This post originally appeared on the blog Core Inspiration Laura Santos.

When adopting workshop-style teaching and learning, you need a clear plan for how to keep students accountable without drowning in papers to grade. Many teachers ask how I manage grading the work my students complete during M.A.T.H. Workshop each day, and still find time to plan for workshop the following day. The three tools below help me build a clear picture of my students’ progress and needs, keep my students’ parents in the loop about what their child is working on in class, and help me maintain a light load when it comes to grading.

This grading drawer is empty because this teacher uses efficient systems for grading.

Rubric Drawers

These drawers are my number one time saver. Each week my students are required to complete at least two Problem Solving Task Cards (these in-depth word problems take some time). They submit their completed problem solving recording sheets to these rubric drawers. As they turn in their work, students grade themselves according to our mastery rubric, which is written in student-friendly language on the labels for each drawer.

Math rubric drawers

A great deal of time is spent at the beginning of the year helping students understand the detail and accuracy required for each level of understanding on the mastery rubric. Students’ ability to self-assess accurately is not always strong at the beginning of the year, but grows dramatically with the use of exemplars (explained below) and the consistent celebration of strong student work.

Assessment of Work Habits

At the end of the week, I quickly skim through their submitted work, stamp each paper, and send it home for parents to see. Parents have been informed that a stamped paper is part of our students’ self assessment process, and has only been used as a formative assessment of students’ work habits during workshop that week.

Weekly work bin in classroom with stamped paper ready to be sent home.

I select two outstanding task cards from the drawers labeled “4” or “3” to display as inspirational exemplars for the following week. This process naturally motivates students to reach higher, dig deeper, and perform their personal best. They take pride in knowing their work may be selected as an inspiration piece for their peers’ work the following week.

Assessment of Understanding

At the top of our rubric drawers is a separate bin. This is where students submit one piece of math work for the week they feel is the strongest representation of their knowledge and effort.  Each student is required to submit one piece, which I take the time to grade, share written feedback, and enter into our gradebook.

Blue bin with problem solving recording sheet ready for teacher to grade and provide written feedback.

This means there are weeks when I only grade one math paper for each of my students. Using this rubric drawer system frees me from piles of grading, and allows me to spend more time planning engaging activities and lessons that meet the needs of my students. The freed brain power that comes from less grading also help me to be totally present during our workshop block so I can observe students, confer with students, and pull small groups, all while gathering the most up-to-date data about each student’s current level of understanding and needs.

Feedback Cards

Another one of my favorite ways to efficiently keep students accountable, and gather data without having to sit down with a pile of papers to grade is the use of feedback cards. I use these cards when conferring one-on-one with students during M.A.T.H. Workshop, and a modified version during reader’s workshop.

M.A.T.H. Workshop Feedback Card - the perfect way to give assessment feedback and observation notes efficiently.

After reviewing a student’s work, or sitting down to support them with problem solving, I make a quick note of their understanding on my data collection sheet and hand them a feedback card with a score of their current level of understanding using the same mastery rubric displayed on our rubric drawers. Then, I leave the student to independently write the justification for their score, and make a quick personal plan for future growth.

Finally, the student staples the feedback card to the paper it corresponds with, and continues working. If the feedback was shared while the student was working on a paperless activity, they write the name of the activity on the back of the card and drop it in their weekly work folder to be sent home. This practice promotes student listening as you meet during workshop, and gives them time to reflect as they quickly write about their learning.


One last way I reduce time spent  grading is with the use of exemplars. Exemplars are written work samples that demonstrate the different levels of understanding and work quality for a particular task. For example, my students may analyze an exemplar set for a particularly challenging word problem from a recent test. A level 1, 2, 3, and 4 work sample are provided, and we discuss what constitutes each level of understanding.  This practice of analyzing work to build a clear picture of what it means to “reach higher” or “go above and beyond” in your learning results in higher student performance and fewer students errors, which makes grading more enjoyable and efficient for teachers.

How To Build A Collection of Exemplars

When starting out, many of your exemplars will be teacher-made. Simply make additional copies of a particular learning task and complete the task multiple times to show multiple levels of work quality and understanding. Below is a teacher-made exemplar set created for a math test.

Math test exemplars laid out on table.

Over time,  you can combine your teacher-made exemplars with student-made exemplars. As you grade student work throughout the year, make copies of work that clearly demonstrates each level of understanding for a particular task. Names should always kept confidential on student exemplars. An exception to this may be an inspirational display of high-quality student work that is hung weekly for peers to analyze and admire.

Exemplar-Based Activities

Here are a few exemplar-based activities my third graders enjoy.

You’re the Teacher: Perfect for building a stronger understanding of quality work. Set out a collection of exemplars for a particular math problem. Students get a pad of post-its and travel around the room to read the model, explanation, and final answer for each exemplar. They write their score for each exemplar and their justification for the score, then stick their score on the board next to the exemplar. We then come together to discuss overarching noticings and ah-ha moments that can be applied to future work.

Assessment Upgrade: This activity can be used occasionally, and is perfect if you notice your students were a bit lazy when it came to showing work or explaining reasoning on their most recent assessment. Rather than wasting time grading work you know isn’t the best representation of your students’ understanding, hand the ungraded assessment back to your students. Have them reread their ungraded work and reflect on their performance. Set out a level 4 exemplar for a modified version of the assessment (same concepts, different numbers). Give students a set amount of time to analyze the exemplars before returning to their own work to make improvements.

Level 3 exemplar used to guide student growth on assessments.

What Would You Do?: Perfect to help students add more detail to their work. Set out a level 2 or level 3 exemplar. Have students analyze the exemplar and decide what they would do to boost the level of understanding from a 2 to a 3, or from a 3 to a 4. Some guiding questions might be: How would you improve this model? How would you improve this explanation? What changes would you make to strengthen this work? How could this mathematician improve their accuracy? What is missing from this exemplar that would take it to the next level of understanding?

Ready To Spend Less Time Grading?

Less grading may take a little getting used to. In fact, you may feel like you’re slacking with those extra hours you’re about to gain when you implement the systems I’ve suggested. I promise you’ll get over it when you see how much more rapidly your students grow as a result of a more well-rested teacher who actually had time to plan today’s lesson. 🙂


Laura Santos: Teacher-Author on TpTLaura Santos [Core Inspiration by Laura Santos], is an elementary teacher in California. During her 7 years as an educator, she has taught 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade. She enjoys creating resources that help teachers create a self-directed learning environment that incorporates project-based learning and enrichment activities. Another passion is creating organized classroom spaces that promote productivity. To take a look at her classroom and instructional approach, visit her blog, Core Inspiration. You can also find her resources at her TpT store, Core Inspiration by Laura Santos. Connect with her on InstagramFacebook, and Pinterest.