Math Time Saver -- You Don’t Have to Grade Everything

By Brent Vasicek on November 14, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5

As a new teacher I knew it was very important to understand exactly where my students were academically in math. My philosophy was, "If the students took time to work on it, then I must take time to evaluate it." Let us think about that for just a second. Let’s say you give the students twenty math problems. Multiply that by thirty students. Voilà! SIX HUNDRED math problems for you to grade. With multiple subjects or classes, this could get ugly fast. Below I will discuss how I have modified my grading so I can be home before midnight without sacrificing my awareness of what the students know . . . and don’t know.

 Guideline #1: Don’t assign grades to things that are practice. You don’t throw a perfect pass the first time you touch a football. You can’t expect students to be perfect when they were just taught a concept. If it is practice, I let the students know their practice progress with a check, check plus, or check minus in the bottom right corner of their papers. I use this rubric:

  • Check Plus — Perfect score! This kid could probably help reteach this concept to others.
  • Check — The student gets the basic idea. She doesn’t need extra help, just extra practice time to build confidence.
  • Check Minus — The student does not grasp the concept. He needs help! Perhaps a fast-working check-plus student could be of use.

Guideline #2: Any paper that goes home becomes an invalid assessment. If a paper is allowed to leave the room, there's the possibility of its being tainted by any number of individuals that are willing to help the child (or willing to do homework for cash). Personally, I encourage parents to help with assignments that make their way home. I figure any sort of continued discussion or help in the home is a good thing. Therefore, work that goes home and comes back to school becomes what I affectionately call "a Screener."

For a Screener, I will pick three to six problems that represent the core of the lesson. I check only those problems. If they are ALL correct, the child earns a check plus. If the child gets one or two wrong, he earns a check. If he just doesn’t understand, then I assign a check minus. The Screener allows me to quickly screen abilities in my class.

If you are on the fence about whether to give a child a check or check minus, you have the whole rest of the worksheet to determine if the child grasps the concept. The point is, you don’t have to grade every problem on every paper. You can efficiently determine which papers require a bit more checking.

When you have completed the Screener, then you simply flip through the papers and find all the check minuses. Those are the students you need to help. If you have a lot, then you should reteach the lesson. If you have one or two students, then take them aside for some additional help or clarification. If you have three to five, then use those check-plus students to help you move the class forward.

Guideline #3: Not all assessments come from worksheets. For instance, in my class I do line assessments. Here's how they work: I teach my students prime and composite numbers, for instance. Each student in my class has a numbered mailbox. When lining up for lunch, I ask the students to get in a prime line or a composite line according to their mailbox number. When they start doing this task quickly, I know they understand the concept. I see if they can apply this to new numbers by having the students add five to their mailbox number before deciding if they belong in the prime or composite line. You could make these line assessments work for multiples or factors, too. Example: "Add 5 to your mailbox number and if that number is a factor of 48, get in line." The quicker the class can do this, the more comfortable they are with a concept.

What do you do for grades?

I hear the cries of despair already. What do you put in your grade book for math? I weight the grades. Seventy percent of the overall math grade comes from math tests because tests do not leave the room until they are graded. Unlike homework, they retain validity. I give a math test every other Friday, which I call "Game Day." Every math test is cumulative back to the first day of school. Game Day is the students’ opportunity to show their practice has been working.

Thirty percent of the overall math grade comes from simply doing the practice. If you turn in your work every day, then you earn 30 points out of 30. Easy A. For each late assignment, I reserve the right to take one percent off the overall grade, up to 30 points.

What time-saving tricks do you have for grading math?

Enjoy the few extra minutes you have just found for yourself.




One assessment idea I suggest is to give students the problem AND the answer. Not only does this show them the goal, but it forces them to show their work to receive credit for their answers. It trains them to communicate the process and not just the product.

Yes, this is a bit more time consuming to grade. I do not create entire tests of this type of problem. I sprinkle in a few problems here and there so I can assess what's going on in the minds of the students.

So many great comments. A common theme is that immediate feedback. Very true and very powerful. Remember to work smarter not harder.

Providing a copy of the answer key after each assignment is a great idea (although not necessarily the most environmentally friendly idea). Parents that work with their children at home will appreciate this.


I also use a system of effort grades. This helps the struggling student bring up their averages. I can quickly go around the room and check their assignments while they work on a bell ringer activity. They have to try every assigned problem for credit. A check or minus goes in the grade book. After I have completed my walk around the room I already have the answers on a powerpoint for them to check their own paper. The goal is for the students to find and correct their own mistakes. At the end of the grading period I average all the effort grades into one or two if I have a lot.

Wow! I totally do this without even realizing it! Tests make up a majority of the grade, and then HW takes up the rest. We "grade" in-class so the students get INSTA feedback on what they've done. I usually have an awkward 5 minutes where the "gifted" kids are coming back to class and my math class is wrapping up. We use that time to grade. Then I flip though and pull out those who didn't reach a c+ on the assignment.

We've got parents that demand every question/work is graded/marked because they think otherwise the kids would not know if their answers are correct or not. Especially with higher graders, when you need to check the steps of how an answer was derived to be sure if they really got the concept.

So some teachers at our school would go over the answers in class then give a copy of the answer keys from teacher's manual to every student to ensure every kid know what the right answers are.

I have used this method of check plus, check and check minus, for a few years now. I have also passed it on to a number of new teachers. They are always amazed. I share the same feelings that practice is practice and not an assessment. The parents at my school seem to really appreciate it too. It saves SO much time in grading. I just graded an entire stack of work for the week in about 30 minutes. The other thing I like about the check system is that I know have time to leave a short message or comment (feedback). I think that improves learning more than a 7/8!

I second the comment about students grading their own work for feedback:
- All grading is done in thinline markers kept in table caddies.
- I use one or two students as "pencil patrol" to make sure no one is erasing or using pencils.
- I read aloud the answers.
- At the end, I have the students raise their hand for who got #1 right, who got #2 right, etc. etc. Obviously, this is for smaller assessments, with 1 or 2 standards. With the raising of hands, I can see which problems were the most difficult. I probe further on those ones: who answered A, who answered B, who answered C; or what was confusing / what mistakes did they make. This also has shown me sometimes a question or two that deserved half credit.

This procedure took about 2-3 weeks to really take effect. However, it was well worth it. Kids quietly whisper "yes!" when they get an answer right, they immediately know their score, and they immediately get an explanation of the most difficult problems.

Thank you from a teacher that seriously dislikes grading page after page of math practice paper. I'm definitely starting that check system after the break!

Super ideas --Thank you!

Try this link for the Geometrees.

Hi Brent,

This past summer I read your blog and many of your past entries. I've also visited your website. I love many of the things I have seen. When browsing, I read about a really neat idea for assessing angles and other geometric concepts. Unfortunately, now I can't find it. Can you point me in the right direction? I'll describe it the best I can from what I remember. Thanks!

-Create a Christmas tree (or other winter scene) using a specified number of angles, lines, rays, planes, and geometric shapes.

Is this jogging your memory? I hope so! If you have a link I'd love to read more details!

It is also a learning experience if the kids grade their own work, or if they trade with a partner and grade it for each other. They still get immediate feedback on how they did.

My principal just told me this Tuesday. I was really doing to much. Thanks for making this point.

Great time saving tips for efficiency! Thank you.

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