When to give advice, and when to think twice: A guide to managing student work

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If you want to teach and have a life, you need to practice “satisficing.”

What? Is that a real word?

Allow me to explain.

Dave Stuart Jr teaches us that satisficing is the process of giving full time and attention to tasks that help our “top-level goals.” Everything else is completed with ruthless efficiency.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Those papers on your desk, those docs in your drive, they’re not equal. Some deserve more time than others. Others you can ignore completely. You just have to know which is which.

But that decision is hard. We want our students to learn. We don’t want to be lazy.

So today I’ll outline my decision-making process for dealing with student work. The goal of the process is to manage my teaching responsibilities, help students learn, and yes, have a life.

If that’s what you want, too, then read on.

If it’s practice, use visual inspection

At times, the day’s lesson builds off of the homework from last night. Students read the article, solved the problems, or annotated the chapter. This was new stuff for the students, an opportunity to get familiar with the information.

In these situations, my goal is efficiency. How can I determine (A) how the class did with this assignment? (B) which students neglected or struggled to finish? Collecting all the papers, reading them, and providing comments won’t do. We need to reinforce these objectives today. Even writing some mark of completion on each paper will take too long. This is why I say that the visual confirmation of completion works best for this situation.

Hold a roster on a clipboard, grab a pen, and circulate the room. The notes or grade that you can give is up to you (I love the idea of the no grades classroom, in fact)

Why the simple checklist beats your rubric

Checklist for students

Sometimes, teachers want to know if students have met certain benchmarks. Did they use three, properly-cited sources? Did they use all the correct materials during the lab? Did they follow each of the steps in solving the equation? During these situations, a rubric complicates things. A checklist helps teachers save time and provide basic feedback. Students can answer, “did I meet the requirements or did I fall short in certain areas?”

Further, I’ve found the checklist to be a much more useful reflection tool for students than the typical rubric. For example, when my journalism students are finished with a news article draft, both the students and I know that there are a few initial errors to check for and correct. Using Google Keep, I can project a checklist (or share it via email) and have students review and edit their own work.

Assignment checklist Google Keep

Google Keep’s dynamic checklists help facilitate student reflection.

No redo? No revision? No feedback

This must be the biggest well-meaning teacher time waster that happens on a regular basis. Especially for essays, teachers spend a lot of time writing comments. The thing is, these are “final” drafts! So, by definition, students will not be using these comments to revise.

If most students will not revising their work, do not take the time to provide tons of feedback. As I’ll explain below, this does not mean that students don’t get feedback. It does mean that you shouldn’t waste time writing comments that students won’t use.

Now, it’s important to consider this approach within the broader context of your instruction, especially when communicating with parents. It would be unwise to tell parents, Hey, I don’t plan on looking at your children’s’ work! Instead, explain that students have many opportunities for practice, with lots of feedback and advice given: some during class, some early on in assignments, some in one-to-one conferences. When parents see many opportunities to demonstrate mastery, a quick check mark on an assignment without any other comments will not raise eyebrows.

Please don’t edit your students’ work

Don't edit your students work

There’s a classic image of the English teacher and student relationship. Student writes a book report. Teacher reads with a red pen in hand. Student receives a paper back with red ink everywhere. Some teachers feel a duty to correct grammar, usage, spelling, and mechanics errors. But the truth is, this practice does more harm than good to both parties.

“Correct conventions are an important component of written communication, but very rarely does an essay marked with every error cause a student to become every writer,” says high school English teacher and department chair Susan Barber in this Edutopia article. Barber suggests that students use checklists or tools like Grammarly to learn self-editing. If the ultimate goal is independent transfer, then I agree with Barber.

For process work, move feedback up front

Give student feedback early

Things change when we want to move students through a process. Students conduct research, publish a polished essay, or solve a multi-step problem. In these cases, early success is crucial. To help this, I move the feedback to the early part of the process.

A few examples:

  • For the research project, vet research questions to ensure quality. Put the same care towards reviewing sources.
  • For a process essay, review thesis statements before other writing happens.
  • For the multi-step math problem, stop and check students’ work after they’ve completed step 1

The counterintuitive truth is that giving feedback early lowers students’ need for help.

Reading and grading is best for summative

Is this a final project? Is this the revision of an essay? If you’re answering yes, then it is most likely time to read and grade, no more. While you may call this lazy or rushed, I argue that this is actually in the best interest of students. When students get immediate reports on their work, they can make adjustments or seek help. This type of action loop leads to more learning than when we take months to return projects.

Conclusion: Our job is to get the best outcome

Often, teachers feel a duty to spend a lot of time grading student work. The thing is, students deserve to learn, but they don’t deserve to have exhausted teachers. Match the response you give to the type of work students have done. When this happens, you’ll have more energy. You’ll be at your best for your students when they need you most. That is, when you’re right there with them, helping them learn in class.


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Gerard Dawson is a full-time high school English and Journalism teacher. He is the author of Hacking Literacy and publishes articles on literacy, technology, and life as an educator at his site GerardDawson.org. Gerard lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons.

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