Grading papers can be one of the most gratifying experiences of teaching, especially when students really hit it out of the park and write thoughtful, well-reasoned papers. But grading is also incredibly time consuming and the bulk of the paper grading work tends to come at the time of the semester (the end) when you’re completely overloaded with work. How can you give students the thoughtful feedback that they deserve without going crazy, staying up all night, and cramming grading into every spare minute?

While you can’t totally eliminate the stress of grading, you can use methods that make the process as streamlined, productive and efficient as it can be. Try these simple hacks the next time you’re staring at a giant stack of papers to grade.

Skim all the papers first. It might sound like a time-suck, but it really can help you grade more efficiently to give all of your students’ papers a quick look before doing a more in-depth read. This will give you an idea of the overall performance in the course and some perspective on how to allot letter grades. Some instructors also find it helpful to sort the papers by which letter grade they think they should get by this first glance. This can help with consistency and prevent you from having to go back and reassess later on. If you have too many papers to do this, choose a random sample to represent the class.

Create boilerplate language. While your responses to students shouldn’t seem canned, there’s nothing wrong with doing a bit of cutting and pasting if you find yourself writing the same things over and over. Develop some standard comments that are general enough to work for a range of assignments and, if necessary, customize them a bit to fit your student and the assignment.

Have a grading key or rubric. Creating a grading key or a rubric can help take some of the mystery out of grading—for both you and students. One of the quickest ways to do this is by using Blackboard itself. Never made a rubric in Blackboard? Learn how here. Make sure you clearly communicate and discuss this rubric with students so that they know what is expected.

Ask students to evaluate themselves. Who says you have to do all the work when it comes to grading? Ask students to evaluate themselves based on the rubric you’ve given them or on a short checklist like the one here. While some may be clueless to their actual performance and mastery of the material, most, if they’re being honest, will give you a good idea of where they excelled and where they struggled, which can help you focus your attention.

Don’t fix every error. If a student misspells a word or makes an error in grammar once, chances are pretty good that he or she will do it again later in the paper. It’s not necessary to correct each mistake. Instead, just correct the first and if it’s a persistent error, direct the student towards writing support resources that can help them eliminate these errors in the future. Not only does this save time, but it helps student morale, too. No one wants to see a paper that’s marked for every single error.

Ask for drafts. Frontloading feedback can sound like more work, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it can help you to push the biggest, most intense part of your grading off to an earlier point in the semester, which can help you maintain your sanity when finals roll around. Even better, it gives you a chance to offer meaningful feedback when students can actually do something about it, hopefully resulting in better, more thoughtful and more carefully proofread final papers that will be pleasurable to read and easier to grade. At the very least, you’ll be able to head off papers that are off topic, lacking structure or seriously out in left field before they get turned in for a final grade.

Collective feedback can help. If you have feedback to offer that applies to several students in your course, whether positive or negative, there’s nothing wrong with posting some collective feedback on Blackboard. Let students know about general trends you saw in their papers as a group and you’ll avoid having to write it on each and every one of their papers.

Time yourself. It’s possible to spend a really long time looking at just one assignment, especially for lengthy papers. It’s not practical or possible to do this if you’re teaching several courses or have larger class sizes. So, limit how long you spend on each paper. Start grading the first few papers to see how long it takes you, then use that time to measure off intervals to tackle each subsequent paper. Have a paper that needs extra attention? Set it aside and come back when you’ve finished the rest.

Conserve comments. Sometimes, less is more. Limit your comments on final drafts to those that will benefit the student’s future work (see Getzlaf, et al., 2009 for more information on effective feedback). Students often ignore these comments, so if you really want to offer more feedback, save it for drafts or works-in-progress.

Have your own tips and tricks for grading? Please share in the comments!