Teaching with Tech
Abandon the Red Pen!
Maria H. Andersen, October / November 2011
It took a road trip to drive me into grading digitally.
Even though I’ve had a tablet PC for a while, I had trouble getting used to grading student exams and problem sets in the digital world. I usually grade one or two problems at a time, and this seemed well suited to grading papers in a stack, all turned to the same page. In past semesters I often printed the papers I had received digitally, graded them, and then scanned them to send back to students.
But this summer I was teaching two sections of online calculus while on a road trip. To stay sane I had to figure out efficient ways to grade digitally. I’m now convinced that the digital grading has enough benefits that, even though I’m back at a desk, I’m not returning to paper-based grading, even when the students submit their work on paper.
The most convincing reason to go with digital grading is that you can write a lengthy comment about a common error, save the comment as an image (a “custom stamp”), and use it again whenever you encounter that error. How you do it depends on what program you use, but to see an example of how to create digital grading stamps, click here.
With digital grading, you can give feedback to students as soon as the papers are graded (I return them by email). You don’t have to waste class time passing out papers and then answering questions about why one student lost two points and a friend lost three points. Questions about why a problem was graded in a particular way get asked privately (via email), and you always have a copy of the graded assignment.
Speaking of that, retaining a copy of every graded exam and problem set makes it much easier to investigate assessment questions or to conduct research linking instructional methods to student performance. Rather than having just a number in a gradebook, you can review several semesters’ worth of student work.
Custom stamps let you write a comment once—but use it repeatedly.
To be fair, digital grading has some cons too. The biggest issue is that hardware is needed to grade efficiently in the digital world: a tablet PC, an iPad with a stylus, or a peripheral tablet and pen (these plug in to the USB drive to use instead of the mouse).
You also need digitized papers or exams. For problem sets, this is relatively easy: Tell students they can have an extra 12 hours or so on the deadline if they submit online. For example, if my class meets at 10 a.m., students can submit the assignments on paper at 10 a.m., or digitally in Blackboard by midnight the same day. About 90 percent of the students take the extra time. For the ones who don’t, I use the copier at school to scan and send the papers as an email (most copiers made recently have this feature).
Finally, it takes some time to return the papers digitally. This means either emailing them one by one to the individual students or uploading them to a learning management system (i.e., Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn).
Tips for Managing Digital Grading
If students will be submitting the files, decide which format they all have to use. For example, students can submit a PDF version of their files (from just about any file type they can think of) by sending their file through a free online PDF converter like PrimoPDF Online (primopdf.com/online.aspx).
Set a specific naming convention for the files. I’d suggest “Lastname Firstname Assignmentname”.
Purchase or obtain software that will allow you to easily write on documents (i.e., Adobe Acrobat Pro, OneNote, Jarnal).
When you receive the files, download them into a common folder, and, if necessary, rename them. I name the files “Lastname Firstname Assignmentname” (see image on next page) because putting the files in alphabetical order by last name makes it easy to keep track of which paper you’ve just graded and which to do next.
If you can, format the assignments so that the same problems fall on the same page from student to student. This makes it easier to jump to a particular page in each assignment to grade a particular problem. The easiest way to get this consistent placement is to ask for a set number of problems per page. While this might seem a waste of paper, remember the submissions and grading take place digitally.
Naming student files alphabetically by last name is efficient.
In the File Manager, use the “List View” instead of “Icon View” to see the files alphabetically by filename.
When you move on to grading the next paper, look at the time in the “Date Modified” field on the file to keep track of which papers you’ve finished and which you should grade next.
Use the “Next Page” and “Previous Page” buttons to quickly navigate to the proper page for grading.
Set up custom stamps (directions in Adobe Acrobat). Since you will write them only once, comments can be longer and more involved that what you’ve had time for before.
In deciding how to assign points, you can open several files to the same problem at once. A custom stamp makes it easy to explain your grading rubric if you think it will be questioned.
In most learning management systems, an “assignment” feature lets you download all the submitted files simultaneously.
My Way on the Highway
To grade papers one problem at a time, this is the procedure I run through:
Open Adobe Acrobat Pro (and keep it open the entire time)
Go to the file folder holding the papers and start with the first file (the first name alphabetically)
Jump to the page of the problem using the Next Page button (I’m using a tablet, not a keyboard, so it’s easier to tap three times; if you’re working with a keyboard, you can jump to the correct page by typing in the page number).
Use the pen tool and custom stamps to grade the problem.
Save the file and close it (but don’t close Adobe Acrobat).
Open the next file in the list (use the time stamp or glance at “Recently Opened” to help keep track). Repeat.
Don't forget all the tools at your disposal for making it easy to flip between pages and view material comfortably.
Being able to use custom stamps may be the deciding factor between digital and paper-based grading. In a custom stamp you can do such things as the following:
Include a solution for a really tough problem.
Explain the grading for a problem if you know it will be questioned.
Explain why certain notation is necessary in a problem.
Include graphs, tables—anything you want—in your stamps (to make the custom stamp images you need, use a snipping tool or a program such as Jing or SnagIt).
One last tip: Don’t forget you can easily change your grading without making a mess. Perhaps you realize you assigned too many points to a problem, want to remove a comment, or decided to regrade a problem after you saw the spectrum of student errors. Digital ink is much easier to erase than actual ink.
Maria H. Andersen is a math professor and the Learning Futurist at the LIFT Institute of Muskegon Community College, Michigan; email: email@example.com.
This column appeared in the October/November 2011 issue of MAA FOCUS.
Maria H. Andersen is a Learning Futurist for The LIFT Institute and a Math Professor at Muskegon Community College. She is also president of Edge of Learning LLC (formerly Andersen Algebra Consulting LLC), an educational consulting business. Follow her on Twitter @busynessgirl or visit her official website.