Why It Takes Teachers So Long to Grade Work

I recently overheard a couple of students discussing how long it takes some teachers to grade the class’s work.  Though I couldn’t pinpoint which of my colleagues they were discussing (or even if it was me), I did catch bits and pieces of the conversation before telling them I didn’t want to hear talk about other teachers in my class, most of which stemmed around the idea that teachers taking up to a month or more to grade student work is not only, like, totally annoying and stuff, but it’s also unacceptable.

I have heard similar complaints from parents as well.  A few years ago, a father couldn’t believe it had taken another teacher nearly three weeks to grade 60 sets of 20 essays each.  All I could think was, THREE WEEKS?!?! That teacher obviously has super powers to get it done that quickly!

I can understand wanting feedback as soon as possible.  After all, you can’t work at improving if you don’t know what to improve upon.  (Never mind the fact that very few students actually care about the improving part anyway.)  But what I can’t understand is when students think teachers have the time to grade things quickly.  They see us in front of the class delivering a lesson or walking around the room monitoring a formal assessment, right?  They must know we don’t have a clone of ourselves who can grade whilst we remain actively engaged in other classroom activities before their very eyes, correct?  So it would seem the knowledge they lack is that of exactly how long it takes to grade assignments and what teachers have to do to find the time to grade them.

In order to help others get just exactly why it takes teachers so long to grade, I think breaking down the average teacher’s daily responsibilities is necessary.  Here’s a look at my typical weekday, if you’re interested in what it is teachers claim to be so busy doing.  Bear with me, though, as the damn thing goes on forever.  (If you don’t give a shit, move on to the next section.  I’m cool with it.)

My Typical Teacher Schedule

5:30 a.m. —  Alarm goes off.  I order Mr. Sammich to hit snooze and curse the universe.

5:40 a.m. —  Alarm goes off again.  I mutter a string of obscenities and Kung Fu kick Mr. Sammich in the spleen to hit snooze a second time.

Sometime between 5:50 and 6:20 a.m. — Depending on whether or not I plan to wash my hair or even apply makeup, I roll out of bed and head to my kids’ rooms to engage in battles over why clean undies are better than dirty undies, why you can’t wear camo pants with a checkered shirt and tie, and why you still have to brush your teeth in the morning even if you brushed them the day before.  Then I help them put on their shoes and coats and shove them out the door.

Sometime between 6:00 a.m. and 7:10 a.m. — If I have an IEP or 504 meeting scheduled before school, I’m showered, dressed, and out the door by 6:30.  If I don’t, I’m showered, dressed, and out the door by 7:10 (at the absolute latest).

7:45 a.m. — School begins.  I have first period conference, so I get busy planning lessons and units, making copies, grading work, setting up and arranging the materials for the activities of the day, and/or helping the student who somehow slithers out of class and wanders in to figure out what he missed while he was absent.  I get about 1/3 as much done as I had hoped to.  In some instances, I have an IEP, 504, or other meeting and get nothing done.

8:50 a.m. — Second period shuffles in.  I teach and help students with their work.  If I’m lucky, I get an assignment or two graded or a lesson plan finished while students wrap something up.

9:55 a.m. — Third period shuffles in.  I teach and help students with their work.  If I’m lucky, I get an assignment or two graded or a lesson plan finished while students wrap something up.

11:00 a.m. — Fourth period shuffles in.  I teach and help students with their work.  If I’m lucky, I get an assignment or two graded or a lesson plan finished while students wrap something up.

12:00 p.m. — Lunch time.  I take my first bathroom break, come back and yank out a banana or granola bar or warm up a frozen dinner or bowl of soup in a colleague’s microwave and get to work on those lesson plans and that grading.  Occasionally, a student sticks around to chat or to get help on something, in which case I barely get to eat, let alone do any work.  On still other occasions, I have a department or other meeting and get nothing done.

12:25 p.m. — Fifth period shuffles in.  I teach and help students with their work.  If I’m lucky, I get an assignment or two graded or a lesson plan finished while students wrap something up.

1:30 p.m. — Sixth period shuffles in.  I teach and help students with their work.  If I’m lucky, I get an assignment or two graded or a lesson plan finished while students wrap something up.

2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. — A lot of different things can happen during this time.  If it’s the first Monday of the month, I have a staff meeting until 3:50.  Sometimes I have IEP, 504, or other meetings that start any time between 2:30 and 4:00 and end any time between then and 5:00.  Twice per year, I have 3 evenings each of parent/teacher conferences that start at 4:30 and end at 7:30.  I have open house one night until 9:00 p.m. at the beginning of the school year and various after-school student activities, such as school plays, that I occasionally stay late to attend throughout the school year.  I phone and email parents and colleagues I need to contact during this time as well.

When I don’t have any meetings scheduled, I attempt to get as much planning, grading, and conferencing with colleagues done as possible before I need to head home to attend to my other responsibilities.

