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Dr. Fred Jones's
Tools for Teaching

Escaping the Paper Grading Trap


It had been a month since the Tools for Teaching training, and our agenda for the follow-up meeting was to fine-tune and problem solve. A young high school Spanish teacher started the session.

"I feel that this program has set me free," she said. "Prior to training, three Fridays a semester, I would fill the trunk of my car with student notebooks to take home and grade. I used to call the time my 'lost weekend.' On Monday, I would hand the notebooks back to the students and we would start the cycle all over again. Each day, students would deposit their grammar and vocabulary assignments and dictation into the notebooks, and each day, I would see another 'lost weekend' drawing nearer.

"After the Tools for Teaching training, I thought to myself, 'Dr. Jones is right. Never do for students what they can do for themselves. Why should I work myself to death and lose my weekends if I can train my students to grade their own papers?' I already had the class organized into cooperative learning groups, with leaders in each group. Why not have those groups take on more responsibility?

"First, I had group leaders conduct review sessions for the upcoming test, which resulted in an immediate jump in scores. Then, I had the groups compete with one another in a contest prior to the weekly test, so the review had an immediate payoff. Once again, test scores jumped. Finally, I added grading of notebooks to the weekly routine.

Read More!

Have you seen these Education World articles...

...About Dr. Fred Jones?
* The King of Classroom Management! An Education World e-Interview with Classroom Management Expert Fred Jones
* Preferred Activity Time (PAT) Is Preferred by Kids and Teachers!
* Tips from Fred Jones's Tools for Teaching

...By Dr. Jones? * Adding Motivation to Mastery
* Beyond Say, See, Do Teaching: Exploiting Structured Practice
* Teaching to the Physical Modality: Say, See, Do Teaching
* Weaning the Helpless Handraisers -- Part 2: Teaching to the Visual Modality
* Weaning the Helpless Handraisers -- Part 1: Reinforcing Helplessness
* Succeeding With Classroom Structure: Rules, Routines, and Standards
* More Time on Task, Less Goofing Off

"To help students check their work, I developed a Visual Instruction Plan for checking each type of language exercise and posted my plan on the wall. Then, I had the learning groups exchange papers for grading. I calculated combined group scores for daily work and made those scores part of my pre-test contest, so students would take the paper grading seriously. Then, to eliminate sloppiness or cheating, the notebooks were returned to their owners, who received double credit if they found any grading errors. Now, students check their notebooks every Friday in 12 minutes flat! No more lost weekends!"


Our young Spanish teacher remembered the "Rule of Classroom Chores" she learned during training: Never do anything for students that they are thoroughly capable of doing for themselves. She cleverly applied that rule to paper grading and rediscovered one of the lessons that industry has learned about quality control. Although it is impossible for a plant manager to carefully supervise the work of 120 people, the plant manager can carefully supervise the functioning of Ten Quality Control Circles.

If the workload becomes too great, an effective leader must delegate. But delegation is an art form, not simply a matter of saying, "You do it." A leader must develop a system in which the job first is done carefully and then is checked and corrected -- not by the leader, but by the workers. Leaders who can design effective systems that integrate production and quality control are the ones who succeed.

Our Spanish teacher might not have had formal training in quality control, but she had a knack for it. She already had the class organized into groups, and she already had leaders for each group. The final piece of the puzzle was a learning game called "Keep 'Em Honest" that she had seen during the Tools for Teaching workshop (See Tools for Teaching, page 292). In that game, which produces work check for complex math problems, the class is arranged into two teams and each team member is partnered with a player on the opposing team. A math problem is given to the entire class, with a set amount of time for computation. When time is up, partners exchange papers for grading and then exchange them again, so the owners of the work can double check the grading. Due to team competition, no one allows anyone else to cheat or get sloppy.

Our Spanish teacher was able to pair her desire to eliminate her "lost weekends" with a reorganization of the class that produced both improved learning and improved quality control. That leap in efficiency was possible only because she had both

  • a broad understanding of the principles of classroom management; and
  • an extensive repertoire of effective practices.


American education has some very strong traditions concerning the production of excellence that, unfortunately, have little to do with the technology of quality control. Taking home papers to grade in the evening is a prime example.

Teachers "go the extra mile" by taking home papers in an attempt to produce excellence only to see those papers wadded up and dropped in the waste basket the next day. The paper-grading ritual not only fails to improve student learning, it also cannibalizes the after-school time available for the teacher's highest level job function -- planning tomorrow's lessons -- with the teacher's lowest level job function -- yesterday's clerical work.

Equally wasteful is spending large amounts of class time "going over the assignment" piece-by-piece. ("Does anyone have a question about problem number one?") Most of the class tunes out as the teacher consumes much of the time allotted for today's lesson answering questions for one or two students about yesterday's news.


If we are to get out of the paper-grading trap, we must restructure both,

  • the way in which work is produced; and
  • the way in which work is checked.

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In last month's segment, we presented an example of a teacher checking students' math during class time rather than taking the work home to be graded. That economy (which freed up the teacher's evening) was the result of the coming together of several key facets of instruction:

  • As a result of Say, See, Do Teaching and adequate Structured Practice, students were at or near mastery at the beginning of Guided Practice.
  • With the students' error rate reduced, the need for corrective feedback also was reduced.
  • What helpless handraising remained was met with Praise, Prompt, and Leave accompanied by a step-wise Visual Instruction Plan for easy reference.
  • With help seeking by students during Guided Practice all but eliminated, the teacher was once again free to move among the students and "work the crowd."
  • The teacher's mobility reduced disruptions while allowing the teacher to check students' work as it was being done.
  • Continuous quality control allowed the teacher to employ a Criterion of Mastery (for example, five in a row correct).
  • Employing a Criterion of Mastery allowed the teacher to excuse students from work to do a preferred activity (working on a project) immediately upon correct task completion.

A second way to organize incentives in conjunction with work check might be more compatible with our Spanish teacher's system. That is called a work contract. (See Tools for Teaching, pg. 96.). In a work contract, students complete a series of assignments (including work check) before having access to the preferred activity. For example, a teacher might require the completion of the week's work before students gained access to a longer preferred activity time at the end of Friday. Whether quality control is done on an assignment-by-assignment basis or as part of a work contract, standards are being raised while the teacher's workload is being reduced.

Having students check their work in order to free the teacher to do higher-level tasks is a thoroughly appropriate use of student time. The ability to check work, to discriminate correct from incorrect performance is, in fact, the closure exercise for the process of learning.


In general, the more adept you become at building work check into teaching, the more responsibility students take for quality control, and the more your evenings are freed up for lesson planning. Work check is not an add-on, however; it is very much tied to Say, See, Do Teaching and the weaning of helpless handraisers.

Years of experimenting with Say, See, Do Teaching and quality control has taught me the following:

  • The more interactive the teaching format, the more work check can be integrated into the learning process and performed by the students.
  • In contrast, the more the teacher monopolizes the teaching process, the more work check is separated from learning to be done by the teacher as a separate job.

This article is condensed from Dr. Jones' award winning book Tools for Teaching. Illustrations by Brian Jones for Tools for Teaching.

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