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Escaping the Paper Grading Trap

This article was originally posted in October of 2015. However, while topic is worth repeating, it also acts as a "part 3" to our two previous articles: January's "Exploiting Structured Practice" and February's "Adding Motivation to Mastery".

A Spanish Teacher’s Epiphany

It had been a month since training with Tools for Teaching, and our agenda for the follow-up meeting was to fine-tune and problem solve. A young high school Spanish teacher started the session by sharing this epiphany.

“I feel that this program has set me free! Prior to training I used to fill the trunk of my car with student notebooks three times a semester to take home and grade. I used to call it my ‘lost weekend.’ On Monday I would hand the notebooks back to the students, and we would start the whole cycle over again. Each day the students would deposit their daily grammar and vocabulary assignments and dictations into the notebooks, and each day I would see another ‘lost weekend’ drawing nearer.

After training I thought to myself, ‘Dr. Jones is right. Never do for students what they can do for themselves. Why should I work myself to death and lose my weekends if I can train the students to grade their own papers?’ I already have the class organized into cooperative learning groups with leaders in each group. Why not have these groups take more responsibility?

First, I had the group leaders conduct review sessions for the upcoming test, which resulted in an immediate jump in scores. Then I had the groups compete with each other in a contest prior to the weekly test so that the review had an immediate payoff. Once again the test scores jumped. Finally, I added the grading of notebooks to the weekly routine.

To help the students in checking work, I developed a Visual Instruction Plan for checking each type of language exercise and posted it on the wall. Then I had the learning groups exchange papers for grading. I made combined group scores on the daily work part of my contest so the students would take paper grading seriously. Then, to eliminate any sloppiness or cheating, notebooks were returned to their owners who would receive double credit if they could find any error in grading. Now, the students check their notebooks every Friday in twelve minutes flat! No more lost weekends!”

Work Groups

Our Spanish teacher remembered the “Rule of Classroom Chores” from training – Never do anything for students that they are thoroughly capable of doing for themselves. She cleverly applied this rule to paper grading and rediscovered one of the lessons that industry has learned about quality control. While it is impossible for a plant manager to carefully supervise the work of 120 people, the plant manager can carefully supervise the functioning of 10 Quality Control Circles.

If the workload is becoming too great, an effective leader must delegate. But, delegation is an art form. It is not simply a matter of saying, “You do it.” The leader must develop a system by which the job is first done carefully and then checked and corrected - not by the leader, but by the workers. Leaders who can design effective systems that integrate production and quality control are the ones who succeed.

Our Spanish teacher may not have had formal training in quality control, but she had a knack for it. She already had the class organized into groups, and she already had leaders for each group. The final piece of the puzzle was a learning game called “Keep ‘Em Honest” that she had seen during the Tools for Teaching workshop (See Tools for Teaching, 3rd Edition, page 303). In this game which produces work check for complex math problems, the class is divided into two teams with each team member partnered with a player on the other team. A math problem is given to the entire class with a set amount of time for computation. When the time is up, partners exchange papers for grading and then exchange them again so that the owners of the work can double check the grading. Due to team competition, no one allows anyone else to cheat or get sloppy.

Our Spanish teacher was able to pair her desire to eliminate her “lost weekends” with a reorganization of the class that produced both improved learning and improved quality control. This leap in efficiency was only possible because she had both:

  • a broad understanding of the principles of classroom management, and

  • an extensive repertoire of effective practices.

The Paper Grading Trap

American education has some very strong traditions concerning the production of excellence that, unfortunately, have little to do with the technology of quality control. Taking papers home to grade in the evening is a prime example.

Teachers “go the extra mile” by taking papers home in an attempt to produce excellence only to see those papers wadded up and dropped in the waste basket the next day. This paper grading ritual not only fails to improve student learning, but it also cannibalizes after-school time available for the teacher’s highest level job function – planning tomorrow’s lessons – with the teacher’s lowest level job function – yesterday’s clerical work.

Equally wasteful is spending large amounts of class time “going over the assignment” piece-by-piece. (“Does anyone have a question about problem number one?”) Most of the class tunes out as the teacher consumes much of the allotted time for today’s lesson answering questions for one or two students about yesterday’s news.

Building Quality Control into the Lesson

If we are to get out of the paper-grading trap, we must restructure both,

  • the way in which work is produced, and

  • the way in which it is checked.

In last month’s segment we presented an example of a teacher checking students’ math during class time rather than taking the work home to be graded. This economy (which freed up the teacher’s evening) was the result of several key facets of instruction coming together.

  1. As a result of Say, See, Do Teaching and adequate Structured Practice, students were at or near mastery at the beginning of Guided Practice.

  2. With the students’ error rate reduced, the need for corrective feedback was also reduced.

  3. What helpless handraising remained was met with Praise, Prompt, and Leave accompanied by a step-wise Visual Instruction Plan for easy reference.

  4. With help seeking by students during Guided Practice all but eliminated, the teacher was once again free to move among the students and “work the crowd.”

  5. The teacher’s mobility reduced disruptions while allowing the teacher to check students’ work as it was being done.

  6. Continuous quality control allowed the teacher to employ a Criterion of Mastery (for example, five in a row correct).

  7. Employing a Criterion of Mastery allowed the teacher to excuse students from work to do a preferred activity (working on a project) immediately upon correct task completion.

There is a second way to organize incentives in conjunction with work check, one which may be more compatible with our Spanish teacher’s system. It is called a work contract (see Tools for Teaching, 3rd Edition, pg. 110). In a work contract, students complete a series of assignments (including work check) before having access to the preferred activity. For example, a teacher might require the completion of the week’s work before the students gained access to a longer preferred activity time at the end of Friday. Whether quality control is done on an assignment-by-assignment basis or as part of a work contract, standards are being raised while the teacher’s workload is being reduced.

Having students check their work in order to free the teacher to do higher-level tasks is a thoroughly appropriate use of student time. The ability to check work, to discriminate correct from incorrect performance, is, in fact, the closure exercise for the process of learning.

Your Changing Role

In general, the more adept you become at building work check into teaching, the more responsibility students take for quality control, and the more your evenings are freed up for lesson planning. But, work check is not an add-on. It is very much tied to Say, See, Do Teaching and the weaning of helpless handraisers.

Years of experimenting with Say, See, Do Teaching and quality control has taught me the following:

The more interactive the teaching format, the more work check can be integrated into the learning process to be performed by the students.

In contrast, the more the teacher monopolizes the teaching process, the more work check is separated from learning to be done by the teacher as a separate job.

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