Sometime between 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. — Depending upon what work responsibilities I have (see above) and what family responsibilities I have (see below), I head home.

3:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. — Just as is the case with after school meetings and such, I have a number of things I need to do during this time frame.  On certain days, I take my son to his physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy (usually a 1.5 hour deal).  I can get some grading done there.  When I can’t, I read or write.  Other days, I have to do little errands like attend something at my kids’ school, run up to the store, or get somebody to a doctor/dentist appointment, for example.

Every day, I have to help Mr. Sammich figure out dinner (He does the cooking. I’m just the brains behind the operation. Sorta.  OK, I just supervise.)  Sometimes we head out to get a bite.  Other times we eat in.  I read books to my kids and ask them about their days and enjoy their presence for a little while.  If they want to watch a little TV, I break out my school work and multitask, getting a bit of planning or grading done here and there.  After dinner, the kids need a bath and a bedtime story, both of which almost always wind up being a whole big thing as we argue about how many books we can read and why they can’t have a sleepover on a school night and how important it is that we get enough rest to be healthy.  When the battle has been won (or the enemy exhausted beyond the point of continuing), I either plop down on the couch with Mr. Sammich or head up to my bedroom with my trusty computer.

8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. — This is usually the time I try to really dig into the planning and grading (or the graduate coursework when I’m unfortunate enough to be enrolled in that).  I start out with the best intentions, plodding my way through a task while a crime drama plays in the background on my computer or TV.  Once in a while, I stop to rejuvenate, checking Facebook, telling a lame joke to my husband, typing out a few lines of a blog post, or tuning in to the show to see if I can figure out whodunnit.  After a couple minutes, I get back to my planning and grading, but as my eyelids get droopier, my time on task gets shorter until eventually, I’m ready to conk out.

10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. — These are what I call the witching hours.  On rare occasions, I fall asleep rather easily and stay that way until the alarm goes off again.  Most frequently, however, I lie awake, exhausted but unable to slip into a slumber as the demons and ghosts and ghouls of my life invade my mind.  I think about all the lesson planning and grading I still have to do and fantasize about getting more done than is ever actually possible the next day.  My mind turns to my students and their parents and that meeting I have on Thursday and when I’m going to put together the staff training stuff I’m leading and how I wish I could spend more time with my children and wouldn’t a Caribbean vacation be splendid right about now?

At some point, I fall asleep, but not without waking up three or four times in the middle of the night — just enough to ensure I feel like I got exactly zero sleep the next day.

Sounds a lot like the schedule of any working person, right?  Maybe even less hectic than some.  But here’s where things get different.  In all that time I spent planning and grading throughout the day, I only accomplished about 1/4 to 1/3 of what I actually needed to.  That means that day’s work gets pushed to the next, but it doesn’t end there, because the next day there’s more to add to the pile until I have to take a sick or personal day to get all that stacked work finished (And yes, teachers save up their sick and personal days — dragging themselves to school through cold and flu — so they can take off work in order to get work done.  It’s madness.)

Why does seemingly nothing get done if we claim to always be doing something in those stolen moments?  A breakdown of how long it takes to do that planning and grading is necessary to understanding this one.  First, the grading.

Breakdown of Time It Takes to Grade Assignments


Multiple choice quizzes and tests, when hand graded, take about 1 second per question to grade.  That means a 10 question quiz takes about 10 seconds to grade.  Sixty 10 question quizzes (which is equivalent to two class periods’ worth), then, take about 10 minutes total to grade.  Similarly, 60 100 question tests (at 1 second per question) take about and hour and 40 minutes to grade.

Short answer quizzes and tests take a little longer — about 5 seconds per question.  So a 10 question quiz takes 50 seconds to grade, which means two class periods’ worth takes about 50 minutes.  Sixty 20 question tests take — you guessed it — an hour and 40 minutes.

Extended answer quizzes and tests take anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes per question to grade.  So a 10 question quiz takes 10-30 minutes alone.  Sixty of them?  Anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to grade, my friend.


These vary widely depending on the type and purpose of the assignment.  Some homework/classwork is intended to be formative in nature only, meaning the teacher looks each assignment over to see where the students’ understandings and confusions lie so as to better inform his or her instruction, but he or she does not assign each assignment a grade (or only gives a grade for completion).  These can take anywhere from a couple seconds to several minutes per assignment, meaning grading sixty of them (or two class periods’ worth) can take anywhere from a couple minutes to a few hours.

Homework/classwork intended to be summative in nature, or to measure students’ mastery of a concept or skill, takes a bit longer to grade.  Usually, assignments like these are either short or extended answer, which means they take about as long to grade as short and extended answer quizzes and tests.


