Experiments in digital grading

December 1, 2011, 8:51 am

This semester, I made the decision to phase out paper from my professional life. Little by little, and over the course of perhaps a couple of academic years, I hope to shift as much as I can over to digital versions of everything I use in teaching, scholarship, service, and mentoring. There are several reasons I want to do this, but the main thing that convinced me to make the choice to go “as paperless as possible” were my grading practices. At some point during this semester, I became convinced that I simply must move away from paper when dealing with student work. Why? Here are a few reasons:

1. Paper-based student work is cumbersome. More than once this semester, student work has gotten lost or misplaced because it was put into the wrong stack, stapled to the wrong thing, or in one case the staple for one student’s submission got hung on the staple for another student’s submission and I never saw the first one. I just feel that this sort of thing shouldn’t be happening to important documents in the 21st century.

2. Paper-based student work is expensive. Earlier this semester, I printed out 65 copies of a six-page test only to discover a crippling typo in one of the problems. That’s nearly an entire ream of paper I had to toss in the recycle bin — recycled but wasted. There’s also the expensive of owning and maintaining the copiers and printers themselves. (To say nothing of the environmental expense.) In this era of being frugal — which I feel especially acutely working in a public university — eliminating paper seems like a logical step.

3. Digital student work saves time. Have you ever stopped to think about how much time it takes simply to collect student papers and redistribute them when they’re graded? I estimate this eats up at least one whole class period per course per semester for me, and I would not be surprised to learn it was much more than that. On the other hand, if students submit work electronically by email, collection and distribution can be done entirely outside of class. And getting graded work back to multiple people (such as a team writeup of a lab problem) is as simple as adding people to the “To:” field.

4. The tools available today to work with electronic documents are better and cheaper than ever. I’ll say more about this below. But generally speaking, I don’t think we can make a reasonable argument anymore that going digital costs too much in terms of time and energy expenditures. Maria Andersen’s useful article in the MAA Focus got me believing that digital grading can — and perhaps should — be done on an every-class, every-day basis.

So in my classes this semester — two sections of Calculus 2 and one section of Communicating in Mathematics (which I have described here), students have been submitting almost all of their work in some kind of digital format for the last month. Calculus 2 students do weekly labs using Maple 15, and they can either turn in writeups in MS Word or as a Maple worksheet which I then print to a PDF. Students in Communicating in Mathematics use MS Word or \(\LaTeX\) for portfolio drafts and homework; on homework, they can also just hand-write their work out and then submit a clean scan of that work as a PDF or JPG. I should mention this is totally opt-in at this point; if students want to do work on paper, they may, but students submitting electronic documents get an extra six hours on the due date — so digital media are incentivized but not required.

For students submitting MS Word documents, to assess their work, I just use the commenting abilities of Word to add notes in the margins. Word’s Review functionality is one of its great strengths. I’ve not had any problems with students not being able to see the margin notes once they are created. But I have had that problem in the past, for example with students using older versions of Word. There is also the issue of Word’s equation editor, about which I have absolutely nothing good to say other than that it’s better than Google Docs’ equation editor.

For students submitting other formats of files (mainly PDFs and JPGs) it gets a little trickier. I’m a Mac user, and I usually default to Preview for these files. While Preview can make annotations to PDFs, the annotations do not stick with the document — they only appear if you open the annotated document in Preview. That won’t work for my students, most of whom are using Adobe Reader on a Windows machine.

It turns out there are not a lot of options for marking up PDFs on a Mac. There’s Skim, which is free and has annotation tools, but it’s been hit-and-miss as to whether the notes I make on PDFs are accessible on Windows machines. There’s the full version of Adobe Acrobat, which does it all, but it’s expensive. Most recently I’ve tried PDFpen, which at $60 is not free but not hugely expensive either, and annotations made to PDFs using PDFpen seem to be viewable across platforms. I’m continuing to use PDFpen through the end of the semester, and if it remains worry-free I will pony up the money to get the full version.

I’ve tried using Jing to give video feedback on student work as well. To do this, I just open up the PDF or JPG that’s been sent to me, use Jing to highlight the window containing the work, and then record a 5-minute video where I talk through the student’s work. Once I’m done, I just upload the video to and send the student the link.

There are a lot of things I like about video grading. It forces me to read carefully through the student’s work and assign a grade first before I start giving feedback. The five-minute time limit on Jing videos forces me to keep my feedback concise, and that length also makes it more likely that students will attend to my comments once they’re made. The thing I like the most about video grading is that the numerical grade and the feedback I give students are separate. When I make a video, I am not saying “You lost 4 points for this” but rather, “Here is what I saw, here are the issues with that, and here are some questions to consider”. Several students have commented that they strongly prefer video feedback over any other kind of grading. It’s much closer to the true meaning of “assessment”, which if you look at the root word for that term, it means “to sit down alongside”. Assessment is supposed to be about the instructor and the student sitting down together and discussing the student’s work in its totality. That’s a humane and positive vision of student assessment that I would like my own grading to emulate.

But there are also some drawbacks to video assessment. Sometimes on longer assignments, five minutes may not be enough time (and multiple videos for one student may be inconvenient for the student). There is a monthly bandwidth quota with that I seem to have a hard time staying within. Other video services offer high-quality videos and no bandwidth quotas (Screen-o-matic is the best one I found) but do not generate unlisted URL’s for the videos — i.e. anybody on the web can view the video, which is not what you want in a grading situation. And I find that I can’t do video grading at home — it’s either too noisy with my kids underfoot to be coherent, or else my kids are in bed and me speaking in a normal voice to my computer wakes them up. So I can only grade at the office. (Although this could be considered a “pro” rather than a “con” of video feedback if you think about work-life balance.)

So I continue to experiment with digital grading because it has a lot of benefits over old-fashioned paper grading. The one thing I have not figured out is how to make tests digital. We can make assessments on Blackboard that can be taken and graded online, but (1) I don’t like locking in my assessments in to a proprietary format, (2) Blackboard doesn’t do mathematical notation well, and (3) I’m not a fan of CMS’s generally. So for now the tests and final exams are still on paper.

What about you? Have you been doing digital grading or experimenting with going paperless in your classes? What’s worked for you, and what issues still remain?


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