On Campus

The surprising benefits of paperless grading

Printer? Who needs a printer?

This past year, I took on another bold experiment: papers without paper. I got the results I expected, and found some advantages that I hadn’t.

You might think that printed papers were long gone, but they have endured despite their inherent difficulties. The process of working with paper essays is complex enough when things go right, but aggravating when they don’t: your printer is out of ink. Then you can’t find your professor, so you put it under his door, only to learn later that his office has a rug and your paper has been lodged under said rug for two weeks. And when he does finally hand it back, you happen to not be in class, so you don’t get it back anyway. You see the point. We need something simpler.

And all that paper adds up. Consider ENGL 200, the intro to lit course here at Cape Breton University. There are typically five or six sections of this course offered annually with around 40 students per section. That’s minimally 200 students who write five papers a year. Let’s say each paper averages five pages in length (probably more given Works Cited pages and so on). So each student produces 25 pieces of paper, times 200 students, that works out to a cool 5000 pieces of paper annually. That’s only one course at just one small university.

So paperless grading offers an obvious advantage from the start. It saves reams of paper.

But does it simplify the process? Colleagues at other universities warned me that online assignments would introduce too many complexities. They and their students have to navigate a complex online system with passwords and formatting and what-not.

But I decided to avoid all that and keep it simple. Students just e-mail the assignment to me directly. I evaluate it with notes added via MS Word, save the thing in PDF format and send it back. It really is simple, all things considered.

But it is the other consequences of grading electronically that I find most interesting.

For one thing, I think my electronic feedback is better than my old hand written scribbles in the margins of papers. Unlike my handwritten scrawl, my typing is clear and legible, and since I’m not scrambling to fit in what I want to say into a few inches, I can provide fuller explanations. In some cases, I even provide web links to other sites that provide more information on grammar or history that’s relevant.

Further, since I can edit my own comments, I can stop and rephrase a comment when I didn’t like the original wording I had chosen. On paper, I was sort of stuck with it.

Another advantage is that even after I send the paper back to the student, I retain a copy for my records. That way, if a students turns up at the end of the year saying she did five papers but only got credit for four, I can check my email folders to see if and when the paper came in. Similarly, I can check to see if it was graded and what the grade was and so on. After all, mistakes can happen, but this way they can be easily corrected.

I am also toying with the notion of taking examples from old student papers and using them in next year’s class as instances of common errors. I cover common errors now but I think they might be more convincing if students can see that the error was committed by a real student. Of course, I would remove the original student’s name and any identifying information.

On the down side, my grading has to be done on a computer.  It also means that throughout most of the year I have large numbers of papers in my inbox waiting to be graded — and I’m one of those people who lives to have his inbox empty.

So clearly, in addition to the joys of paperless grading, there are some terrors. These terrors are why some colleagues say they will never go paperless. Me? I will never go back.

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