limiting the number of assignments and increasing the value of those assignments for the final grade:

I don’t see the point in assigning a lot of busy work or many assignments each worth 1 percent to 10 percent and then feeling breathless all semester with grading.

Such advice may reduce grading for the instructor, but it runs counter to what we know about student learning. In “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive,” Viji Sathy and Kelly A. Hogan explain the benefits of reducing high-stakes assignments: “When a single exam or paper carries a lot of weight, you risk letting that one experience or day wreak havoc on a student’s grade.”

One way to address the needs of both the instructor and the student is to consider the relationship between grading and feedback. Jeffrey Schinske and Kimberly Tanner explain that grading is a form of feedback that may be evaluative, which “judges student work [thorough grades, praise or criticism]”, or formative or descriptive, which “provides information about how a student can become more competent.”  Descriptive feedback can have a positive effect on evaluative feedback:

[One study found] that students receiving descriptive feedback (but not grades) on an initial assignment performed significantly better on follow-up quantitative tasks and problem-solving tasks than did students receiving grades or students receiving no feedback. (Schinske and Tanner).

Student learning is enhanced when instructors provide feedback meant to improve a student’s performance. There are several strategies that instructors can employ to provide this kind of descriptive feedback to students that, in the long run, will reduce the amount of evaluative feedback they provide.

Instructors can design courses in ways that provide feedback for low-stakes assignments through quizzes and other assessments. This means that instructors want to intentionally deploy these when they help students the most. Sathy and Hogan note that whatever low-stakes assignments an instructor chooses, it should be required: “When assignments are optional, compliance will vary and you risk exacerbating differences in study skills, background knowledge and the like.”

Holly Fiock and Heather Garcia suggest using technology, especially audio and video comments, to provide feedback that is frequent, specific, balanced, and timely. While Cohan discontinued her use of rubrics, a rubric directly linked to what the instructor wants students to be able to do, explained to students beforehand and coupled with time to practice is more effective. Fiock and Garcia note that rubrics and peer review help provide the kind of formative feedback that help enhance student learning, improve their performance and lessen the time it takes to provide evaluative feedback down the road.

For example, I used a series of low-stakes assignments that fed into the larger project for the literature class I taught in Fall 2019, “Worldbuilding in Science Fiction.” All of these assignments followed the same format:

  1. students created a draft before class and brought it to class
  2. students worked in groups to receive feedback from their peers
  3. students wrote down all of the feedback they received and then explained why they did or did not use the feedback
  4. students revised the draft, then turned in a document that contained the draft, the feedback, their response to feedback and the revision

I graded the assignments using a simple rubric where I looked for whether students had the elements of the assignments. I reviewed the feedback they received from their peers (they were using the same rubric) and made notes of the common mistakes students made. In most cases, a student’s revision was vastly improved from the draft, so I didn’t have to give feedback on the things group members had already addressed. In the next class, I went over with the class the common mistakes and show them how to improve for next time.

We can improve our grading efficiency in ways that do not diminish student learning.


Cohan, Deborah J. “How to Grade Faster in 2020.” Inside Higher Education. 11 Feb 2020,

Fiock, Holly and Heather Garcia. “How to Give Your Students Better Feedback With Technology.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 08 Nov 2019.

Sathy, Viji and Kelly A. Hogan. “Want to Reach All of Your Students? Here’s How to Make Your Teaching More Inclusive.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 22 Jul 2019,

Schinske, Jeffrey and Kimberley Tanner. Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education. 13.2 (2014): 159-166. doi: 10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054.

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How to Grade Faster and Foster Student Learning by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Disciplines and Active Learning

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Active learning represents a significant set of strategies that can increase student engagement with course material. However, how does disciplinary context factor into the way we use these strategies?

Active learning remains a major trend in higher education. Several of the most-read topics for The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Teaching Newsletter revolved around active learning strategies, including the interactive lecture, test review and debriefing. Studies show that it can have a major impact on student learning. However, much of that research focuses on the implementation of active learning strategies in STEM courses. They represent a stark departure from the continuous lecture, a common mode of teaching, particularly in large classes.

