Claire Potter at Tenured Radical has a wonderful post on how we create assignments, what students get out of them, and to make the whole process more interesting.
I hate nothing in my job more than grading the same boring essay over and over again. It makes me want to jump off a bridge. And because I'm bored, I work very slowly and it hurts everything else in my life too. I have developed some pretty good assignments I think. I usually assign final papers where I tell the students to work on whatever topic they want within the parameters of the course. That usually results in some very interesting work. Sometimes in my survey courses, I have students look at how the past is interpreted on the internet. That's been relatively successful except that some students never get that they aren't doing a report on the Civil War, they are writing a paper about how modern Americans think about the Civil War. I didn't do that this year in either of my survey courses and I think I regret it. Because as soon as I give students a specific "prompt," a word that I really hate for an unspecified reason, I know I am going to get some very boring papers. If I didn't feel the need to make students pay at least moderate attention in class, I'd probably eliminate the midterm entirely because that's also boring.
One of Potter's best points is not to waste tons of time correcting every grammatical mistake:
Do you write lots and lots of marginal notes on the paper, spending hours correcting everything and re-diagramming their sentences? The truth is, although you are trying to be the opposite of the teacher I describe above, this freaks students out. Although you have spent maybe an hour on this, feeling like you are a really caring teacher, the student may see them as a blur, as grammatical correction collides with interpretive questions, typos, basic misunderstanding of the text and long-winded attempts not to utilize the first person or appear "biased." If a paper is really muddled, it is a waste of your time to do this: far better to sit down with the student, ask a couple questions about what s/he intended, and describe how s/he might have gone about writing such a paper.
One common grumble I hear from faculty is: "I bet I spent more time grading it than s/he spent writing it!" While that probably isn't technically so, it may well be so that the paper was written at the last minute, and that the student had not done the work necessary to write the paper of which s/he might be capable. How much better would it be to find this out in the course of a conversation? Better yet, to take the opportunity to underline in person that a better effort over the long term would produce better written work. A fair number of students think they "want to work on [their] writing," as if writing were disconnected from the other work in the course.
Of course, it can be rather time-consuming to have a lot of individual meetings with students. And if you are teaching classes of 75, I don't know how possible that would be. At the same time, I don't know that it's significantly more time consuming than spending 30 minutes going through the grammar on each and every paper. And it's far less boring to talk to my students. On the other hand, students do need to know how to improve their writing. So it's an interesting dilemma.
In any case, we (or I at least) need to have more discussions about how to teach, craft assignments, grade, and interact with students.