These are the mother of all assignments and are by far the most time consuming.  A standard 5-paragraph, thesis-driven essay takes me about 1-2 minutes each for the introduction and conclusion and 1-5 minutes each for the body paragraphs depending upon how many errors and how much feedback each student requires.  That means grading a single essay can take anywhere from 5 to 19 minutes.  Multiply that by two class periods, and you’re looking at anywhere from 5 hours (I’ve never been so lucky) to 19 hours to grade (that’s more like it).

Projects, like essays, are quite involved and require the same amount of time to assess and provide feedback on.

Inputting Grades

Teachers aren’t done when the assignments themselves have been graded.  They also have to input grades into their electronic grade books, which have become the standard across school districts.  Inputting a single class’s grades for a single assignment takes about 1-2 minutes.

A Sample Course Load

Let’s say I teach 5 class periods total (my 6th is my conference period) — 2 sections of freshman English, 2 sections of sophomore English, and 1 section of senior English.  On a given day, I collect 60, 10 question short answer quizzes from my 2 freshman classes, 60 essays from my 2 sophomore classes, and 30 formative classwork assignments from my 1 senior class.

60 quizzes x 50 seconds per quiz = 50 minutes

60 essays x 12 minutes per essay (we’ll average the time) = 12 hours

30 classwork assignments x 1 minute per assignment = 30 minutes

5 classes of grades to input x 1 minute per class = 5 minutes

13 hours and 25 minutes worth of grading work for ONE SINGLE DAY (and that’s after a full day’s teaching and family responsibilities)

Now, granted we don’t collect essays and quizzes every day (well, most of us don’t), but the work still piles up.  There are assignments here and projects there to grade every day, which means the stack just keeps growing.  And we have to find time in that schedule I laid out up there to get it all done (which is impossible; hence the hoarding of sick and personal days and the need to not collect/grade everything).

While daunting, this teaching and grading would seem almost manageable if there weren’t another factor to consider: planning.  You know what’s coming, right?  A breakdown of the planning process.

Breakdown of Time It Takes to Plan Lessons/Units

Contrary to popular belief, many teachers do not simply recycle previous years’ lesson plans every year.  We are constantly looking for ways to improve upon our approach and better suit our students’ needs.  As such, even when we’ve taught the same concept or material for 10 years in a row, it takes some time to get it right each year.

Lesson Plans

Not everything takes the same amount of time to plan.  A single lesson, for example, involves identifying the learning goals (5 minutes), determining how you will assess students’ understanding summatively and formatively (10-20 minutes), and organizing a step-by-step plan of action for teaching and assessing (10-20 minutes).  So a single lesson plan on comma usage in writing, for example, takes anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes.

Unit Plans

Unit plans are a series of lesson plans that, when put together, help students master larger concepts, skills, or material.  A unit on Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, might consist of lesson plans on novel background and historical context, literary elements (plot, characterization, theme, etc.), critical reading strategies, small and whole group discussion strategies and skills, and argument-driven paragraph and/or essay writing, to name a few.

Units consist of anywhere from about 5 lessons to upwards of 20, meaning the average unit, which for our purposes we’ll say includes 12 lessons, takes 12 lessons x 25 minutes per lesson = 5 hours to plan from scratch.  A unit plan a teacher has used before can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours on average to improve for the next batch of students.

A Sample Course Load

Let’s use our trusty course load from the grading example to see how long it takes a teacher to plan units for his or her classes, shall we?  That’s 5 class periods total (my 6th is my conference period) — 2 sections of freshman English, 2 sections of sophomore English, and 1 section of senior English

1 unit from scratch for my freshman classes = 5 hours

1 lesson plan for my sophomore classes = 25 minutes

1 tweaked unit plan for my senior class = 30 minutes

5 hours and 55 minutes worth of planning every few weeks (about 2 hours of planning per week, or 24 minutes per day)

The good news about lesson and unit plans is you can spread the planning out across a couple of weeks while you’re working on your current unit.  Sometimes, with all the grading and other responsibilities, they can creep up on you, and some teachers have been known to plan an entire unit in just a couple of days (can you say personal day, please?).

Putting It All Together

Using the examples from above (and knowing that these vary based on subject area and unit), let’s see what a typical day requires of a teacher if he or she were to get a single day’s worth of work done at once.

7 hours 30 minutes of contractual teaching (not including any time before or after school for meetings, conferences, or contacting parents)

13 hours 25 minutes of grading

24 minutes of planning

21 hours 19 minutes of teaching work per day

That leaves 2 hours and 41 minutes per day to sleep, spend time with family, run errands, and relax.


It takes a helluva lot of time to plan, teach, and grade!  Next time you wonder why it takes teachers so long to grade work, think of this, would ya?  And give us a bit of a break.  We only design lessons and assign work to help our students grow and succeed.  It would be much easier on us to do nothing.  All we ask in return is that you help us out by being patient.


NOTE: It’s very possible that my math is off a bit. It is, after all, almost the witching hours, and my eyeballs are feeling rather sticky.  Forgive me?