For example, Scott Freeman and his colleagues conducted an analysis of 225 studies and found that active learning increased test scores, but this was specifically for undergraduate STEM courses: “The data suggest that STEM instructors may begin to question the contained use of traditional lecturing in everyday practice, especially in light of recent work indicating that active learning confers disproportionate benefits for STEM students from disadvantaged backgrounds and for female students in male-dominated fields” (8413).

However, disciplines in the humanities have employed active learning strategies like flipped learning for decades: “Procedurally, a humanities seminar is already ‘flipped.’ Exciting student interactivity in a ‘flipped’ engineering class is true of an ordinary humanities seminar” (Berens). So are active learning strategies only effective for certain disciplines? How can we make them effective in all disciplines?

Rather than a magic bullet, it may be more helpful to see active learning as a constellation of strategies that instructors link to the specific learning goals for their courses and match to the needs of their students. In doing, the disciplinary context is key. Some strategies work better than others for certain disciplines. Failing to link the strategies with student learning outcomes, student work and assessment could result in the failure of active learning strategies in the classroom. Claire L. Jarvis reports on Amanda Holton’s experience in her chemistry course at the University of California, Irvine:

Amanda Holton encountered the gap between the optimistic literature and reality when she flipped her large general chemistry class. . . . [Holton’s students] were in their first semester of college, nonmajors taking general chemistry as a prerequisite for their biology degrees. They weren’t strongly motivated to study chemistry and resented having to run through lectures and teach themselves outside the classroom. Exam performance only slightly improved compared with students who took the nonflipped version the year before.

It sounds like Holton’s flip could more directly address the kinds of students in her general course who, unlike majors, do not exhibit the same kind of motivation. Could Holton incorporate other activities that could spark their interest, perhaps linking chemistry to the world they experience everyday? Could she explain her use of the flipped classroom in a way that students see themselves participating in their own learning rather than being completely responsible for it?

Success with active learning strategies begins with the instructor intentionally incorporating and linking them to the goals of the course. Instructors are better positioned to get the most out of active learning when they keep disciplinary values in view.


Berens, Kathi Inman. “Double Flip: 3 Insights Flipping the Humanities Seminar.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 23 Jan 2014, (31 Jan 2020).

Freeman, Scott; Eddy, Sarah L; McDonough, Miles; Smith, Michelle K.; Okoroafor, Nnadozie; Jordt, Hannah and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Active Learning Increases Student Performance in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.” PNAS, 111.23 (2014): 8410-8415. doi/10.1073/pnas.1319030111.

Jarvis, Claire L. “The Flip Side of Flipped Classrooms: Popular Teaching Method Doesn’t Always Work as Planned.” C&EN, 17 Jan 2020,, (31 Jan 2020).

If Not Now, When?: Students and Difficult Reading

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Many professors bemoan the failure to do the assigned reading on the part of their students. But is that a reason to shy away from giving students challenging texts?

After regaling readers with the common experience of encountering students in the classroom who have not done the reading, Theresa MacPhail offers a solution in a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She suggests assigning less reading: “Long story short: Don’t assign too much reading–and don’t assume you know how much reading is too much for your students.” Why? Because students are pressed for time and, “read only if they have time and if the readings are relatively easy to digest.” Moreover, she suggests that professors avoid long texts:  “It may be the biggest reason students are no longer reading the things we assign. They have complained over and over again that a lot of assigned texts are just too boring or too long or–the deadliest of combinations–both at once.”

In her own classroom, MacPhail incorporates other kinds of material, including documentaries and podcasts. She only has students read a few scholarly texts during the course. The result: “My student are getting the information–but in formats with which they are most comfortable. Instead of reading more, they are doing more research and writing.”

There are two things that struck me. One is the idea that learning should be easy and comfortable.  Whereas learning shouldn’t be torture, it also shouldn’t be without discomfort. I’m a proponent of meeting students where they are. At the same time, the goal is also to move the student forward, even if it’s just a little bit, and that often means taking the student out of a comfort zone to a new place that is unfamiliar and sometimes scary. But that’s ok! The unfamiliar then becomes familiar; then we move on to more unfamiliar things.  What we should be doing is making students comfortable with being uncomfortable, with ambiguity, with not knowing and confident enough to charge ahead and grapple with difficult texts or challenging readings.

