Electronic Annotation of Student Essays (without Grademark)

Last year, I wrote about electronic marking with Grademark. The system had many advantages, including full integration with TurnItIn’s Originality Check software package. Students submitted their work online and it was stored in an online repository that I could access anywhere with an internet connection. I could create custom rubrics and pre-programmed annotations, such as ‘citation needed’ or ‘run-on sentence’, both of which made my marking more efficient. When I had completed my work, students could retrieve their electronic essays online using the same interface with which they had submitted them.

It was not a perfect system, but it did provide a straight-forward workflow.

When I began my new position, I found that my new department had a TurnItIn subscription, which could be used for electronic submission and plagiarism detection, but that it had not subscribed to the GradeMark package. My options were to forgo electronic submission, print out the submitted essays myself, or find a new annotation system. A friend to trees and a foe to falling down stairs—I am now on the eleventh floor—I opted for number three.

When students submit their essays electronically, they usually do so in one of two formats, a .doc (Microsoft) or a .pdf (Adobe). The former is the simplest to create and therefore the most popular choice. Although I do not rely upon TurnItIn’s originality check system, I do continue to use it as a submission platform; it provides me with a time-stamped repository and my students with immediate piece of mind that their essay has been received.

When I log on to the system, I can download each essay individually or I have the option of downloading a single archive (.zip) of all the essays in either format.

Download essays

Which do I choose? In the end, it is a matter of personal preference, but here are my thoughts on a few, basic annotation options.

Review Tools within Microsoft Word

The first instinct of many experimenting with electronic marking is to use the review tools within Microsoft Word. These are often used in scholarly review and copy-editing and therefore many markers already have a solid understanding of their functionality. After clicking track changes, any revision you type will be inserted into the text—red and underlined—and any text your remove will be scored out. You can also highlight passages and add comment bubbles for more detailed annotations or comments throughout the text.

Word Annotation

Pros: If you tend to make only minor annotations, or rely primarily on comment bubbles to convey your thoughts, Microsoft Word review tools may be the best choice for you. The file retains its original format and is therefore easily opened by you and your students. Assuming both of you are using Word (rather than another compatible word processor) the bubbles and annotations will automatically appear on your student’s screen exactly as they have on yours.

Cons: If you tend to make significant corrections, especially to grammar and syntax, you risk completely transforming the document to an unrecognisable mess of red ink. Although helpful during a copy-editing process, these annotations can be difficult to decipher without accepting the changes, which removes the student’s text or formatting, making it more difficult to see the difference between to the two versions.

When printing out the annotated essay, as most if not all your student will do, Word helpfully reduces the size of the text in order to add a column of ‘revision bubbles’ in the right-hand margin. For students with poor visual acuity, this can make reviewing the essay in hard-copy very difficult. Moreover, the more annotations you add directly to the text, the more the final format of the paper is altered. If a student has created page breaks by multiple taps of the enter key (rather than cntl+enter) or manually entered footnotes (rather than using cntl+alt+f) you end up with a terribly formatted paper, which can be very distracting to you and your student. Finally, if you enjoy making circles, squiggly lines or other free-hand annotations, these are possible in Word—using the insert shape or drawing tools—but are far from intuitive.

Mark-up Tools with Adobe Acrobat Reader or Foxit Reader

If you want an essay to maintain its original layout, allowing you to replicate the hard-copy annotation experience, it is better to use the .pdf format. Once opened in Adobe Acrobat Reader or an alternative—I use Foxit—you can make a wide variety of annotations to the text such as highlighting, underlining, inserting or striking-out text, as well as adding comment bubbles for more complicated notes.

PDF Annotation (Foxit Reader)

Pros: The essay maintains its original layout, allowing you to easily comment upon the student’s margins, spacing and pagination. It also more closely replicates the hard-copy experience for students. Finally, annotations can be removed quickly if you make a mistake or change your mind.

Cons: If you do not use TurnItIn, you will need to convert your students’ essays to pdf yourself, or have your students do so before submission. This is not complicated, but does take time and energy. Making hand-drawn annotations, such as arrows or circles, is slightly more straight-forward but still requires a steady hand and can be slightly fiddly.

