How to get through the end-of-semester grading crush

By Jennifer Ahern-Dodson and Hannah Davis, Thompson Writing Program

It’s December. You can see winter break on the horizon. You also see the stack of papers sitting on your desk or the full assignment bins on Canvas. With final grade deadlines looming, you sit down with the goal of commenting on and grading as many papers as possible in one sitting. Sooner than expected, fatigue sets in. There has to be a better way. 

While we can’t eliminate the reality of the end-of-semester crush, we’d like to share some strategies for a more manageable (and hopefully less painful) approach to tackling final assignments. 

Grade in community

Isolation is one of the reasons many faculty find grading so challenging, especially at the end of the semester. Many of us get energy from teaching because we like interacting with students, sharing ideas, and seeing how students learn and respond. Yet, at the end of the semester, we find ourselves shut off from students after they hand in their final assignments. With a looming stack of tests to grade or papers to read, we further isolate ourselves by closing our office doors to drudge through the assignments. However, just as having accountability and support for our writing can benefit our relationship with writing, working alongside other teachers can help us to establish healthy grading practices.

What works for faculty in writing groups also works for our teaching: a supportive community. This December, we invite you to try grading with faculty across departments in a grading party sponsored by the Faculty Write Program and Duke Learning Innovation. We’ll gather on Monday, December 11th from 9 am to noon in Art Building 106. Drop in as your schedule allows. We’ll have snacks and coffee to fuel your efforts. Registration encouraged by not required.

Here are some other strategies to make your end-of-semester grading more efficient and pleasant, and get you closer to winter break.  

Before the assignments are turned in 

  • Choose techniques that make sense at the end of the semester. Think about what students need, now. Some faculty spend a lot of time adding comments to student projects. But at the end of the semester, students often focus on just the grade, not necessarily the comments you took time to write. We also know that comments are most helpful when students can apply them to the next project (or while revising a current one). Plan your time accordingly. 
  • Give students a checklist to submit with their final project. Are you asking students to submit multiple documents or to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways? Asking students to submit a checklist of work completed can help them gather the correct materials at crunch time, prioritize tasks and manage their time, and it can streamline your process when grading.
  • Ask for a Cover Memo and previous drafts. Will you be grading revised drafts that you’ve already responded to? Did students get feedback from peers, a TA, or a community or industry expert? Ask students to submit a cover memo with a description of their revisions along with the draft that has feedback. Use the cover memo and prior feedback to help you assess for the goals of the assignment.
  • Make a rubric. Rubrics help us articulate what we most want students to learn. When we grade, they keep us focused on what we asked students to do. What did you ask students to do in their final projects? Make a list of assignment priorities. Consider digital rubrics on Canvas for even more efficiency. If you share the rubric with students along with the assignment, they will have a clearer idea of how to be successful. 

Once you have the assignments

  • Orient yourself. Re-read the assignment. Remind yourself what you asked students to do and why.
  • Skim a handful of the projects to get a sense of the whole. Do they seem to have similar strengths and areas for improvement? Write a few summary comments that apply to all the projects. You could share these generally with all students (your own cover memo), or cut and paste for individual projects. If you’re using Canvas, consider using the Comment Library for frequent comments. 
  • Use your rubric if you have one. It will keep your grading focused and consistent. Canvas has an option for non-scoring rubrics that can serve as efficient feedback. 
  • Respond in batches. Pick a reasonable number of projects (3-5, depending on length) to grade in one sitting. Take a break after each batch to sustain energy and preserve your time.Use those summary comments so you are not writing the same comment repeatedly. 
  • Make it time bound. Try the Pomodoro method or Cal Newport’s Time Blocking. After grading the first few, you might have a sense  of a reasonable amount of time to spend per project. Sticking to a set amount of time can help manage fatigue, focus on the task at hand, and avoid distraction. 
  • Schedule breaks. It can be tempting to power through your grading, but without breaks, you become less and less efficient. Email is not a break! Try a movement break, like a short walk, standing and stretching, or pausing to listen to your favorite song. 
  • Mix it up. Try audio feedback. Many people find that they get caught up in commenting on drafts, so using short audio comments may cut down on time per project. 
  • Ask us! If you want to learn more about efficient and more enjoyable end-of-semester grading strategies, please email us ( or We welcome continued conversations, especially in planning for next semester. Considering what it might look like to ungrade? We’d love to chat about that too!
  • Grade in community. Get some grading done, celebrate the end of semester with fellow faculty, and grade in good company:  Monday, December 11, 9am-noon, Art Building 106. Drop in as your schedule allows. We’ll use timed sessions to keep us focused and allow for breaks to connect with others. Registration encouraged by not required. Register here:

The end-of-semester grading process doesn’t have to be isolating, exhausting, or arduous.  Let’s support each other as we close out the semester, and even bring some joy to our shared grading experience.