The end of a term typically brings increased stress to educators. To borrow a term used by Cross and Dillon (2023), stress often “snowballs” throughout the term and then reaches a crescendo at the end. The reasons are varied: exam grading, essay grading, submission of final course grades, student grade appeals, administrative requests, teaching evaluations, and preparations for the next term, to name only a few of the causes of end-of-term stress.
At the same time, the end of a term is a time when educators must be able to perform at their best: to grade assignments fairly, to meet grading deadlines, to guide students through the end of a course, to wrap up a course in a way that allows students to retain key learning insights, and to deal efficiently with requests from administrators. In other words, educators must perform at their very best precisely at a time when stress reaches its peak and threatens to overwhelm us. Managing stress well is therefore imperative.
There are many stress management tips out there. I will focus on applying project management principles to help educators deal with one of the main sources of stress at the end of a term: grading. My tips aim to help educators obtain the best results for their students, for their educational institutions, and for their own well-being.
A project management approach to grading
There is no way to entirely remove stress from the grading process at the end of a term. This is an intrinsically stressful process. Most colleges have internal deadlines for the preparation of final grades that faculty must meet—this only adds to the stress we already feel at the end of a term. Moreover, as educators we have a duty to “get it right” by making assessments as fair as possible.
Advanced planning will reduce the impact of stress by helping you stay organized. Treat end-of-term grading as a project. Apply a strict “project management” approach to the preparation of grades at the end of the term in order to streamline the process. I have taught project management. I have also worked on real-life projects. Before starting any project, we must answer a series of key questions:
- Why am I doing this project?
- What are my goals?
- What are the (measurable) success criteria for the project’s completion?
- What resources do I need?
- What resources do I have available?
- What are the internal deadlines for each of the project’s “deliverables” (subcomponents)?
- What is the final deadline for the entire project?
- How long can individual tasks be delayed without postponing the completion of final term grades? (This relates to the concept of “slack” or “float” in project management.)
Then list and answer these questions by hand on a single sheet of paper or on a one-page electronic document. Measurable success criteria may include grading X number of essays by Y date. Resources may include teaching assistants, grading rubrics, and course materials. Project deliverables may include the completion of certain grading goals and responding to administrative requests.
No project is perfect. Be fair but do not aim for perfection when grading. To use a term from historian Geoffrey Parker (in the context of critically analyzing the management style of King Philip II of Spain), avoid a “zero-defects” mentality. A “zero-defects” mentality can cause us to spend inordinate amounts of time on relatively minor issues while losing sight of a project’s bigger picture (Parker, 1998). For example, do not allow yourself to get sidetracked by trying to make your essay feedback comments perfect.
Delegate. Delegation often helps project teams get better results. Exequiel Hernandez of the Wharton School explains how much more efficient it is for academics to focus on developing “insight” while delegating routine tasks (Hernandez, 2021). This approach should be applied to the grading process whenever teaching assistants are available to support an instructor.
Project management principles can reduce end-of-term stress by simplifying the way we plan and execute the grading process. In turn, less stress means that we will be better able to help our students at a crucial time. A project management approach to the end of a term can be a useful tool in the service of student success.
Cross, R., & Dillon, K. (2023, February 7). How small stresses snowball: Three ways they derail managers—and strategies to get back on track. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/02/how-small-stresses-snowball
Hernandez, E. (2021, October 26). Yes, you can succeed in academia and still have a personal life: Here’s how. Harvard Business Publishing Education. https://hbsp.harvard.edu/inspiring-minds/yes-you-can-succeed-in-academia-and-still-have-a-personal-life
Parker, G. (1998). The grand strategy of Philip II. Yale University Press.
Michael Huenefeld, MBA, teaches a global business strategies course at Tamwood’s Global Startup School in Vancouver. He has taught courses in project management and leadership, among other topics. He volunteers as a mentor to university students and is a board member at the Mainland British Columbia Military Family Resource Centre.