Five Ways to Spend Less Time With Papers This Year (Without Sacrificing Your Impact)

Last week I tweeted out a simple question in preparation for this post: How many students do you have on your student load for ’19-’20?

I tweeted this because while teachers struggling under massive student and paper loads is a pretty well-documented problem (the very first English Journal from 1912 opens with a discussion of this; see below), I wasn’t sure how big student/paper loads across the country were. I know how things tend to work in my little part of the world (130-160 students spread across five sections is a full-time load for most Southeast Michigan districts), but I had no idea what the national scene looks like.

This is the first page of the first English Journal. The reason that the author, Edwin M. Hopkins, gives for reasons composition can’t be taught well? Teachers are expected to handle over 125 students and their papers while teaching four classes–both numbers that would be a dream for this writing teacher!

And while I expected some big numbers, what I found was far more shocking than I ever imagined. Out of the hundreds of responses, quite a few sat in the 130-160 students/teaching 5 sections range I know from around here and a handful of lucky teachers had fewer students and only four sections, but a huge number of responses also looked like the following:

177, 189, or 200+ (!) students? Over six or seven sections? I couldn’t believe how many teachers are required to hold up such Atlas-esque loads. Can, as Edwin M. Hopkins asks in that first ever English Journal article, good composition be taught in such conditions? And can it be done without taking a serious toll on those who are teaching it?

The answer is no and yes.

The no is that no writing teacher should shoulder 150, 175, or 200 students, or six or seven sections. The National Council of Teachers of English recommends a maximum of 100 students on a load, which correlates with other research I’ve read.

But at the same time, good or even great composition can be taught even when the number of students is more than the number of desks, and it can be done in less time than one might imagine. But to do so, we need to keep in mind an old, but no less true, maxim and work smarter, not harder.

So to open the 2019-2020 school year, I wanted to share the five single most effective ways I’ve found in my research for my upcoming book about feedback to do more with less in our responses to student work.

I have written about some of these before and plan to dive much deeper into others in the coming months leading up to my book’s release (in February 2020), but consider today a crash-course on the five, ready-for-insertion-tomorrow ways to cut down the time you spend with papers this year without sacrificing the quality of your instruction (and in many situations improving it)!

#1 Be a teacher, not a detached authority, in the margins

I’ve written about this before, but we shouldn’t be marking every error and passing thought we have in the margins; it is both ineffective and inefficient, as it takes a very long time to do (when I did that, responses took 20-25 minutes per paper), and when we stuff papers with dozens of unique lessons, the most common result is that students get so overwhelmed and have so little time to spend on each comment that they internalize very few of those lessons.

I am often asked if we don’t mark everything, how many things should we be marking? My answer? It depends.

I don’t actually think there is a magic number for responses that teachers should give or lessons that they should teach in one paper. Instead, I think the best approach is to strive to be what David Fuller calls an Interested Reader, as opposed to a Detached Authority. The difference between these two is that a Detached Authority comes in with certain rules to follow and enforce. Each time a rule is broken, a correction is made, which can in many situations become a lot of corrections.

Alternatively, an Interested Reader comes in with a simple question: “What is the best way I can help this student today?” and lets that guide the response.

Being an interested reader means that for some students we focus on just one big topic per paper and for others we focus on two or three. Sometimes we may mark grammar issues or word choice, and other times we will pass over those things in favor of other issues.

This approach is the most efficient and effective because it is all about only marking those things we are actively teaching, as opposed to clogging the page and taxing our time with a number of comments that may (or more likely) may not turn into learning on the part of the students.

#2 Treat your attention as the precious resource it is

When one has 150 students, each minute on average added to reading and responding to student work equals 2.5 hours of extra work. That is why teachers need to treat their attention as the incredibly precious resource it is and save it for the moments where it will have the greatest impact.

As a new teacher, I often felt that I had to read and respond to every syllable that students wrote, as if my eyes were a necessary catalyst for student learning. I now know that in fact, the best practice is for me to read only a fraction of what students write for three reasons:

  1. Students need to do more writing (and reading) than we could ever assess. Most experts put it at between 30-60 minutes every single day. Trying to read and respond to all of that is simply not possible.
  2. When students are learning a new skill, generating new ideas, gathering their thinking, or experimenting, the presence of a teacher reading their writing will often impede their abilities to do those things because trying new things and collecting one’s thoughts takes vulnerability, and a great many students aren’t able to be vulnerable in front of teachers.
  3. Teacher need time off. Too much work will not only hurt us, it will hurt our classes because we work best when we have balance and regular rest.

