Marking exams can be long, boring, and un-engaging.

It is important one remain focused though to ensure that the evaluation is fair to each student.

What are some methods one can employ to maintain focus and not zone-out while reading answers?

  • 2
    The question What are some ways to increase grading speed? should be helpful to you.
    – Nobody
    Apr 20 '13 at 3:06
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    After I mark one question on a batch of exams (say 1/3 of the total), I often get up and stretch, use the bathroom, or get something to drink. This shouldn't take more than a few minutes, but it can help me to refocus.
    – Dan C
    Apr 21 '13 at 20:58

There is two issues in your question.

  1. How to be fair to each student when it comes to this boring task of evaluating them

My own policy is the "mark-one-question-and-shuffle" : I correct the first question/problem for all the students, then I shuffle the whole stack and go for another question that I also pick at random. This way if I am tired or in a bad mood, it will impact everybody, so it will be fair.

  1. How to stay focus for a long marking session

I cannot answer to that and I guess it depends of many personal factors. Personally, I find marking tasks boring but easy to do and easy to focus on. It's like driving, some people can drive for hours, others can't. To tell the truth, marking is somehow relaxing for me.

  • I use the same strategy when marking to ensure fairness to help prevent any bias' I may have and not realize (i.e. the halo effect). Personal factors are an important consideration. Sadly, marking puts me to sleep (but then again, I am also a poor driver).
    – user4383
    Apr 19 '13 at 22:32
  • 1
    +1 for "mark one question", but -1 for "and shuffle". Shuffling 150+ ten-page written exams is hard!
    – JeffE
    Apr 19 '13 at 22:32
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    @JeffE: You can achieve the same effect with fewer papercuts: instead of picking the next exam to grade off the top of the pile, take one randomly from the middle. Apr 20 '13 at 2:56
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    I can drive for hours, no problem or browse SExchange for ages, but after 15 minutes marking, I get fidgety and easily distracted, please help...
    – Ken
    Jan 4 '14 at 21:29

I suspect my answer will be less applicable to math (your subject) but your question is not specific so I'll cover my subject (business management).

First, I find the more I can process in a single session the more fair my marking is overall. In my field, answers are not so clear-cut. That is, there is rarely a right and wrong answer but rather the process of application/evidence that is evaluated. Because of this, there is a risk of being inconsistent when marking in different sessions.

Second, I try to process 10 or so exams before actually marking any of them. The reason for this is that I need to understand the general level of the group. If I don't do this, I find that I am much stricter on the first few exams and get easier as I find everyone is at a lower level than I had anticipated.

Third, I try to give my eyes a break between exams. That is, stare at a point some ways off so that my eyes are not constantly focusing on a point to close (which causes strain and can cause lasting problems).

  • 3
    +1: I do something similar to your second point. For each exam question, I mark up the solutions in about 1/3 of the exams before I assign any numerical scores for that question. (And I grade all answers to one question before reading anything else.) This usually uncovers all the common mistakes, so I can assign a fair and reasonable penalty for each.
    – JeffE
    Apr 20 '13 at 4:50

Your own website says:

My primary area of research is the application of mathematical methods to educational testing

so I'm sure you have much more experience (first-hand or second-hand) and have given it more thought that you let appear in your question ;-)

Of course, it heavily depends on the type of examination being marked, but unless it is very short, I tend to simply split it into many short bursts, and do those at a time when I am well rested (morning) and when I am outside my regular “work” setting: public transportation, waiting room of a doctor, café, in a garden when it's sunny, etc. The mood of the place I'm in helps, and gloomy settings just get me bored faster.

  • 1
    I should also say that I find very long series (say, more than 2 hours straight) of oral exams, like students presenting their work on a series of projects, much more of a problem than written exams. But that would be another (worthy) question…
    – F'x
    Apr 19 '13 at 21:27
  • Haha, good call! You are right, I have given it a lot of thought and experimented with quite a bit of options. I have yet to determine a good series of techniques; this has spurred me to ask what has worked for others.
    – user4383
    Apr 19 '13 at 21:32
  • @F'x I actually find oral exams less of a problem, mainly because of the interaction. Marking exams is a bit solitary and more likely to cause fatigue for me.
    – earthling
    Apr 20 '13 at 0:11

True story: a bottle of wine (well, maybe just half a bottle). Spirits are not a good choice since they go quickly to your brain.

Sorry if I hurt feelings with my answer but the truth is that this technique is more common in the academia than I would like it were.

Another technique consists of splitting the marking into several short sessions.

  • 3
    Now someone will surely ask what teetotaling evaluators must do! (Reference)
    – Bravo
    Apr 19 '13 at 23:37
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    Which country's academia? Ireland :) ?
    – user13107
    Apr 20 '13 at 0:29
  • hey @user13107! that's not fair to us Irish, we don't drink (that much) wine, it's mostly beer and whiskey. But seriously, it's hard enough to decipher the students' scrawls, without being tipsy. And I've never heard of a colleague who grades while drinking.
    – Ken
    Jan 4 '14 at 21:45

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