This year, I will be marking roughly 150 two-thousand word essays every six weeks. As I still need to conform with the standard two-week turnaround, I needed to increase my marking speed without sacrificing the quality of my feedback. After reading a paper on the use of Grademark (part of the Turn-it-In software package), I was hopeful that I had found a solution to my problem.
There were, of course, a few hiccups. First, I would be the only tutor in my department using the system. Although Turn-it-In is widely used in other departments, history has not yet made its use standard. Instead, students are required to upload their essay to a web form (which stores their essay in case of loss, plagiarism or external examining) and then hand in a hard copy for marking and return. I had originally thought that simply replacing the hard copy with a second electronic copy would be a pretty simple procedure.
Yet, novelty often breeds confusion. Right up to the deadline, many students were confused on which of the three possible submissions methods they were supposed to use. This was complicated by the fact that departmental emails were (quite rightly) being sent out reminding the students of the ‘correct’ submission procedure, contradicting my earlier instructions. Nonetheless, after numerous reassurances from me regarding the exceptionable nature of my seminar groups, submission day came and went with all of my students managing to submit their essays successfully.
In terms of actual marking, I am not yet sure of the net outcome. As I am generally an optimistic individual, let me begin with the positives.
- Simplified receipt process: After seven years of teaching, the idea of ‘simply handing in your essay’ is far more complicated than you would first imagine. For any given deadline, about 10-15% of my students will claim that broken printers, overbooked computer labs, delayed trains, broken USB keys and a general confusion about where to hand the essay in have prevented them from submitting on time. Electronic submission negates most if not all of these problems. Students can reach for their laptop from underneath their duvet, hit ‘send’ and return to land of nod. Likewise, if I am ill or have obligations off-campus on submission day, I do not have to come into the office for the sole purpose of essay collection.
- Ease of transportation: Simpy put, 15 essays in a shoulder bag are quite heavy. 150 would be a nightmare. This is especially the case if, like me, you mark on and off throughout the day and therefore must keep essays with you at all times. With Grademark, anywhere I have a PC and internet connection, I can mark.
- Handwriting: Mine is awful. I am pleased that I no longer need to subject students to late night cryptography. Although typing and printing feedback comments is an option for hard-copy marking, it is cumbersome and does not effectively replace marginalia. Grademark, on the other hand, allows you to insert ‘comment bubbles’ throughout the text.
- Repeatability: There are some errors that most if not all my students make on their first essay of the year. Having to write ‘incorrect citation format’ 150 times is not fun. Being able to assign this comment to a macro is a godsend.
- Delivery: Like the receipt process, essays can be delivered quickly and simultaneous to all my students. As I prefer to hold ‘feedback sessions’ after my student have read their essays, this provides me with the flexibility to return essays on Monday morning and hold feedback sessions on Friday, even if there is not a lecture or seminar during the week. Moreover, it allows commuter students or those who are ill to retrieve their essay quickly.
- Feedback from students: I have only had minimal student feedback so far (my first feedback session is tomorrow) but those who have emailed me have been impressed at the level of feedback they have received and the ease with which it was retrieved. Moreover, as Grademark indicates which essays have been viewed for more than 30 seconds, I can gauge which students have looked through their feedback properly.
- Over zealous macro making: I like macros. I love the idea that I don’t have to retype a frequent comment. However, I did get a bit carried away. In the end, I made of 40 different macros, many of them for pet peeves in grammar or syntax. Because many were very specific (and poorly labelled), I spent much more time searching for my macros than it would have taken to retype the comment. Use sparingly.
- Bleeding scripts: I often tell postgraduate tutors not to make their essays bleed. Marking every typographical or word choice error will obscure more important comments regarding argument and structure. Having access to a wide range of pre-made copy-editing macros, I found myself being far more pedantic about punctuations and grammar than I would with a hard copy paper. Use sparingly.
- Reliance on Turn it In: In the past, I have stated that I don’t use plagiarism detection software because plagiarism is usually pretty obvious. It’s common sense really. However, with the option to turn on ‘Originality’ highlighting, I found myself relying on Turn-It-In’s judgement rather than my own. Use with caution.
- Student formatting: Because the essays are submitted electronically, many of my students ignored the departmental style guide. Most aggravating was the lack of double spacing. Although ostensibly to aid marginalia, double spacing also makes the essay easier to read. I missed it greatly.
- Time spent marking: It took me roughly 2 hours to mark 5 essays last week. This means an average of 24 minutes each. As my goal was 15 minutes per essay, this was rather depressing. However, once I used RescueTime to track my computer usage, I found I was actually spending just 18 minutes per essay. The other 7 minutes was spent getting coffee, checking my email, answering the phone and so on. Moreover, because I didn’t have to clear my desk, re-read the first half of the essay to remember where I was, print out comment sheets, alphabetize the essays or enter the marks into a spreadsheet, I actually saved several hours worth of administrative work
Update: (Friday November 18th) Having spoken to many more of my students now, the verdict seems to be quite positive, especially point 5 on the positive scale. Being able to see all the marginalia in private before seeing me was apparently quite helpful.