Blog Post

01. Better Grading Through Technology

My purpose in this post is not to add to conversations about why and how to transform assessment, as important as those conversations are. Instead, I want to share some of my strategies and favorite tools for getting through the actual labor of grading, since for the most part we all still have to do it, and it can devour all of our work time if we let it.

I’ve taught composition, rhetoric, and literature, and in all of those classes, no matter what form the major assignments take, there comes a time when I have to give my students not only a letter or number grade, but also specific, individual comments on their work. I tend to want to GIVE ALL THE NOTES on everything I see that could be better, as well as everything I like about what students have done, from macro organization and argument, to specific turns of phrase and uses of punctuation. Half the battle for me is setting limits and expectations upfront, for my students’ benefit and my own. Some ways I’ve consciously set expectations about my feedback in the past include:

  • I’m going to overwhelm students with absolutely every note I have (I do not recommend this strategy for anything longer than a paragraph)
  • I’m going to give one note per paragraph on that paragraph’s function and success within the paper
  • I’m going to give one positive note for every two critical notes
  • I’m going to give students only one (or two, or three) big issues to work on for their next revision or assignment
  • I’m going to paste in the rubric I already wrote and simply check off boxes/highlight relevant language

Generally speaking, when assessing a medium to large assignment, my natural instincts are to provide one to two notes per paragraph commenting on smallish concerns (the writer’s choice of textual evidence, how s/he is supporting her/his arguments, micro-organization), and then three to five overall comments at the end of the paper, either giving half praise and half critique if the paper will be revised, or working point by point through the rubric I’ve provided and discussing how well the writer completed the tasks I assigned if it’s a final draft. 

Needless to say, this process can take a LONG time, but there are very few scenarios when I feel comfortable doing much less—my individualized feedback on students’ work is where a great deal of my teaching takes place. But I have decided it’s important to set limits on how much time I spend per paper, and to work on streamlining my process, so that even when I leave a lot of feedback it takes as little time as possible. Hence: my technological tips and tricks for grading.

Use a Timer

I use a free Pomodoro app on my laptop called “Tomato Timer,” but any timer will work. Decide how much time you want to spend per student and set your timer. Or time yourself doing the first paper (project/blog post/presentation/etc.) and then if that felt like the right amount of time—you were working quickly and steadily and giving the amount of feedback you think is appropriate—use that time as your benchmark. I use a timer not only because it keeps me focused on the task and aware of how much time I’m spending per assignment and overall, but also because it lets me know when I need a break. If the first paper took me 15 minutes, the second took me 13, the third took me 20, and the fourth took me 30, it’s time for a break—my brain is getting clogged and I need to clear it out and come back later.

Use a Text Expander or Templates

I use TextExpander for Mac, and I’m told PhraseExpress is a similar app for Windows. TextExpander was not free, but I’ve found it worth the cost. Before I had it, I used a document in which I stored comments I made repeatedly and would copy and paste—that method is certainly another option for the same technique. With TextExpander I have those commonly used comments saved in the app, so when it’s open in the background while I’m grading I can type #broadintro and it will insert the standard note I always write when I read a paper that begins “Since the dawn of time…”

Take Dictation

I started occasionally dictating my notes the semester I was hugely pregnant. The most comfortable position for me was somewhat reclined, which made typing slow and difficult. Instead, I would click to where I wanted to type, hit my dictation key, and speak the comment I wanted to leave (a built in feature on my MacBook). Once I got the hang of it I had very few wrong words to correct, and when it gets punctuation or capitalization wrong I don’t really care, because comments on student work don’t have to be pretty to be effective. It doesn’t necessarily save time, especially if you’re a fast typist, but if you need to keep grading while taking a break from typing, it helps quite a bit.

Make Audio Recordings

Finally, for the first time this semester I used Audacity (free) to make quick, easy audio recordings for my students. Audacity’s files are in .aup, which only Audacity can open, but there is a free plug-in that allows you to convert them to MP3. Easy-peasy. I believe there are ways to embed audio files within Word files, so you could make a bunch of short ones connected to specific moments in papers. Alternately, you can highlight or flag moments in the paper and then in the audio recording just refer to them—“the spot I flagged in the second paragraph” etc. What I used them for was first drafts I didn’t want to spend too much time on, and so didn’t allow myself to type on at all. Each student got a two to four minute recording of me talking broadly about what they were doing well and what I would suggest they do next to revise.

The downside to these technological grading aides is that sometimes when I’m grading there are a lot of moving parts to keep track of. Generally when students submit work to me they do so online, through my university’s course management system, so I could have open at one time a web browser, the submissions themselves (which I download, file on my computer, mark up, and re-upload), whatever helpful apps I’m using, and a recording of grades (a spreadsheet that serves as a grade book, usually). The upside is that even with all those moving parts, the monumental task of reading and assessing a pile of essays feels less daunting than it did during the days when it was a physical pile.

So what about you, HASTACers? What are your grading tools and time management strategies?



My students loooooooove audio feedback but I really like being able to point to specific parts in papers -- screencasts to the rescue! I use Quicktime (came on my Mac) to record my screen while I'm talking over it; this lets me scroll through the paper, highlight particular sections, etc. It's particularly useful when I receive multimedia assignments (I get quite a few websites), as I can then just navigate through their links as I talk: "On this page, you've done x, y and z". I suggest making your cursor huge using the accessibility options in your system settings, as that makes it way easier for students to identify what you're pointing to.

Here's one tutorial (can't remember if this is the one I used when I first started -- but it's short and easy!):


I love it! I can't wait to try grading with screencasts!


At issue is not the value of feedback - any assessment that doesn't focus on feedback is self-referential and pretty useless. But the issue is creating feedback that sustains goals beyond those of "Common Core" skills sets, particularly if you're creating or responding to student portfolio or multimedia products.

There is a rich library of "soft skills" assessments, largely derivative of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills of the 1990's Labor department, but also reflecting the cognitive models of Ellen Langer (and mindfulness) and Jonasson (of open ended and unstructured questions). Ironically, it's a lot easier than it sounds when you dig through those models, the way we dug through Common Core last month. The simplest way to assemble assessments on "soft skills" - which are often very touch-feely and subjective seeming - is with Arnold Packer's "Verified Resume," which posits 8 skills that are fairly easy to identify, and quite easily scored by students themselves, with a teacher - or, in Packer's pre-career model, employer - "verifiying" those scores.

What's interesting about them is that there is no "100%" and people can always "get better." That can seem very soft indeed, but, when students - or teachers - revisit assessments at regular intervals they can show remarkable jumps up - or down. That's life...after all.

By the way, this has also had some coverage here at HASTAC. So, there's no need to pretend it's new.


Hi Elizabeth,
Great post! As someone who also spends a lot of time responding to essays, I can understand wanting to streamline the process.
Like Beck says, screencasts are an efficient way to give feedback. I use a program called Jing that’s free and lets you record up to five minutes of video feedback. (Which may not seem like a long time, but students probably won’t listen past five minutes anyway and you probably don't want to talk much longer than that!) I find that giving students video feedback in online classes is especially useful as it helps students hear your tone and thinking process (something that's often hard to get in online classes) as you respond to their work. 
Lori Beth