Tools for paperless grading

Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Stack of papers

(cc), Paper Stack, user: Ladyheart.

Just like the textbook-to-tablet trade that many students have made (cf. pilots and lawyers) lecturers and teachers might be able to save themselves lugging around reams of Reflex after assessments. Online submission, grading and return of student work could save you time and enable you to give richer, quicker feedback to your students.

Terms like ‘the paperless office’ and ‘paperless learning’ have come off the boil in recent years but both seem primed for a comeback in the tertiary setting. Web-based collaboration tools are closer to providing what lecturers and teachers need and (at least in Australia and industrialised nations) students are increasingly equipped with a smartphone, laptop or tablet: tools that potentially change the way people learn and capture their learning. I’m hesitant to say more than that because (with some exceptions) it seems to me that we use technology for the most part to present finished material and to view the finished material of others.

But without getting into the consumption/creation debate and whether these tools can really be used for deep learning, let’s recognise the utility of technologies even when they only streamline an existing modality. Here’s a simple manifestation of ‘going paperless’ as it applies to submitting, grading and returning students’ written work. Even though it relates to the technology and Learning Management System we use here at RMIT, I think the principles are transferable for those working in different educational contexts.
Recently I’ve assisted a few lecturers move their courses from using a physical drop-box to the electronic submission of assignments through Blackboard via Turnitin. For courses where written assessment makes up the majority of the submitted work, the advantages for the students are easy enough to sell:
  • an assessment declaration replaces the coversheet
  • submission is simple and can be done from anywhere in the world with an internet connection
  • students receive a digital receipt and can submit an assignment more than once if necessary.

The advantages for staff are pretty clear too. We’ve lifted the burden a little from professional staff (who were date-stamping and clearing items from a physical box and dealing with scores of papers) and enabled the teaching team to manage missing and late submissions (students with 7-day extensions or similar). Splitting the marking load between instructors can be done with a quick email using the generated reports if they are part of a larger team. Submissions are viewable just as the student submitted them (images are retained) and submissions are checked for originality, date-stamped, word-counted and cover-paged.

GradeMark's Rubric functionality

Click on the image to find out more about GradeMark.

There are still some tricky aspects to using Turnitin. These mean that you might need a guide through the process (someone using it already) or a visit to RMIT’s Teaching with Technology page. Compliance with TAFE assessments for instance (you’ll need to add details like the competency code in a separate field) and using it for group assignments (Turnitin is essentially set up to be a 1:1 submission interface) can be tricky but both of these problems have workarounds.

As an English teacher, the stack of physical papers, a favourite pen, a set of blank rubrics and plenty of coffee seemed like part of the profession. It often seemed preferable to more time looking at a computer screen. Sessional staff too might not have a suitable space to mark at work. Their office is their laptop/backpack/kitchen table or the university library. I’ve found most staff are still keen to print out submissions and most have good reasons to do this. But I also know some teachers who don’t let marking darken their doorstep. Student work stays at work or at least on the work laptop.

If the lack of a good on-screen solution to marking has stopped you in the past (maybe you’ve struggled with Word’s commenting function or you’ve used annotations with PDFs) it’s probably a good time to have a look at the current technologies.

RMIT lecturers now have the e-assessment option ‘GradeMark’ in Turnitin. GradeMark allows you (both online and offline) to annotate student work with your own comments, to build a comment bank and use pre-loaded comments (for grammar and expression for instance). The resulting layer is then there for the teacher (or student) to print out or view digitally. Rubrics in GradeMark are quite elegant too, not without their own quirks, but a much better implementation than Blackboard’s standard rubric function.

There’s also the feature of adding an audio comment that the student can hear once they log in to Blackboard to receive their grade. Lecturers and teachers have reported to me a reduction in time spent marking and a good student response too.

Shows a piece of annotated work at the beach on an iPad.

Click on the image to find out more about GradeMark.

The latest ‘Grade Anywhere’ advertisement from the Turnitin team shows an instructor using an iPad at a beach (or perhaps a cafe with a great water view) to comment on student work. Or maybe that iPad is being held by a lucky student. Either scenario might strike you as utopian/unsettling/nightmarish. But the iPad’s microphone and Turnitin’s rubric tool could be a good way to do that ‘opportunistic’ marking; smaller tasks where you want to provide quick feedback. I can imagine it being used successfully in studio-based subjects where students submit a handful of captioned images that show their work in progress.

The fact that marked work is available for download through the semester in Blackboard allows you to easily design a follow-up activity where your students genuinely review feedback (or even share it with their peers using a tool like Google Docs) before they tackle their next assessment.

Share your thoughts on paperless grading and anything related to making marker quicker, easier and a better experience for teachers and students! We’d love to hear them in the comments section below!

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