Surviving the Black Hole of Grading

I don’t know about you, but I began the school year with such good intentions. I wrote a two blog posts that were quite well-received (one on switching back to Evernote from OneNote, and one on Google Classroom). I felt so good about this that the day before classes started, I determined that either writing 500 words or reading 25 pages of an life-improving book every day was a reasonable goal.

I managed four days, and then the first wave of grading came in: personal essays and reflections on the summer reading (otherwise known as proof-you-did-the-summer-reading), and I missed my goal one day, two, then ten.

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During last year, I had tried various methods to streamline my feedback on student writing – rubrics, color-coded feedback, text expanders – but I have found that there is no substitute for personalized comments and strategies for improvements. I will continue to explore these strategies and others, but I cannot help but add personalized comments to student work.

I grade before school starts, I grade between classes and at lunchtime, I grade after school, in the evenings, and on weekend mornings, sometimes afternoons, and furiously on Sunday evening to meet my grading goals. (It has become a little sad that my main professional goal, week in, week out, has been to get through the pile of grading in as swift and conscientious manner as possible.)

When colleagues or former students drop into my classroom, I am torn between gratitude for their friendship and the loss of productive grading time. I do my best to stay present, but my brain pings notifications, warning me that I’m not going to get through the ten papers I promised myself I would do before going home.

And then there’s the drudgery; as much as I value each of my students as a unique individual and want to celebrate their achievements, the enthusiasm does begin to wane when reading the 38th of 51 papers about roughly the same topic.

So, I’ve come up with three strategies to weather the storm, to evade the black hole, to mix the metaphor:

– Give my students greater choice not only in the content of their work but also in the media in which they communicate. Clearly this is mutually beneficial: the students have choice (and hopefully intrinsic motivation) and I have variety;
– Try to be less stressed about getting through a pile of grading at school, and instead take the time to enjoy talking to colleagues and students; I will grade a little longer into the evening, and it is probably OK to take a day longer to return work.
– Use the Pomodoro method: grade intensively for 25 minutes at a time with a set goal in mind, then take 5 minutes to play Candy Crush, get a coffee, watch a YouTube. Then back to another 25 goal-oriented minutes.

So this is where I am. I am confident these new school year’s resolutions will last a little longer than my writing/reading fantasy because I know that grading is my reality for the next ten months and I really have no options.

How do you do it? How do you manage the workload and still have time to speak to your friends and loved ones? How do you provide meaningful feedback, while still fulfilling your non-grading dreams (if such things exist)?


From Evernote to OneNote and Back

After being an Evernote Premium user for three years, I was a little dismayed by the recent dramatic price increase for this elegant digital notebook. Moreover, the new device limitations for the freemium service (which I have occasionally used) seemed a little draconic. So, last month I took this opportunity to weigh my options and look for a new note taking app.


Evernote to OneNote
Montage by David Doherty. Source images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Evernote does everything I need from a digital notebook including the ability to quickly create and edit notes, clip text from websites or emails, convert photos of documents into digital files with searchable text, and edit notes across all my devices (somehow, I have nine!) My new note taking app would need to match these actions, and my research across my favorite tech sites (notably Lifehacker) all pointed in one direction: Microsoft Office’s OneNote.


However, I had not used Office products for more than four years: after a decade or so of using Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote, I was tired of Microsoft’s clunky cloud backup service, the overly-complicated menus, and the somewhat messy UI. However, the recommendations for OneNote were glowing, and moreover it is free, so I took the leap. After downloading OneNote on several devices and using their note importing tool which was designed specifically to lure Evernote users like myself, I was ready for the switch to OneNote.


The import process was straightforward, and I was soon ready to access and edit my 1,279 Evernotes filed into 49 notebooks. However, in my use of OneNote over the past three weeks, I have been aware of small issues that I never had with Evernote. (Disclaimer: since ease-of-use was one of my primary criteria in selecting a note taking app, I spent limited time trying to fix the issues I came across in OneNote; I presume that most of these issues have work-arounds!)


  • Signing into to OneNote on a new device (iPad, iPhone etc.) is not sufficient to get started: you then need to connect to/ open individual Notebooks on each device. This process can be a little fiddly; signing in to Evernote on a new device instantly gives you access to all your notebooks.
  • Formatting is less slick on OneNote than OneNote particularly when copying and pasting text: pasted text in Evernote tends to stay close to the formatting of the original text. In OneNote, pasted text is sometimes re-formatted;
  • Opening OneNote is generally slower than Evernote particularly on the iPhone (on average, Evernote opened a second quicker than OneNote). Similarly, in my experience, Evernote’s web clipper is faster than OneNote’s;
  • The iPhone app for OneNote has a few quirks: when viewing a screenshot/ text pdf, touching the screen can bring up a large circle with a four-way arrow in the middle that can obscure text.
  • The web-clipper is less intuitive on OneNote than the Evernote clipper: I never did figure out how to clip pages, articles or text to a specific location on OneNote – everything had to be clipped to a web clips folder in a notebook I didn’t use and couldn’t see how to change. With the Evernote web clipper, it is a simple and easy process to clip to any notebook;
  • For my personal taste, Evernote’s UI is cleaner than OneNote’s. Evernote’s is also more customizable: it does not appear to be possible to change the purple header in OneNote. (The Evernote green is a much more soothing color!)
So, when I found the Evernote was offering its users a free month of Premium (I can only assume that the price hike has lost the company market share), I switched back with a new appreciation for Evernote’s clean design and pleasant user experience. When the month is up, I will need to evaluate whether I am willing to pay the $70/ year. More realistically, I am hoping that Evernote will offer a significant discount to bring the price down to a more palatable $50. With regard to my students, I’m not sure I can recommend that they switch from their familiar OneNote to Evernote until Evernote reverts to allowing free users to access their notes on all devices.