My Experiment with Electronic Marking, or, Why heels, stairs and 150 essays don’t mix

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Now for the negatives:
  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
One negative that didn’t materialise was eye-strain. Although staring at a screen for extended periods can cause headaches and bleary eyes, I was never marking for long enough stretches for this to become an issue.
So what is my final verdict? I would recommend GradeMark, or similar alternatives. There were some logistical problems, but these were usually the result of human rather than mechanical limitations. Once electronic submission becomes the norm, and I learn not to mark an error just because I can, the negative column will shrink significantly.  
Will it work for everyone? No. 
Some people really enjoy curling up on the couch to mark. It gives them a break from computer work, which already dominates so many aspects of our lives. Others really value physically handing back essays during feedback session. Nonetheless, if you are an overworked teaching fellow with more papers than hours or upper body strength, it may be a good option for you.

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.

4 thoughts on “My Experiment with Electronic Marking, or, Why heels, stairs and 150 essays don’t mix

  1. RRL

    I am a lone faculty member in a school of nursing who uses Turnitin Grademark to grade all of my papers. You've hit all of the "pros" that I keep telling my colleagues — I cannot emphasize the weight taken off my shoulder (pun intended) by not having to cart around 30 page papers (yes, 30 pages, we nurses have high expectations for clinical work), keeping track of them, and then handing back.

  2. Alexis

    You do not have to use Turnitin to avoid lugging around paper copy student work. My students submit their essays electronically in WORD. I do the grading on the electronic document using the comment function in WORD. I do use Turnitin for some kinds of assignments, but for short essay assignments I require that they only use the textbook and other course materials and must cite all information presented in the essay taken from the source, including page numbers in all citations. I also limit the students to one quotation per essay. All other information must be paraphrased and cited, again including page number. This procedure has essentially eliminated plagiarism in short essay assignments. For research papers, which are much more lengthy and do involve student research of outside sources, I do use turnitin.

  3. M. H. Beals

    @RRL – Many thanks for the comment. My papers are only about 5-7 pages long, but I can absolutely empathise!

    @Alexis – I have thought about using Word, but it would require more micromanagement on my part to organise email submissions and returns, as well as loosing my comment macros. I would certainly recommend it over going back to paper copies though!

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