Thursday, November 10, 2011

Annotating and Grading Student Papers Electronically

Because I hurt my knee and couldn't drive to class for a week, for the first time ever I asked my students to submit their research paper drafts electronically.  I've avoided this until now for a couple of reasons.  I read at lightning speed, and I can cover more ground with a hard copy of a paper.  Before I start grading I go through a norming process for that class, reading through a number of papers rapidly until I get a feel for the general range, then I sort them into piles:  likely A's, Average, and Major Problems.  I like to mark up the papers with pen or pencil, making circles, arrows, and comments in the margin.  For longer comments (like lack of thesis, structure or organization issues) I have a Word document of comment boilerplate that I adapt to each student, then print and return with the annotated paper.

But this year, I have a choice.  I've asked them to submit the papers through Turnitin.  My college doesn't subscribe to the GradeMark commenting function of Turnitin, but I can download or print the papers, so now I have to decide:  Print and proceed as usual, or try annotating the papers electronically.
If I print, OK, it's a pain and it costs me some money, but I own a laser printer, so it's not THAT big a deal.  There is the filename issue - since 90% have named their files "research paper," I have to make sure I rename as I download so I don't overwrite.   But then I have to shlep the papers to class.  Students have to wait for my comments until we meet again, and I'm trying to travel light since I'm still on crutches. 

If I download and annotate using Word's comments function, I won't be able to norm the same rapidfire way I usually do.  Maybe I don't need to do this anymore - I've been grading research papers for a long, long time now.  And I know from my freelance editing jobs, it always takes longer to edit and comment with the Word comments function.  Many freelancers actually charge a bit more to provide comments in Word, for this very reason.

For help in this weighty decision, I consulted my oracle - that is, I googled, "Should I comment on my student papers using Word's comment function, or on hard copy?"  And lo and behold, it came up with a third option:  Grading papers on the iPad, as described in a fantastically useful post in Offprints, a blog by Caleb McDaniel of Rice University's History department. In it he describes how he converts all of his students' papers into .pdf files, dumps them onto his iPad, and then uses an app called iAnnotate which allows him to circle, mark up, and insert comments into little boxes, after which he e-mails them back to the students.  Make sure to read the comments, which also describe how to append a rubric to the student papers automatically.  McDaniel says apart from convenience, one important benefit of using the iPad is that it helps him refrain from overdoing it - he believes in minimal marking, which holds that too many comments on student papers - especially for "surface errors" like misspelling and improper punctuation -  actually hurt the learning process.

The iPad solution seems to me the most tempting, not only because I could mark up to my heart's content, and wouldn't have to schlep papers, but especially because it gives me an excuse buy an iPad.

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