Thursday, July 7, 2016

Keeping Time

by Kamilah Cummings
As much as I enjoy teaching writing, I must confess that there are times when I loathe giving written feedback to my students.  This is not to say that I do not enjoy the concept of feedback. Despite spending the last two decades as a professional editor and writing teacher, I still feel a sense of satisfaction when I assist a writer in transforming his thoughts from a rough first draft to a polished final product. However, the journey from draft to final can often be time consuming, particularly when it comes to feedback.  Last quarter I realized just how time consuming it can be. 

In researching the average times teachers spend per paper on written feedback, I could not find much beyond “a lot” or “too much.” However, I did see 10 minutes offered as the maximum time a college professor could likely afford to spend per paper in a term (Jacobs and Hyman).  I must say that I have never spent 10 minutes grading an essay. A girl can dream, but in reality I usually aim for 20 minutes per paper. After speaking with some of my writing colleagues, I learned that 20 minutes is their feedback holy grail as well. 

Last quarter I put my 20-minute average to the test when I taught two classes with a combined total of 32 actively engaged students. By actively engaged I mean students attended classes and submitted required assignments. In both classes students were required to submit a weekly writing assignment. One class was a writing course where the weekly assignment was a three-four page essay. Depending on the week, student essays were either at the first draft or revision stage of the writing process.  In the other class, students submitted a one-two page writing assignment. Although it was less demanding than the essays in the other class, it still required written feedback. 

As always, I set about providing written feedback for my classes with tried-and-true strategies in tow. Gottschalk and Hjortshoj suggest that teachers “give reading essays priority over grading them” (58). Although this is probably the most time consuming aspect of providing feedback, it is essential to helping students learn to effectively communicate their ideas. So, I allow myself time to read every writing assignment my students submit. Additionally, research dictates that a less-is-more approach to feedback is far more beneficial to students. Therefore, to assist student learning, I focus my feedback on key issues rather than correcting errors. I also try to limit my number of substantive feedback comments to five because limiting comments helps ensure that students will understand and use the feedback (Gottschalk and Hjortshoj 48). My comments align with the stage of the writing project. For example, comments on first drafts focus on global revision while comments on subsequent drafts focus on local revision.  

Best practices suggest that teachers provide written feedback within seven days of receipt. I set aside two days a week for giving feedback - one day per course to meet this timeframe. However, I soon found that I needed two days per class for grading. I never completed a set of papers in one day. Of course, I answered emails and tended to some administrative responsibilities during those days, but I was still at a loss for why I could never make it through one class on my “grading” days.
One afternoon, after seemingly making no progress despite having spent the last three hours giving feedback, I was compelled to click on my desktop calculator to calculate how much time I dedicated to providing feedback each week. I calculated 34 papers per week at an average of 15 minutes per paper. I allotted 20 minutes per paper for the writing class and 10 minutes per paper for the other one. My results - 510 minutes or 8.5 hours per week. My results suggested that I should be able to complete my grading in two days.  I was perplexed.

To test my findings, I set the stopwatch on my phone to time my feedback. To my dismay, I found that I spent 33 minutes on the first paper that I assessed. I chalked that up to the paper. Considering it an anomaly, I reset the stopwatch and moved on to the next paper – 27 minutes. Another reset – 29 minutes; so much for my imagined 20-minute-per-paper limit. No wonder it felt like I wasn’t making a dent in my grading. I wasn’t. At an average of 29 minutes per paper, I was actually spending 986 minutes or 16.4 hours per week grading. 

Feeling a bit dazed and dejected by these numbers, I realized that I needed a strategy to keep myself on track when providing feedback. I decided to switch from using my phone’s stopwatch to the timer. I set the timer at 20 minutes and continued providing feedback. I was still providing feedback when the timer sounded. This happened again and again. Each time it occurred, I continued. The faint digitized ringing was easy to ignore. However, the hours that passed were not. I knew that I could not survive the quarter grading at this rate. 

So, I went out and bought myself an old-fashioned, no frills cooking timer. It had a big dial that I had to manually reset for each paper. Its loud, jarring buzzer was just what I needed. It could not be ignored or drowned out by whatever random Prince song I listened to while grading. Initially, I found the incessant ticking of the timer exceedingly annoying. I actually considered abandoning my strategy because of it. However, I noticed that the ticking rate increased during the last five minutes of my set time. In the beginning my heart would skip a beat when the ticking rate increased, and anxiety would set in. However, after some time, I found that I was actually getting better at managing my time. This turned out to be a great checkpoint tool. The five-minute mark became a measure for where I should be in the paper at that point. After a few weeks of using the timer, I had significantly cut back on the amount of time that I exceeded the 20-minute timer. I even started to play games with the timer to improve my efficiency.  

My loud, white cooking timer revealed that I was not maximizing my feedback strategies. Although, I had prioritized reading over grading, limited and focused my comments, I was taking too long to do these things. I was reading and re-rereading the papers when I was confused instead of simply commenting on the lack of clarity and moving on. I was also overthinking the comments that I wrote or simply writing too much.  This was quite the revelation, and I put it to good use. By the end of the quarter, I was completing some papers in less than 20 minutes. Numerous voices hail the benefits of timed writing to improve writing. Therefore, the benefit of timed feedback should have come as no surprise to me. I only regret taking so much time to realize it.

Works Cited

Gottschalk, Katherine and Keith Hjortshoj. The Elements of Teaching Writing. Boston: Bedford /St. Martin's, 2004. Book.
Jacobs, Lynn F and Jeremy S Hyman. 10 Things You Didn't Know About College Grading. 4 November 2009. Article. 6 July 2016. <>.

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