Grading with my iPad

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on March 13, 2011

This page was originally posted on my old blog as Grading with my 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!