Six months after obtaining an iPad Air 2 with the hopes of digitizing the majority of my workload, I have completed my first semester of nearly all-digital grading. Students still took their exams the old-fashioned way, but I graded every essay, assignment, and final project digitally. Although there were times that I wanted to go back to grading with pen on paper, I think that the benefits generally outweighed the costs.
I’ve dabbled in electronic assignment submission in the past, but this semester I required students to submit all of their assignments electronically to my institution’s course management program (similar to Blackboard, Moodle, etc.). They were instructed to submit their work in PDF format and most did, but after downloading the assignments I had to spend a few minutes converting the assignments that were submitted in other formats. These few minutes were just the first of the extra time that working electronically added to the grading process.
After ensuring that everything was in the correct format, I uploaded the files to Dropbox, then imported them into Goodnotes 4 on my iPad for grading. Grading itself also took longer because of the need to zoom in for writing legible comments with a stylus. At the end of each assignment I typically used the iPad’s on-screen keyboard to type some longer comments, the speed of which would have been greatly increased with the purchase of a Bluetooth keyboard. After grading, I exported the files back to Dropbox, transferred them to my computer, opened each file to record the grade, and uploaded them back to the course management program so that students could receive my feedback. I know that some course management programs allow electronic grading on PDFs from within their interface, so the ability to do that would help streamline the process.
The biggest drawback was the added time necessary both before, during, and after grading. It was during grading for my largest classes that I often considered just printing the students’ papers and grading them by hand. Aside from the added time commitment, though, I also found that electronic grading interrupted my normal process of handing work back. In the past I have always given assignments back at the end of class, prefaced with an overview of what generally went well and what needed work. Electronic grading prevented me from returning things at the end of class (the course management system provided no option to hold feedback for release at a particular time) and divorced the receipt of my feedback from my contextualizing overview. It also led to at least one class period where students were noticeably disengaged after receiving relatively low grades on an assignment shortly before class started. In the future I’ll probably switch to providing context at the end of class and uploading student assignments immediately afterward.
Saving paper was an obvious motivation for changing to digital grading, but it was not the only benefit that I noticed. During grading, the ability to copy and paste some of my end-of-assignment comments allowed me to write a bit more than I might have otherwise (a Bluetooth keyboard will hopefully make this even better). The larger benefit for me, though, and what ultimately made this process worthwhile, was the ability to have a copy of each student’s work with my feedback even after I had given assignments back. If one assignment built on another, for example, I could look back at the student’s previous work to see if they had followed my suggestions. The ability to pull up a student’s previous assignments during office hours was also helpful. Finally, I could also see whether a student’s ability to cite things properly progressed over the course of the semester (unfortunately, the answer was usually “no”).
Another major positive was that students liked it. My comments were not really any less legible than they would have been otherwise and students did not have to worry about misplacing their assignments for future reference since they were always available on the course management page. Whether students saved the files with my feedback for future reference is still undetermined. One worry that I had is that students would not read my feedback if I did not physically hand them an assignment, since they could see their grade online without opening the file with my comments. There is obviously a question of whether students read my feedback when I do physically hand them an assignment, but at least the likelihood seems higher.
Despite the added time and other drawbacks, I consider this semester’s trial run a success. Over the summer I hope to get a Bluetooth keyboard to make typing a little more efficient, and I should probably look into ways to streamline my overall process, but I plan to continue my electronic grading in the future. Maybe with penalties for assignments that are submitted in the wrong format…
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