Grading Papers by Computer

Home Writing Politics Vita Teaching


For the last few years I have required students to hand in their papers in electronic form. I believe that I do a better job of grading papers, in less time, than I did when I marked up hard copy papers by hand.

Some students give me their papers on 3.5" floppy disks; others email them to me as attachments, which I prefer. I do accept email in which students cut their papers from their word processor and paste them directly in the email message. This is unavoidable because, for reasons I have never understood, attachments do not always make it through Temple's computer system or AOL. When I do get word processing files, I prefer to receive them in Microsoft Word. But Word can convert most other formats, and I have converters for many obscure word processors (although I rarely get files other than Word, WordPerfect, Microsoft Works, or Claris Works). Converting straight ASCII text is a bit of a pain. But I have written a short macro that handles most of those conversions with little difficulty.

Once I convert papers to Word files, I grade them using Word’s revision and footnote functions. I edit their papers heavily. With the revision marks function turned on, my additions are underlined while my cuts are struck through. (To emphasize the collaborative rather than confrontational nature of the grading process—and to respect the tender sensibilities of my beginning writers—I make corrections in blue rather than red.) I add some comments as footnotes. At the end of each paper, I summarize the paper’s strengths and weaknesses and, sometimes, add commentary about their argument to encourage my students to think more deeply about the issues they raise in their papers. Since I do not grade the conclusions my students reach but their defense of them, I try to set off my evaluation of their argument from my comments on their defense of this argument.

This method of grading has several advantages. The most important is students can actually follow my edits and read my comments. This is particularly useful for me, since my handwriting is awful and getting worse. Still, even teachers with good handwriting are limited by the difficulty of making extensive corrections by hand, even when students double-space and use generous margins. Another advantage is I can easily paste in comments about the interpretations of the text offered by my students or about particular difficulties in their writing. I have a collection of such comments that I frequently re-use. Since I grade on the computer, I can make adjustments to these stock paragraphs to respond to the particular problems in each paper I read or to connect my general remarks passages in each paper. I also can include links to sections of my Web-based notes where I elaborate on the matter addressed by the student. Receiving papers in electronic form also allows me to post examples of good papers or papers with instructive defects on the Web. An additional–and extremely important–advantage of grading on the Web is that I spend 20% to 33% less time on each paper than in the past while giving students more extensive comments.

Receiving papers electronically makes patrolling for plagiarism easier. I require students to write on one of my suggested topics, which are specific to my version of IH, so students cannot hand in a paper written for another class. However, I like to reuse paper topics I have tweaked over the years. I have found the most common form of plagiarism is for a student to hand in a paper written several years ago by another of my students. I can check suspicious papers by finding a distinctive phrase and then searching the old papers on my hard drive for that phrase. I can also send suspicious papers to one of the internet plagiarism detection services.

Once I finish with the papers, I usually print them out. This year I will experiment with returning papers that I received in Word format on a disk. It is too much trouble to convert papers back to other formats. File format converters are often not good enough to keep strikethroughs, underlines, and even footnotes straight.

There are a few pitfalls to grading by computer. A minor problem is that students often put their names on their disks but not in their computer files. This makes it hard to copy a bunch of files, open them one at a time, and save them under the name of each student. Problems also arise when many students give their files the same name. This year I will require students to use a standard format for naming their computer files. A more serious problem is the large number of computer viruses I receive. About 15% of the files students give me contain a Word macro virus, usually a variant of Melissa. However, these viruses are relatively harmless and are easily caught and eliminated by an anti-virus program. This process leaves a perfectly usable file. There is the danger that a new and more destructive virus could get through my defenses, so I usually open files initially on my office computer or on my second computer at home, and I am obsessive about upgrading my anti-virus program and regularly backing up my files.