Want Some Free Red Pens?

I’m about 75% through this round of midterm exam grading. Overall, I’m down to around 100 students in total, over three classes. I’ll give four midterm exams and a final exam at the end of the semester. This requires a lot of red ink.

A while ago, I read an inspiring article in the MAA FOCUS called “Abandon the Red Pen!” written by Maria H. Andersen. The article was about digital grading. Since I read it, digital grading has been a dream of mine. Ideally, here’s what I’d like to do with the pile of exams currently sitting on my dining room table:

  1. Students take exams in class, on paper, like usual.
  2. After students turn in exams, magic happens. I end up having a PDF file of each individual exam paper, titled something like “StudentLastName-Calculus-Exam2.pdf”
  3. I dump all of the PDF files into a Dropbox folder and then I do all of the exam grading on my iPad.
  4. Once I’m done, I save each file as “StudentLastName-Calculus-Exam2Graded.pdf” and then more magic happens, and each student gains access to their graded exam — perhaps over e-mail, or through the file server in our Learning Management System, or some other solution.

Overlooking the requisite magic requirements, let me explain why I’d prefer this to offline grading:

  • I wouldn’t have to carry 100 exams home, keep them away from my toddler, make sure I don’t lose any to black hole of my desk, try to avoid spilling coffee on them, etc.
  • I would have a complete digital record of a student’s work. Occasionally a student comes to me at the end of the course and says, “I just checked the online gradebook. It says I earned grade X%, but I am certain I earned grade (X+4)%.” Sometimes they are able to produce the test paper and the gradebook indeed has an error. Sometimes they aren’t able to produce the test paper, and I can’t do anything for the student. Having a digital PDF file of every graded exam would solve this issue immediately.
  • In the unfortunate case of dishonest work, I would have a clear record. (For instance, if a student modifies their test paper after it is graded and returned, and then asks for more credit on a problem. This has happened in the past.)

But the most important reason I’d love to switch to digital exam grading is that I could give better comments in less time. On the current test, all students had to solve a similar “Optimization” problem involving having a constrained amount of fencing to build a backyard of area A. For the most part, students fell into one of three categories: (A) Response entirely correct; (B) Response entirely incorrect or missing or blank; or (C) Response partially correct, but some errors were made. In category (C), there were only about three types of errors: That is, everyone who made a mistake made one of the same three mistakes.

Digital grading would allow me to type up a full response as to what the error was, why it was not correct, and how to fix it. I would only have to type the response once. I could save it as a JPG file. Then whenever a student made that particular error, I could just “drag and drop” the response onto their test paper.

Also, eventually I’d have JPG stamps for the big “Top 100 Algebra Errors”, things like sqrt(9+16) is not the same as sqrt(9)+sqrt(16). I would never have to write anything about this mistake again because I could just drag and drop the explanation JPG!

Now, the tricky part: How do I get the magic to happen? The photocopy machine in my department is quite happy to take 8 pages, scan them to a PDF, and e-mail them to me. So, for a particular student’s exam, I could undo the staple, run it through the copy machine, and I’d be done. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do this en masse very efficiently.

Suppose I have 100 exam papers, each 8-10 pages. How do I remove all of the staples, run each one through the copy machine individually, and rename the files? This process seems very easy, but I estimate it would take about a minute per exam. At this point, I’d rather spend 100 minutes doing the grading than 100 minutes dealing with the paper shuffle. Hence I need magical elves. Or graduate students.

Since I haven’t figured out how to do this first step, I haven’t given much thought as to how to “hand back” the graded files. I’m sure there’s probably some easy way to do this in our LMS, so maybe it wouldn’t even require magic.

Do you have any ideas about how to do the first step (i.e., scan each individual exam paper to PDF) that doesn’t require magic, graduate students, or administrative assistants? I’m happy to send you all my red pens in trade for such information.

10 thoughts on “Want Some Free Red Pens?

  1. I have my students purchase semester licenses of Learning Catalytics ($12 each, $20 for the year), and I put a lot of their quizzes in there, as well as PI activities. For simple grading, it will calculate results for me and spit out a CSV file. For more complicated stuff, the results are all in the web browser or can be downloaded as a more complex CSV.

    For in-class pencil-and-paper work, I carry around my old digital camera and import to DropBox with a good old SD card. This only works for one-pagers, obviously.

    Also, I use Camtasia for video grading of papers and longer compositions, when I don’t have time for in-person meetings. It actually goes a little faster than written comments, or sometimes the same amount of time, but I can give more info, more clearly in that time. (I can also withhold the score until the end, so the student has to follow all the comments to get to the score!) That’s been a big hit with a number of my students.

  2. Also, I’ve found another advantage of having complete digital records: it’s easier to spot patterns that suggest a possible undiagnosed learning disability. I often first come across such situations when I get backed up in my grading and see several assignments in a row. The digital records give me more material to consult before I have “the talk” with the student, and make sure I don’t do so unnecessarily.

  3. I would take your idea to use the photocopier as a scanner and modify it in the following ways:

    1. Take attendence at the exam so that you know if any students were missing
    2. Alphabetize the exams
    3. Use a paper cutter to remove the stapled corners.
    4. Scan the exam stack as a single document.
    5. After grading run a macro in Adobe Acrobat to extract every 8 pages as a new file and use the list of students who took the exam to generate the file names.

    I’ve never tried writing a macro for Adobe Acrobat, so I don’t know how difficult this would be.

    • Thanks, Corrin! I actually convinced my husband to write a bash script using pdftk so I don’t need to use Adobe Acrobat. Hoping to try this out in late March on my unsuspecting Calculus students with their third midterm. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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