Grade Essays On Ipad

A friend recently emailed me to ask how I feel about using my iPad to grade student papers. One of the main reasons why I bought an iPad when it came out was to help with this task; since I ride the bus and light rail to work most days, I wanted an easy way to take my grading and reading with me, without having to lug a huge stack of papers around. My friend’s email gives me a good excuse to briefly summarize the steps I take to use my iPad for grading, and to share some of my reflections on how it’s worked out so far.

How I Grade with the iPad

In order to expedite the process of grading on my iPad, I first ask students to submit their papers to me as digital files. As soon as I get a student paper, I immediately open the file, convert the file into PDF using the mechanisms built into Mac OS X, change the filename to the student’s last name, and save the PDF file in a folder on my hard drive.

There are many apps one can use to annotate PDF files on the iPad. I use iAnnotate; here’s a good overview of what it can do. To grade the papers I now have saved on my laptop, I have to get them into iAnnotate, which I can do in several ways. For me, the quickest way is this: once I have all the student papers turned in, I plug the iPad into my laptop, open iTunes, navigate to the Apps tab on the iPad within iTunes, and then drag-and-drop the files from my hard-drive directly into iAnnotate.

Now that all the student papers are on my iPad and in iAnnotate, when I’m ready to grade, I open each file and read away. iAnnotate gives me lots of options for leaving comments on the papers, but I only really use a few. (1) I can easily highlight or underline text. (2) I can draw freehand–for example, I can circle a word and write “WC” in the margin for word choice, or I can write a grade at the bottom of the file. (I use a Pogo Sketch stylus to make writing on the iPad easier.) And most of all, (3) I can insert a text box anywhere on the PDF, and then use the iPad’s keyboard to type in comments to the student. This is my preferred way to leave lengthy comments, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment. iAnnotate saves all of these annotations into the file, so that when the file is later viewed on a computer using Preview for Mac or Adobe Reader, all the annotations will be embedded in the file.

When I’m finished with the paper, I can get it off the iPad in a couple of ways. I can use an option in iAnnotate which allows me to email the file as an attachment along with a summary of all of the annotations I have made. This is very useful because all of the text comments I have made will now be summarized in the body of the email, along with a note indicating which page the comment is on. (I have set up the iPad to use my university email account.) If I have underlined anything in the file or drawn free hand, the summary will also indicate that there is a drawing on these pages. Eventually the student gets back the PDF file, which has the embedded annotations, and the summary of all the text comments produced automatically by iAnnotate.

That’s the basic workflow I use to grade on the iPad. It does introduce a few more steps to the process that the old pen-and-paper method doesn’t have. But the process isn’t too onerous and in a moment I’ll discuss some advantages of this method. Before I do that, let me explain one further step I’ve added to the workflow that does make it a bit more onerous. I usually distribute a grading rubric to students explaining how I will evaluate their position papers. (Here’s an example.) I have always found it useful to mark directly on this rubric. To do this with the iPad, I have a PDF file of a blank rubric in iAnnotate. With each student, I duplicate that file within iAnnotate, and then I can use the free-hand drawing to highlight parts of the rubric and circle scores. The trouble is that now I have a second file I need to get off the iPad, and it’s not easy to quickly associate the rubric files with the paper files (for example, by attaching both to the same email). I solve this by going back into iTunes, with my iPad attached, and then downloading the rubric files to my hard drive, glancing at them using the file preview function on the Mac, and renaming them according to the students’ last names. The added burden is mainly my choice because of the way I use the rubrics, but I am currently looking for a way to simplify this part of the workflow. [UPDATE: See the comments for some good suggestions.]

Why I Grade with the iPad

Perhaps to some readers, this process will seem like a lot of pain with little gain, and for some it might be. But I’ve found several advantages to grading papers this way.

First, it definitely solves my problem of carrying huge stacks of paper back and forth from the office, which was my main reason for adopting this method. It also eliminates the small inconveniences we’ve all experienced like dropping a file folder full of papers. And maybe it saves a few trees.

Second, by accepting files electronically, and then also embedding annotations in the file, I can easily save student work without having boxes of papers piling up in my office. This is useful for a couple of reasons: if a student wants to come talk about the paper later, I can easily pull it up before he arrives to see the comments I made. If a student writes a year later for a recommendation later, I can go back to her paper and have something concrete to talk about, without having to dig around in my office. The only cost to me is a few bytes on my hard drive.

There are also, I’ve found, some more pedagogical advantages to grading on the iPad, some of which stem, paradoxically, from the fact that “annotating” a PDF file does not feel as natural as scribbling on a piece of paper. It’s true that typing into a text box on an iPad takes a little getting used to, especially compared to writing in the margins of a sheet of 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, the good old-fashioned way. But as a grader, I believe very strongly in the principle of “minimal marking” as described by Richard Haswell, especially since the research shows that correcting every single error or commenting on every point in a student draft quickly shows diminishing returns. More marking is sometimes less when it comes to what students can absorb, as Claire Potter recently observed:

Do you write lots and lots of marginal notes on the paper, spending hours correcting everything and re-diagramming their sentences? The truth is, although you are trying to be the opposite of the teacher I describe above, this freaks students out. Although you have spent maybe an hour on this, feeling like you are a really caring teacher, the student may see them as a blur, as grammatical correction collides with interpretive questions, typos, basic misunderstanding of the text and long-winded attempts not to utilize the first person or appear “biased.” If a paper is really muddled, it is a waste of your time to do this: far better to sit down with the student, ask a couple questions about what s/he intended, and describe how s/he might have gone about writing such a paper.