For students, the file should open effortlessly, but it is possible that some students will not have a .pdf reader on their computer, or will use a different programme from yourself. This could make the annotations appear in a slightly different way from what you intended. For example, in many readers, the student will have to hover over the comment bubble to see its contents, rather than have it displayed automatically. Likewise, unless the student selects the correct printing options, the bubbles will not appear in a printed version, leaving them with only your direct annotations, such as underlining. You can prevent this by creating a ‘comment summary’ (an option within Adobe and Foxit Readers) to send along with the marked essay, but this is an extra step you must factor in.

Mark-up Tools with Annotate for the iPad

If you are lucky enough to possess a tablet computer, you can take advantage of the hybrid annotation process offered by iAnnotate—available on both Android and iOS. This platform allows you to import either format—though .docs will be automatically converted to .pdfs— and annotate them with both your stylus (or your finger) and your keyboard. This allows you to highlight, underline, and strike-out text as you would with Adobe or Foxit, but also allow you to create free-hand circles, arrows or other copy-edit marks. You can also add comment bubbles to type long comments within the margins of the text.

Annotate Ipad

Pros: The tablet programme fully replicates the hard-copy annotation experience, but allows you to improve it when and where you see fit. Illegible handwriting can be avoided by typing long comments, but short notes, such as ‘good’, can be scribbled using the signature function—which zooms into the text, allowing you to write legibly with your finger or stylus. It also provides a significant degree of portability, no matter how many individual scripts you have. Finally, the programme can be set to automatically sync with your DropBox or other cloud provider, allowing you to manipulate them further or send them from your desktop or laptop computer.

Cons: The programme is not free on iOS—though the introductory version on Android is—and you obviously have to own a tablet to make use of the software.

Both: You have to take a bit more care in returning the essays to your student than with the desktop pdf readers. If you upload them to your desktop before sending them, they will have some of the same comment bubble limitations as Adobe or Foxit annotated files; the comments may or may not appear on your student’s screen or printed version. However, if you send them directly from the app—to the student or yourself— you can choose to flatten the annotations. This will make them permanent, and uneditable, but will also essentially burn them into the pdf, making sure they do print and appear on the student’s screen regardless of which pdf reader they use.

Thus, the flattened comments will appear as numbered icons on within the text

Annotate Student View

and a list of comments will be automatically appended to the end of the file.

Annotate Student View of Notes

So, which programme should you use for electronic marking? It is entirely up to you. Word review tools provides the most straightforward workflow, especially if you do not use TurnItIn as a submission platform, but is also the most disruption to the visual appearance of the text. iAnnotate, on the other hand, best replicates the hard-copy experience students expect, but requires the greatest outlay of time (in returning the essays) and money to utilize. Desktop .pdf readers provide a solid, free middle ground and will likely be the best choice for most markers.

Image courtesy of rosefirerising, by CC-BY-NC-ND

7 thoughts on “Electronic Annotation of Student Essays (without Grademark)

  1. Christoph Braun

    A graphic tablet could be interesting to enhance the workflow. Here’s an example for Adobe Acrobat using a Wacom tablet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YamjcL4k-fA

  2. Susan Engel

    Thanks this was really useful. You can create your own standard set of annotations to add in to comments in microsoft word through the proofing menu, which does speed up marking in word now. Plus it also has an ‘inking’ function so you can underline or highlight things in the review menu. Good with a touch screen but works fine with the mouse too.

    • Matt Sullivan

      Sorry, I posted this already as a general comment but I realized you were more likely to see it if I replied to your comment specifically. Here it is again (sorry for redundancy):

      @Susan: I know this is a few months ago but I came by this post in trying to figure out how to replicate GradeMark at my university where we don’t subscribe to Turnitin. I can’t find anything, however, on how to create a standard set of annotations in the proofing feature of Word (even on Microsoft forums). Is there anything you can link to? Thanks if you see this!

  3. Thanks, Susan. I did not know about this functionality in Microsoft Word. I will have to explore it before my next hand-in.

  4. Matt Sullivan

    @Susan: I know this is a few months ago but I came by this post in trying to figure out how to replicate GradeMark at my university where we don’t subscribe to Turnitin. I can’t find anything, however, on how to create a standard set of annotations in the proofing feature of Word (even on Microsoft forums). Is there anything you can link to? Thanks if you see this!

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