The other idea that struck me was placing reading in opposition to research and writing.  As a person who designs and implements research programs for undergraduates and trains them to work on my own research, I know the value of reading for research. I know some academics who look down on basic bibliographic research, but that research is the foundation for any subsequent research. An inability to read well at this stage does not bode well later down the road.  I have seen students who have never been asked to grapple with a “difficult’ text that challenged them. As a result, they lack the confidence and ability to do so. If a student never has to grapple with a dense text, then a student will never learn how to grapple with a dense text. But it’s about more than grappling with jargon or a boring text. It’s about developing critical reading skills that they can use anywhere.

Rather than denigrating difficult texts, perhaps what we should teach students is how to read smarter, which would really make the best use of their time and engage them with the material.   Miriam E. Sweeney offers some great insights in her post, “How to Read for Grad School.” Instead of a cursory review of the material, these suggestions offer a reading strategy to ensure the reader understands the material at a sufficient depth to be able to engage its ideas. There are probably others who have written similarly.

In the 1970s, I remember seeing public service advertisements for the Reading is Fundamental program, which was designed to increase literacy rates. Reading is still fundamental. The way to address student reading is not to encourage students to avoid difficult reading, but to teach them how to engage it.


MacPhail, Theresa. “Are You Assigning Too Much REading? Or Just Too Much Boring Reading?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 Jan 2019, (21 Mar 2019).

Miriam. “How to Read for Grad School.” Miriam E. Sweeney. 20 Jun 2012, (21 Mar 2019).

The Role of Implementation in High Impact Practices

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The mere existence of high impact practices does not produce results. Much depends on the way such practices are implemented.

High impact practices are a set of experiences that have been shown to improve student learning. Recently, Inside Higher Education reported on research published in The Journal of Higher Education that suggests that such practices do not lead to improved learning and higher graduation rates.  Marjorie Valbrun reports that the study concluded that “the graduation rates at colleges that incorporated all the practices were not higher than those that used few if any of the practices.” Such conclusions suggest that “examining the connection between the recommended practices and institutional outcomes was important because of the widespread use of the practices ‘at the expense of other possible offerings'” (Valbrun). This could lead some to suggest that we abandon high-impact practices for other types of activities.

Soon after, George Kuh, author of High Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter (2008), and Jillian Kinzie penned a response in Inside Higher Education, raising an important, overlooked aspect of the study. In addition to the circumstances of the students, they argue that “simply offering and labeling an activity a HIP does not necessarily guarantee that students who participate in it will benefit in the ways much of the extant literature claims.” In other words, the high-impact practice needs to be deliberately structured to achieve certain results. Its mere existence will not create positive results for students.

Much like when we teach classes, we need to envision what we hope to accomplish when we embark on a high impact practice in our institutions and how we seek to meet those goals. More importantly, we have to think about how such experiences will impact the student and what the student will take away from the experience. Are we simply adding a line to a student’s resume for a job or a cv for graduate school? Are merely creating data points for institutional data? Or, are we providing an experience and tangible products from that experience that students can share?

This is something I’m working on as I continue to implement our institution’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) for reaccreditation, which is undergraduate research, a high-impact practice. Creating ways to leverage these experiences will also make them more meaningful to students, who sometimes overlook the continued benefit of the experiences for later in their lives and focus on just doing them. One possible approach is combining high-impact practices. In addition to undergraduate student research, the overview of “High-Impact Educational Practices” published on the Association of American Colleges & Universities site lists other HIPs that may reinforce the positive impact of undergraduate research. I’m thinking of how making undergraduate research collaborative and culminate in projects or encouraging students to create research portfolios from their classwork may increase the positive impact of undergraduate research.

What is clear is that we must give careful thought not just to implementing such practices, but how we implement such practices.



“High-Impact Educational Practices.” Association of American Colleges & Universities (10 May 2018).

Kuh, George D. “What Really Makes a ‘High-Impact’ Practice High Impact?” Inside Higher Education 1 May 2018. (10 May 2018).

Valbrun, Majorie. “Maybe Not So ‘High Impact’?” Inside Higher Education. 25 Apr 2018. (10 May 2018).


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The Role of Implementation in High Impact Practices by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.