Digital Grading Follow-Up

THE BACKGROUND
Back in March, I wrote a post called “Want Some Free Red Pens?” on my dream for digital exam grading. In my ideal world, I’d remove all the paper from my office entirely. Having only digital copies of exams would be splendid since I could get a lovely potted plant to put in place of my institutional-looking filing cabinet. Last semester, I did accomplish my goal of grading an entire set of exams without using any non-digital ink. Now I finally have the time to tell you how it went.

The exam was for our “Introductory Calculus” (MATH 120) course. It was the third exam of the semester and I had about 30 students enrolled. I gave the same exam I would have otherwise — it wasn’t an online test. If you’re really interested, you can find a copy of the test here. I photocopied it like usual, and my students took it like usual. I did choose 1-sided copies over my usual preference for double-sided to help with the scanning task.

THE PROCESS

  1. Write, photocopy, proctor, collect exam. Alphabetize exams by student lastname and remove staple.
  2. Scan exams to PDF files using department’s Xerox machine; export as e-mail attachment to myself.
  3. Use husband’s perl script to “pull apart” multi-exam PDF file into 7-page segments. Rename files “lastname-exam3.pdf”. Transfer each file to iPad and open in GoodNotes.
  4. Correct each exam, save graded copy as “lastname-exam3-done.pdf”, compile exam grades, and upload grades onto our LMS.
  5. Use LaTeX’s “pdfpages” package to combine each annotated exam with a very thorough “Solution Key” (with comments, hints, suggestions, etc) at the end. Send each student an e-mail containing their exam’s feedback with the Solution Key & notification that official exam grade is available on LMS. [This was done to avoid FERPA issues about sending graded assignments, or grades themselves, over e-mail.]
  6. Save un-graded exams in my filing cabinet in case any student wants to pick theirs up. (As it turned out, no one did.)

THE GOOD THINGS
Here are the things I did like:

  • No crayon marks! No spilled orange juice! No paper shuffling! No page flipping! No running out of ink! Grading at home with a toddler is a tedious process, but being able to get in eight minutes of grading while also providing parental supervision was fantastic.
  • Forced Solutions. By giving every student a full Solution Key, I was able to write things like “See Remark on page 5” instead of re-writing the same paragraph of comments over and over again. Also, I didn’t have to feel guilty about printing thirty copies of said Solution Key, and I knew each and every student had been given the chance to see the solutions. (Usually, I upload the Solution Key to our LMS, but not every student bothers reading it, which is weird.)
  • Grading was Fast! During the “active grading” phase, I think it went faster than grading on paper. I didn’t have to spend time turning pages. I could Copy-and-Paste similar remarks from one test onto a different test. Because I didn’t need as much physical desk space to spread out, I was able to get in five minutes of grading here, four minutes of grading there, and so forth, so I think I was able to return the exams sooner than I would have otherwise.

THINGS NEEDING IMPROVEMENT

  • Hello, Copy Room. With about thirty students and a 7-page exam, the scanning task involved around 200 pages. It turns out that our Xerox machine does not like it when you ask it to scan anywhere near this many pages at once. After trying to scan 8 exams at once (56 pages), the Xerox’s “brain” would get hung up mid-process and a machine reboot was necessary. After this happened twice, I realized that I could only really scan 28-pages at once. So I set up four exams, pressed “SCAN”, and waited three minutes; lather, rinse, repeat. Four exams taking three scanning minutes meant about half an hour in the Copy Room I would have liked to spend elsewhere. (Thankfully, this wasn’t a total time loss since I could work on other tasks while the copy machine whirred.)

    A colleague let me know that elsewhere on campus, there exists a better copy machine that could handle this type of task more easily. But, accounting for walking to-and-from time, I am not sure this would have taken any less than thirty minutes anyhow.

  • Returning Exams. It had been my plan to use the LMS’s “Dropbox” functionality to return the exams. Unfortunately, I lost over an hour of my life trying to get this to work — without any success whatsoever. We use a Desire2Learn product, and after consulting back-and-forth with my Instructional Technologist, we concluded that you cannot return graded work unless a student has submitted ungraded work first.

    In other words, there is no way for me to return a PDF file to a student unless and until they have uploaded a (potentially blank) PDF file to me. So, basically, there is a way to “reply” to an uploaded student document, but there is no way for me to “send” a student an uploaded document first.

  • Big File Sizes. One has to be careful about writing too many GoodNotes comments. GoodNotes didn’t do a great job of compressing the PDF file size, and our LMS refused to allow me to send any file over 2MB in size as an e-mail attachment. Some of the exams were over this limit (too many comments) and others weren’t. To be fair, I am not sure if this is more annoying because of GoodNotes or more annoying because of our LMS. I also don’t know if GoodNotes has gotten better at saving from a GoodNotes document to an annotated PDF and keeping the file size smaller.

CONCLUSION

In the end, I don’t know if I’ll try this process again anytime soon. The biggest time drainers were the Xerox scanning & learning what didn’t work. If I were to do this again, I might investigate a better scanning technology. I would certainly ask my students to submit a blank PDF file to the LMS Dropbox, so I could “grade it” and instead return to them their graded test papers. My students really liked having a digital copy of their tests — it meant that when final exam week rolled around, they didn’t have to dig through their course materials to find their test. So, maybe I will revisit this idea sometime in the future? I’ll let you know if I do.

4 thoughts on “Digital Grading Follow-Up

  1. Thanks for writing about this! It sounds like most of your problems came from your institution’s LMS – this gives me hope that with improvements in technology (even minor ones), it will become more feasible. The good things you list make me want to try this out for myself when I start teaching next year.

  2. This does sound intriguing, even with the problems you experienced. Plus, I’m always looking for a reason to commandeer my husband’s iPad. How much more complicated do you think it would be with class sizes of 50? It seems like it would really only be more work for the scanning phase.

  3. I know this is an old post…just wanted to suggest that the files would be much smaller if you didn’t attach the solution key, and instead just posted it on the LMS. I know this means some students wouldn’t bother reading it, but it would save alot of space and bandwidth.

    • Hi Debbie. Yes, that’s true. Actually my hand-written feedback created much bigger files than the solution key did. The solutions were typed in LaTeX and exported to PDF. I am not exactly sure how the GoodNotesApp takes handwriting and turns it into a PDF, but they seem to embed a ton of JPEGs or something, because hand-written files become very very large. In other words, the delta for solutions or no solutions was tiny in comparison to the actual test files.

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