To be sure, commenting on writing is a complex task in which general rules are dangerous. (And the warnings in that last linked article about the siren song of computerized grading are worth heeding here.) Nonetheless, I find that using iAnnotate focuses my attention on the question of whether this particular comment I’m about to make is the one I want the student to concentrate on. Especially at the end of a long grading session, it’s all too easy, with a piece of paper and a red pen, to scribble down comments or corrections to grammar without even thinking, in holistic terms, about what the cumulative effect of these particular markings will be on this particular student. When I’m working on the iPad, the parts of the process that feel less natural than pen-and-paper slow the gears enough to make me more conscious of what I’m saying in my annotations.

Indeed, one of the advantages of grading on an iPad that I didn’t fully anticipate is how easy it is to delete annotations. While I’m reading through a student paper the first time, I can very easily underline, highlight, and circle anything that I think I’m going to want to comment on for the student. Then, when I go back through the paper, I can decide which comments are the important ones–which ones are part of a pattern in the paper, for example, or which ones are most related to the learning objectives for the assignment. Then I can easily delete the other annotations without leaving the detritus of an eraser all over the page. There’s a final filter when I read back through the summarized annotations that iAnnotate produces in the body of the email that I send from my iPad; that list of annotations really crystallizes, at a glance, all of the things I’ve said to a student, and it quickly becomes obvious if I’ve been plucking on one string more than I intended to.

Whether grading on an iPad will work for you is something every teacher will have to decide. For me, however, this method has not only made life easier on my back, but also has proved to be a method that functions well and complements by pedagogical beliefs as a grader. If you do something similar, please share your experiences as well!


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by Dr. Harold Jansen

My iPad has become pretty integral to doing my job. I put meeting agendas on it, use it to read articles, dash off quick e-mails to students, and keep up with what’s happening on campus, in my discipline, and around the world. This past year, though, I figured out how to use it for one of the most time-consuming parts of my job: grading papers and assignments. It took me a while to perfect the work flow, but here are the steps I use.

1. Have your students submit their papers or assignments electronically. I use Moodle for this, since it provides a handy time-and-date stamp for every paper. I then use the “download files as a zip” option to download them all to my computer quickly and conveniently. I then unzip the file and have a folder with all of my students’ papers. If you don’t use Moodle, you will likely have to have your students e-mail papers to you.

2. Convert the papers to PDF. I prefer to grade PDFs because I can annotate them the way I like to grade. Mostly I want to be able to circle, draw arrows, cross things out, etcetera, and PDF annotations allow more flexibility to do that than the review function in Word, for example. The problem is that, even if you ask your students to submit their papers as PDFs, many cannot or will not do it. Most students submit their papers in Word format, and Word can convert over to PDF, but you have to load each file manually and save it as a PDF. That’s fine for a small class, but for a large class I use a handy Automator script that automates the loading of Word files and their conversion into PDFs. This only works for OS X, though. If you are a Windows user, there are several programs out there that can handle batch conversions.

3. Load the PDFs into Dropbox. If you don’t already have a Dropbox account ( you should get one – it is cloud file storage that automatically synchronizes your files between computers and devices. The basic account is free; if you need additional storage beyond the basics, it will cost you. I create a folder called “Papers to Grade” in my Dropbox.

4. Run the PDF reader on your iPad. There are several of these. I use PDF Expert because it has the ability to sync with Dropbox. I use PDF Expert to access the “Papers to Grade” folder in Dropbox. I have it set to automatically sync, so that any changes I make to the papers on my iPad will automatically sync up with my computer.

5. Read and grade the papers. I use a stylus to mark up my students’ papers, because I like to be able to draw arrows and circle things. I even use the stylus to scrawl short comments as needed. If the comment is larger, I can use the text tool. You can grade in as many different colours as you want, and adjust the pen width and style, an added advantage of paperless grading. At the end of the paper, I typically write a more lengthy set of comments using the text tool. I have even created a grading rubric table, converted it to an image using a screen capture, and then used the stamp tool to embed that rubric at the end of the paper.

6. Return the papers to the students. If you’ve done it with the same set of tools I’ve used, all your graded papers should have synched from your iPad to the “Papers to Grade” folder on your computer, thanks to the magic of Dropbox. You can e-mail them back to the students or use the tool in Moodle that lets you upload feedback (which is what I do).

After all this, you might wonder why anyone would bother going to all this trouble. Besides the obvious environmental and economic advantages of this system, I like it because I don’t have to manage a lot of paper or keep track of when things were submitted. In the course of my career, I’ve lost a paper or two. This does not happen with paperless grading. Even better, though, is that I have my “stack” of papers wherever I go. I’ve graded while waiting in my car for an oil change, while taking my kids to the dentist, and while waiting for them to finish piano lessons. If I have my iPad with me, I can grade. When things get busy at the end of the term, every minute counts, and paperless papers help me use that precious time as efficiently as possible.

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