When I first started teaching a larger class (30 students versus a seminar of 15), I felt frustrated by the amount of time I spent grading papers. One of the things that I was frustrated by wasn’t the time it took reading or thinking about their papers – that seemed like time well spent – but the time it took writing a set of comments to communicate to them in a tactful way what they could have done better. This was annoying partially because I felt like I was typing some of the same comments over and over, as the papers I received tended to have similar issues.
Enter text expansion software. I had heard that such a thing existed, but didn’t know anything else about it other than it sounded like it could be helpful for any number of tasks, including writing comments for grading.
What is Text Expansion?
Text expansion is exactly what it sounds like – it expands a small bit of text that you type into a document into a larger bit, both bits being created by you inside the text expansion application. For example, you might want to create an email signature that you can add to emails for certain people. Within the application (I use the appropriately-named TextExpander) you create a “snippet” which would be your email signature for students, and an “abbreviation” attached to that snippet (mine is “emailsigteach”). When you have a cursor in any text field, including your email program, a Word document, etc, you can type that abbreviation, and the program expands it to become the “snippet” attached to that abbreviation. So, after plugging the snippet and abbreviation into the TextExpander application, I can write an email, and at the end type “emailsigteach” and have my email signature appear.
My Process for Grading
To get started, I had to input all of the comments I wanted to use in the application, and assign abbreviations to them. Like all technological tools that are supposed to make your life easier, text expansion requires a bit of work up front before it starts saving you time. I went through previous comments I had typed up for students, and I copied all of the useful ones into TextExpander. I reworded them to make them work better as “blanks” applicable to a broader audience and assigned them abbreviations.
Then when it came to grading, I could quickly get my comments started when I identified problem spots by typing the abbreviation. Then I could tailor the comments to that particular student’s paper, so, for example, if a student’s thesis statement was not argumentative, I could enter the abbreviation for my comment relating to a non-argumentative thesis statement, then customize it by adding a phrase about a part of that specific paper that looked like a more argumentative claim that would have made a better focus for the paper. Using text expansion saved me a lot of time across all of the papers that I had to grade, and helped me stay on schedule by making me less likely to procrastinate.
I also have found TextExpander helpful for writing emails to students. Like the grading comments, I have a “blanks” that I use, and then tweak according to the student’s specific question. It not only saves me time, but the mental energy of drafting an email from scratch. I don’t put off replying to those emails anymore because I can just summon up a full draft from a few keystrokes, and from there I’m only a moment or two away from sending it.
I’m sure that there are a lot of uses for text expansion that I haven’t yet explored or thought up, but these are the things that I have used it for, and it’s worked well to help with some of the more mundane and repetitive typing tasks that are part of being an academic.
Here are a couple of helpful posts from ProfHacker that helped me get started using a text expander: