Sustainable Grading Practices

Student conference with Signature Sheet and highlighted feedback on the activity.

There are many things I love about teaching. I love helping students grow in their understanding of science and have “aha” moments.  I love helping students find their passion and I love it when my students make me laugh. One thing I don’t love? Grading. It piles up and takes away my time with my family. I often spend hours writing comments students rarely read and grading assignments students throw straight into the trash. 

A few years ago I had to take on an “overload” where I taught an extra class and had less prep time. At the time I had two young ones at home and another on the way. I knew I needed to rethink my grading workflow so I could survive the “overload”. I was barely keeping my head above water with grading. When I researched online to find more sustainable methods for giving feedback, I read about English teacher Caitlin Tucker’s methods for sustainable feedback practices (link to her philosophy at the end of the blog post). As I am not the only teacher struggling with grading and burn-out, I want to share what I now use to help me find a better work-home balance. I feel that it is important to mention there is no one right way to assess students. While this method is working for myself, my students, and my teaching situation, it is not perfect, but it definitely has some positives over traditional grading work-flow. I hope you can take parts of this strategy and make it your own to help minimize the amount of work you take home while still helping your students grow in their understanding of chemistry.

My school uses a traditional 70% summative and 30% formative break down of grading. The 30% formative grading of daily work, labs, guided inquiry activities, and practice was dragging me down and piling up. To help make formative grading more manageable, I decided to create a packet of all my formative activities for each learning target. This packet has a signature sheet cover (figure 1) to assist in my grading. While students work on their formative student-centered activities and labs, I grade the previous activity. I grade in front of the student. Using a highlighter, I circle problems or highlight parts of answers I would like them to improve. While I am doing this, I am giving them verbal feedback, both positive and constructive, to help them grow. On the signature page on the front of their packet, I will sign off on a score out of 10 or 20 (depending on the size of the activity). Students are able to make corrections to their work and get it re-graded during the next round of in-class grading.  If they improved their answers and could answer verbal follow-up questions correctly, I re-sign their signature sheet and improve their score. This continues until the learning target is complete and I collect their packets to enter scores into my electronic grade book.



Figure 1: Student conference with Signature Sheet and highlighted feedback on the activity.


When my "overload" year was over, I felt obligated to revert back to my traditional grading methods and graded work during prep or at home. I was devastated when after returning an assignment I spent hours grading at home to my students, I saw most of them ignore my comments and throw it away. The hand cramps I endured from writing specific and customized comments was for nothing if my students were not going to read and use my feedback to improve. My students did a much better job acting on my feedback if I gave it verbally and in front of them. Verbal feedback required less of my time outside of school.  I decided to continue with my signature sheet grading methods as it was better for my students and for myself.  


Benefits of the Signature Sheet

  1. Actionable Feedback - The feedback I give verbally elicits student change and improvement. Students can ask clarifying follow-up questions so they know exactly what to do to improve. Often I am asking the student to make improvements for only one or two points. If I wrote the feedback on the paper, they would not revise for little points. Since I am looking at them in the eye and asking them to fix it, I almost always see the revisions the next day. They are not doing it for the points, they are doing it because I had a conversation with them.

  2. Relationships -  I have a personal conversation with every student multiple times a week. When they show me improvements, I can give them a high-five and congratulate them. If they are struggling, we can have a heart-to-heart about why. If I missed them as they walked into class, I can congratulate them on winning their last game or performing well in the musical. This grading method helps me carve out time to talk with students. I have also had minimal classroom management issues while giving feedback as I am not sitting at my desk distracted with grading but circulating around the room engaged with students.

  3. Growth Mindset - Changing to this type of grading inadvertently made my classroom embrace a growth mindset. Every student’s goal is to improve. They know their first score does not go directly into the grade book and they have time to seek out help to improve. It is safe to make mistakes. I take on a coaching role as I help everyone in my classroom grow. One student may be focused on improving understanding of the basic concept, while the next student may be focused on providing better college-level justifications.

  4. Sustainable - Almost all the grading is done in class so there is less to take home. I give feedback more efficiently in class than at home because there are fewer distractions (like laundry and kids) and it is verbal (I can speak faster than I can write or type). Having less grading to take home prevents teacher burn-out and helps me be a better teacher in the long run. 

  5. Timely - Students receive feedback on their work the next day so they have time to do something with the feedback before a summative assessment. I also gain insight into how my class is doing learning content so I can be proactive, make changes to my instruction, and re-teach before the test. Sometimes I give real-time feedback when students are half-way through a tough lab or activity. The sooner students get feedback, the sooner they can do something about it and improve.

  6. Student-centered Classroom - If I notice I do not have time to give feedback during class, it is usually because I am doing too many teacher-centered tasks. There is value to teacher-centered activities. I also feel too many teacher-centered activities are not ideal. This method of giving feedback helps me keep a healthy balance of teacher and student-centered activities. It helps ensure my students are working independently and collaboratively on learning content without me undermining the process by holding their hands excessively.  

  7. Absent and Late Work - One unintended side effect of this grading method was how much less stressful it was to handle absent and late work. Since I am handing out a packet of activities for the learning target, absent students already have the work to complete. The amount of late work I received lowered significantly. If a student did not complete their work, I have a personal conversation about why their work was not done and strategize how to get their work done on time in the future. These conversations help me develop deeper relationships with my students so they do not want to let me down by not doing their work. When I started this method, I was nervous that students would lose their packets and signature sheets before I entered them into the electronic grade book. Surprisingly, in my experience over the years, students (of all levels) rarely lose the packets and signature sheets.


If you are feeling the effects of teacher burnout creep up on you, it might be time to re-evaluate your grading and feedback methods. Is there a way to not take as much home while still giving your students the feedback they need to grow? The signature sheet method has helped me develop more sustainable grading practices. You do not have to sacrifice on the quality of your feedback to make a grading practice more sustainable. I hope this blog got you thinking and reflecting on what might work for you. Do you have a sustainable grading practice to share? I would love to hear it! Be part of the conversation and comment below! Log-in or sign-up for a free ChemEdX account to join the conversation.


Resources and References:

Sung, K. (2019, November 19). How Can Students Self-Assess When Teachers Do All the Grading and Work? Retrieved from (accessed Dec 16, 2019)

You will find an example of a signature sheet I use for one learning target in the supporting information.

Supporting Information: 
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Comments 2

Chad Husting's picture
Chad Husting | Wed, 01/01/2020 - 06:59

Melissa - Totally love your blog.  I started doing standards based grading and was worried about the grading load. I was pleasantly surprised to find it went better for me and the students. Every assignment is on a 0-4 rubric and assigned to a target.  Feedback, grading and discussions eventually improved to make an better overall culture. I really like how you try to do it right in front of them and engage them in the discussion.  I think I am going to try this.  I see this as a possible game changer.  Thank you.

Melissa Hemling's picture
Melissa Hemling | Fri, 01/03/2020 - 15:15

Thanks Chad! I have been checking out standards-based grading lately. I read your blog about SBG (very good by the way) and am inspired!  Any suggestions on how to ease into SBG?