For these reasons, my goal is always for students to have more writing that is unread than writing that is read; that generally ends up being best for them and me!

#3 Use frequent targeted writing

A teacher in my school admitted to me this week that while she knew that not correcting every comma error in every paper was good practice, she knew she just wouldn’t be able to do it, as those comma splices just grated on her soul.

Luckily she had a solution to this problem already. She is planning on doing an early targeted writing assignment that focuses just on commas. I do something similar and have a post discussing how I structure it here.

I have found that while I can only respond to so many larger papers and maintain a life outside of school, I can do a lot of quick, targeted writing assignments that focus our students’ attention on just one or two topics. The advantage of these is they allow us to go deep into common issues and skills in a way that isn’t possible when we are commenting through a full essay. Further, when designed well, they allow us to give feedback really fast (like the next day or even during class) because reading a short piece for one or two features takes only a fraction of the time that it takes to read a paper in its totality. Mixing in these assignments between larger papers allows us to get students more regular and faster feedback–which are both critical to maximized growth for many students–than if they always had to wait for us to work through longer and more polished pieces.

#4 Habit-ize your paper response

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says that…

Every habit you have — good or bad — follows the same 3–step pattern: Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior), routine (the behavior itself; the action you take), and reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior). 

-James Clear in “The Three R’s of Habit Change”

For years, I had no habits around responding to student work. Most of the time I’d just look at the stack of papers on my desk and think I’ll wait on that until tomorrow, with tomorrow often meaning three or four weeks later. Further, I often developed strong negative feelings towards the papers that caused me to read, respond, and grade them slower.

Now, taking a cue from Clear, I have very specific habits for how I respond to student work. I have a specific times (my Tuesday/Thursday prep block and Mondays/Wednesdays after school), a specific reminder (I take a walk to get a coffee from across the street), specific routines (ten minutes of checking the internet followed by diving in, with breaks every 40 minutes), and rewards (the coffee and internetting). The structure of this has helped me eliminate bad habits (like checking Twitter for 30 minutes in between papers or gossiping in the teacher’s lounge) and made me so much more efficient that I almost never take papers home with me.

#5 Use technology

For a blogger, I am a ridiculous luddite. I don’t own an e-reader, I listen to vinyl more than I stream music, and the tech tools I use in my classroom regularly can be counted on one hand. Still, I respond to student work digitally as often as possible. The reason? It opens up a whole host of time-saving possibilities, including…

  • We can type at roughly double the speed we can handwrite, giving us double the feedback in the same amount of time.
  • I saw this first on Catlin Tucker’s blog, but when we comment digitally, we can add links to resources and materials. This has since become a key part of my feedback practice, with me regularly linking to mentor texts, thoughtful tutorials on difficult topics like linking verbs or parallel structure, and even the student’s previous work!
  • We can use comment banks. Canned comments or correction codes have been a common suggestion for writing teachers for over 100 years, and technology has made it easier than ever to use them. I plan to have a post on them soon, but in short, too many codes or canned comments can have a negative impact on student writing because it can make students feel like we aren’t listening to what they have to say and that writing is little more than an exercise in not making mistakes. That being said, using comment banks carefully can save time without these negative side effects. The way to use them carefully is mainly to use them sparingly and save them for really hard to succinctly explain topics (paraphrasing, commas splices, sentence length variation, etc.). My rule of thumb is to always make sure that at least 50% of my comments are organic (aka not from the comment bank) and that I adapt the comments that I use from my bank so they are the right length and level for the student.
  • We can see the student’s revision history, giving us a sense of exactly how much they did (or didn’t) use the feedback we gave them. This information is invaluable both for understanding what parts of our feedback are the most and least effective and for giving us information we can use to nudge students who need it to develop more robust revision practices where they use (and therefore better learn from) the responses we give to them.

To all of my colleagues, whether you have 75 or 220 students, I hope that these tips help you to have a year that is full of learning but slightly less full of papers waiting for your response.

Yours in teaching,


Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

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