Paperless Grading: Getting Electronic Feedback on Your Work

With increasing numbers of faculty using forms of paperless commenting on student work, we’ve published several posts here on the Academic Technology Blog about doing electronic grading. I’ve used PDF editors and MS Word comments to paperlessly grade student work before, and would never go back to grading hard copies of papers. But, now that my dissertation advisor has started using his iPad to comment on my chapter drafts, it’s got me thinking about the whole endeavor from a new perspective.

Exchanging Documents, No Paper Needed!

Here's where I put all my dissertation documents in Dropbox for my committee to read.  This means that we all share the most updated versions of these documents, which is really handy.

Here’s where I put all my dissertation documents in Dropbox for my committee to read. This means that we all share the most updated versions of these documents, which is really handy.

I use a Dropbox folder, shared with my committee members to send them copies of my dissertation chapters (see this post about using Dropbox for graduate student work). I love using Dropbox for this, and highly recommend it — it makes sure that all of you have the most up-to-date copies of your work, and all your committee members have to do is go in and look at the folder to find it, rather than searching through email. I’ve also been able to use Dropbox to share more obscure sources as PDFs and images with my committee, in case they want to look at them.

Although I write in Scrivener, I export my chapters in as Word documents, then put them into our Dropbox folder to turn them in.  When I get them back, my advisor provides me with PDFs with margin/text comments, either typed or written with a stylus, and longer comments type up in electronic post-it notes.

Options for Paperless Feedback: A Quick Review

There are several options for giving and receiving electronic feedback on student work. The three that I am most familiar with are: comments and track changes in Microsoft Word, the Blackboard inline grading tool (which can collect all different kinds of documents from students, outputting them as PDFs), and PDF editors like Mac’s Preview application or Good Reader. All these are ways that make it pretty easy to do paperless grading.

From an instructor perspective, the pros of paperless grading are numerous:

  • You can erase and edit what you write on a student’s document without having to cross things out.
  • Typing comments is much faster than writing them by hand for most people.
  • You have an automatic digital copy of graded student work — also then you don’t have piles of old student papers stashed around your office.
  • You can return papers electronically, and so don’t need to spend class time doing this.

All of these are good reasons for faculty to do paperless grading, but from my perspective both as someone who’s given paperless feedback and received it, there are more advantages for students getting this kind of feedback.

Contemplating My Electronic Comments

I have to admit that at first that this didn’t seem very different from hard copies of documents I’d received in the past with margin comments. I still had to input all of these comments and little editorial changes myself into my Word document, so what’s the big difference on my end? The more I thought about it, though, the more I saw the positive aspects of being on the receiving end of paperless grading.

Here are some of the things I like about getting electronic feedback for my writing:

  • No deciphering handwriting.
  • No worries about losing or damaging my only copy.
  • Easier to archive (I tend to keep most of my important documents as electronic copies these days, rather than papers in a filing cabinet).
  • I also imagine that it works well for faculty, since they, too, can easily retain a digital copy of their comments and/or share it with other committee members, if they so choose, or look back on what they’d suggested when looking at a revised draft.
  • As opposed to a tracked changes Word document, it was less automated since I couldn’t just click “accept changes.” This way, I put a lot more thought into the places where my advisor suggested rewording something. I didn’t always just do what he suggested, but made sure to think through what I had meant to say and why it had been confusing or awkward.
  • If you were to do electronic feedback via commenting on a Word document or a Google Drive document, you can respond to another person’s comments, and so explain how you resolved the issue or ask a question about a comment.

I’ve long been a proponent of paperless grading as an instructor, but this was the first time I’d really thought about what it meant to receive paperlessly commented-on writing, and it has helped me think about how it can be helpful from a student perspective.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.