Adventures in grading: Digital assignments, digital grading

The Situation

Last year, on the day of the final of the last section of my course, I received my University-issued iPad.  I teach chemical information to graduate students and give a “practical” exam; the students are asked to search the literature and retrieve relevant information to answer a series of questions that I ask.  I had just printed out exams of about ten students who chose to represent their search strategies using screen shots from the databases, and my backpack was weighing me down.  The first thing that I thought of doing with my new toy… I mean tool… was using it to eliminate the metric tons of papers that I was currently carrying.  The students prefer to type their assignments, using pictures and diagrams that they collect through screen captures; why couldn’t I grade them in digital form?  The tablet offered me the option of grading the way I like to grade, circling things and hand-writing comments, without carrying around stacks of paper.  I immediately procured a stylus and some annotation apps, and, after a year of experimenting, I am ready to report my preliminary findings.

The Apps and Programs Involved

canvasCourseware: Canvas. In addition to piloting electronic grading, I was also trying the Canvas courseware system in my class.  I used Canvas to bulk-download the students’ assignments each week, and I uploaded the graded files for student view using the comments feature of the SpeedGrader.  There is no Canvas app, so, I used it with my Web browser on both the computer and iPad.

DropboxAppStoring the Assignment Files: DropBox (free from App Store). I extracted the zip files Canvas had created into DropBox, and after I had annotated them, I replaced the files with the graded assignments. Because I also use DropBox with the two PCs and one Mac that I use for work-related activities, I could then access them easily from most locations.

iAnnotateAnnotating the Assignments: iAnnotate (Branchfire, $9.99 from App Store). I decided to try the iAnnotate app because it came highly recommended from several colleagues.  iAnnotate was easily synched with DropBox and has several features that I like for hand-writing comments on the assignments.

The Workflow

I quickly discovered that the workflow was much more complex than I thought it would be.  After much trial and error, this is the most effective way that I found to work.  (Note that I use the word “effective,” not the word “efficient.”)

  1. Configure iAnnotate to access my DropBox folders (only needs to be done once for the lifetime of the app.
  2. Download student submissions from Canvas into DropBox, using the bulk download feature in Canvas from either the PC or the Mac.
  3. Process the downloaded documents in iAnnotate so that they can be opened and graded on the iPad.
  4. Grade the student submissions using handwritten comments in iAnnotate.
  5. Upload the annotated documents into DropBox.
  6. Input grades and uploade graded assignments using the Canvas SpeedGrader on the PC or Mac.
  7. Transfer the documents from DropBox to a permanent folder on the PC for safe keeping.
  8. Delete files from DropBox and iAnnotate.

(Items 7 and 8 were not strictly necessary, but I wanted to keep the graded assignments on hand until I had submitted my grades for the semester, and I have limited storage space in both my iPad and on Dropbox.)

I took this somewhat round-about route of obtaining and posting the assignments because, although I was able to download files directly from Canvas into iAnnotate on the iPad, I could not find a way to upload the graded files to Canvas.  What’s more, iAnnotate limits one’s ability to move documents between local and server locations, so, I couldn’t download the files directly into iAnnotate, grade them, and then move them into DropBox for later upload (which, I suppose, serves me right for trying to beat the system).

The Process of Annotation

I actually tried two different annotation apps during the course of the semester, iAnnotate and GoodReader.  I eventually decided to go with iAnnotate because I found that it fit my workflow a little better, and it could open more documents at a time than GoodReader.  These are the features of iAnnotate that I regularly used and liked when annotating my students papers.

  • Convert to PDF: If my students submitted their assignments as Word documents instead of pdf files, iAnnotate could read, process, and convert them before I started annotating.
  • Pencil icon: You can choose your favorite pen color and scribble on the copy, using the pinch gesture to zoom in if you don’t have a very precise stylus, and scrolling around amidst annotating.

Highlighting and commenting (click to enlarge)

  • Feather pen icon: This lets you tap the screen to magnify a small segment of the screen and write short comments, but I don’t recommend it for much more than scribbling point values due to the fact that you cannot undo or erase errors.  The best thing about grading by electronically annotating the papers is that I can erase mistakes and change things when I change my mind, and my students do not have to see my thought processes!

Using the pen icon to zoom and comment in my preferred ink color (click to enlarge)

  • Sticky note: For those people who prefer typing or for longer annotations, you can use the iPad’s built-in keypad or a keyboard to type an expandable note.
  • Highlighter: Whenever a student missed a section of the question, I would highlight that using the text highlighter.  If the thing I wanted to highlight wasn’t text, there was another highlighter that I could use.

