Survive the End-of-Semester Grading Crunch

Faculty share tips to help the end of the semester go smoothly.

May 9, 2017

For many faculty, the end of the semester can be stressful, with final exams, papers, and projects to grade, all under the pressure of looming grade submission deadlines.

“The challenge is, semesters seem long, but they’re really very short,” said Cynthia Tessien, CPA, professor at Wake Forest University.

Everything builds throughout the semester, oftentimes meaning that in addition to final exams, faculty are grading papers or projects that have culminated at the end of the semester, she said.

But with proper planning, you can take some of the stress out of the end of the semester. Here’s how your fellow accounting faculty do it:

Block your time. Jim Willis, CPA, associate dean of accounting at Wake Forest University, blocks off specific times, such as Saturday morning, on his schedule to focus on grading. He does his grading at home to avoid interruptions. Similarly, Tessien sets her phone to do-not-disturb mode and focuses only on grading during blocks of time.

“It’s amazing how much you can get done if you’re willing to do that,” she said.

Set boundaries with your students. Tessien makes sure her students know when she will be available to them, while also guarding her grading time.

“I’m generous with that time for students,” she said. “But I also tell them, this is when I’m going to be grading and I’m not available.”

She chooses to do her grading off-campus for this reason. “I try to be available to my students whenever they see me on campus,” she said.

Let your family know when you’ll be busy. Tessien sets similar expectations with her family, using a little humor to do so when speaking with her kids.

“I tell them, ‘Mom has to go into the grading cave tonight, but tomorrow I’ll come out and spend time with you,’” she said.

If you’re a parent, you may have added “parent guilt” that comes from having less time to spend with your children during grading time. Tessien makes sure she blocks time for her kids as well.

“I try to find one or two things for each child, each week, that I go and participate in with them,” she said.

That can be attending her child’s sporting event, or just going out for doughnuts.

Grade exam questions with subjective answers in batches. Willis said staying consistent when scoring subjective answers can be among the most stressful parts of the grading process. To ensure consistency, he’ll grade one question at a time across all exams, then move on to the next question across all exams.

Enlist help when you can. Tessien has graduate students help grade the large sections she teaches. She looks at it as a learning opportunity for the graduate students, as they review key concepts and see how professors deliver knowledge to their students, as well as a timesaver for her.

She’s held grading parties, where she’s paid graduate assistants for their time and provided lunch while they help her grade exams.

Use technology to your advantage. Technology can help in a number of ways—both with exams, and with managing your time.

Tessien has students file paper submissions electronically. Students can embed links to supporting documents or to Excel spreadsheets, making it easier for her to locate and view those documents, she said.

Willis said he uses more multiple-choice questions in larger classes, and uses Scantron to simplify grading.

“That helps them prepare for the CPA Exam,” he said. “There is an art to answering multiple choice.”

The more students are exposed to multiple choice, the more comfortable they will be when they see them on the exam, where multiple choice appears in all four sections, Willis said. In his opinion, the “art” to multiple-choice questions includes first approaching them as regular problems, and formulating an answer before looking at the choices. If the answer is there, he said, students can mark it and move on; if it’s not, he recommends they work on other questions, and come back to that question at the end.

In smaller classes, where he may include more problems on the exam, Willis formats the test with a specific spot for each answer. He can locate a correct answer and check it off quickly. Or, if it’s not correct, he can go back through the student’s work to look for partial credit.

To keep himself on schedule, Tom Marsh, CPA, assistant dean of accounting and associate professor of accounting at Northern Virginia Community College, uses the tasks application in Outlook.

“I make sure that I set reminders so that nothing gets overlooked and I prioritize each of the tasks or projects that I have identified,” he said. “Each task is reviewed at least weekly to be sure that nothing gets overlooked or forgotten.”

Find ways to reduce stress. Find a stress relief method that works for you. For Marsh, it’s taking a break from work. He still makes himself available to respond to student questions, but tries not to take his work home with him.

“We are constantly connected through technology, and I feel that if you don’t consciously disengage you become less effective,” he said. “Proper balance of work and life results in better productivity and results.”

Tessien said it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Each semester can serve as a learning opportunity to grow or to change your approach for next semester.

What’s more, having gone into teaching after a career in business, she appreciates that, unlike in business, there’s a break after the end of each semester.

“It’s easy to work very intensely when you know you can take that break,” she said.

Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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