A graded question (click to enlarge)

iAnnotate also has some serious drawbacks.

  • System Limitations: You can only have eight documents open at a time, and I like to grade laterally (all the question 1 answers at a time, then the question 2 answers, etc.).  This wasn’t a problem in my five-person class, but for my ten- and fourteen-person classes, I found myself constantly opening and closing documents to ensure consistency across a question.
  • No Wrist Protection: When using the pencil icon, there is no wrist protection, so, you either need to ensure that the section you’re annotating is near the bottom of the screen, or you must hover your hand above.  Goodreader does have wrist protection, but this feature wasn’t enough to compensate for the fact that it could only open five documents.
  • Crashing: There was a great deal too much crashing.  The only good thing about this is that my work always seemed to be saved, so, I didn’t have to repeat myself.
  • “Vanishing” Annotations: After I synched my documents with DropBox, I could not read my annotations again until I had made another annotation on the paper.  This caused me to unnecessarily repeat work until I realized what was going on.

I polled each class mid-semester, and I had very few students who had difficulty reading the annotated assignments.  Of those who did, the vast majority either had trouble with my handwriting (I have good handwriting, but it is much more difficult to write neatly using iAnnotate) or were trying to view the annotations on a tablet.

Better Than Paper?

I really can’t decide.  Here are the benefits to electronic grading.

  • You can’t lose your students’ homework.  It’s always there in the courseware system.  The only thing that you can lose are your annotations (which means you have to grade it again, but they don’t have to DO it again).
  • You don’t have to spend hours printing the assignments if the students submit electronically.
  • It is easy to return a copy of a group assignment to each member of the group.
  • If there isn’t room for everything you want to write in the margin of the assignment, you can use a sticky note to write a lot more in a much smaller space.
  • You can change your mind as many times as you want, and the student will never know since you can delete the annotations and start over again without scribbling them out on the paper.  This is particularly good if you can’t add points accurately or read your own questions.
  • You don’t need to use class time to return assignments; you can post them as soon as you have finished grading them.  This means that, if you are organized, you can return the assignments and have the students review them before class so that, if you wish to use class time to highlight something from the homework, everyone is prepared.
  • It is much tidier; instead of carrying around a scrappy stack of papers, you just need your tablet.
  • It is much easier to surreptitiously grade assignments wherever you happen to be (on the train, in a meeting, in bed) because you aren’t constantly shuffling papers.  The fact that the iPad is backlit also helps you to grade in low-light situations.  This becomes increasingly important towards the end of the semester.

Here are the benefits to traditional grading.

  • This really only works if your students are submitting their assignments electronically, so, it might not be good for math or science classes in which the students are hand-writing long equations.  You can scan such assignments to pdf, but this is probably more trouble than it is worth.
  • It is easier to learn your students’ names when you are regularly returning papers to them in class.  I pride myself on always knowing my students by name, so, I had to spend some quality time with the class list with pictures from Courses in Touch.
  • It may actually take less time to annotate each submission using a pen and paper than to annotate it digitally.  Since I needed to choose a tool, zoom, and scroll for each annotation I made, I may have lost some time here.
  • You don’t have to worry about system limits for the number of open documents if you have a big class and are a one-question-at-a-time grader.
  • Paper submissions never have low batteries, and you can grade them during the first minutes of airplane flights (provided you don’t need your tray table).
  • It is much easier on the eyes to grade papers than to use an iPad when reading term projects or other lengthy assignments.

I will probably give it another year before making a final decision, particularly if I can find an easier way of integrating my courseware and my grading app.  Incidentally, if anyone knows of a pdf annotation app that can open more than eight documents at a time AND includes wrist protection, I would love to know about it!

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  1. Catherine Odson says:

    Judith, did you try the SpeedGrader app at all? Curious how that compares to iAnnotate in terms of the actual grading.

    • Judith Currano says:

      I tried the SpeedGrader app briefly at the end of the semester. It looks great for people who like to grade an entire assignment at a time, but since I practice “lateral grading,” it meant flipping through the assignments several times, entering multiple comments per assignment until all questions had been completed. Also, it did not seem to allow me to scribble by hand, which I prefer. I may have missed something, though.

  2. Have you tried Crowdmark? Just curious.

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