Streamlined Grading with Linked Documents

First comes the start of the semester; then comes grading; then comes the inevitable
wondering about how to make grading less of a chore
. I realized a few years ago that
much of my dislike of grading came not from an aversion to reading student work, or
even to writing comments. Rather, for me, it came from navigating the systems that
meant that I was spending more time collecting, archiving and returning student projects
than I was on giving thoughtful feedback.

I’d tried a number of tools meant to streamline grading, but rather than making things
easier, each seemed to involve an ever-increasing number of steps:
* Course Management Systems: students upload papers, I download them, comment
on them, grade them, upload the graded/commented document, enter grades into a
digital gradebook.
* E-mail submissions: students e-mail me papers, I save them, comment on them,
grade them, enter their grades into a gradebook, calculate other graded
components of the course, send an e-mail back with course component grades as
well as the commented and graded final project.
* Paper submissions: students give me papers, I mark them (with increasingly
cramped handwriting), grade them, handed papers back to students who were in
class the day grading was finished, subsequently fielded e-mails about course
grades and arranged meetings with those who hadn’t been in class to pick up
papers.

Last semester I tried something new. I created a series of linked folders and documents
which allowed for students to easily submit work, and for me to speedily grade papers,
leave comments, and give students ready access to their course work and grades. As a
result, my grading went faster, papers were returned more speedily, and I felt like I was
spending less time uploading, e-mailing and returning work, and more time crafting
actual feedback.

This took some set-up time on the front end, but the result streamlined the acquiring and
returning of papers. I used Dropbox and Excel,
in large part because my institution gave me access to them, but I think that something
similar could be developed using open source tools.

Here’s how it worked:
* At the beginning of the semester I created one folder for the class and saved it to
my personal Dropbox.
* Within that folder, I created one folder for each student.
* Within the class folder, I also created a master grading spreadsheet, which could
track the grading categories (participation, short papers, long papers etc.) for each
student.
* I then linked this master grading spreadsheet to individual spreadsheets for each
student. (All of this can be accomplished in Excel by highlighting a cell in the
individual student sheet, typing “=” and then navigating to the main gradebook
and selecting the matching cell.) Setting these sheets up was the most time-
consuming part of the process, and took about an hour for a fifteen person class.
* Each student’s spreadsheet was saved in that student’s folder, along with word
documents in which I could enter comments about weekly reflection pieces.
* Finally, I shared each folder with the student to whom it belonged.

While this took some time to set up, by the time the semester started it was possible for
students to upload work, and for me to grade papers, take attendance and track
participation without ever having to log into a CMS, and without ever having to send
students e-mails with their grades. When I updated the master spreadsheet, the individual
folders updated as well. Students could check in on their grades and comments whenever
they wanted, and my grading process was condensed to three steps:
i. Students upload papers
ii. I grade and comment
iii. I enter the grades in the master grading spreadsheet.

This, like any other, is not a perfect system. One of the biggest concerns raised by my
colleagues was that students could change the grades in their individual sheets. This
didn’t happen this semester, and even if it did, the ability to track changes in shared
folders would make it pretty easy to catch, but it still presents a possible administrative
hurdle. My system also forced students to learn new tools, on top of those already
required by the college to do similar tasks (for example, Moodle or Blackboard). Finally,
it required some considerable setup time up front, to get each of the student folders and
spreadsheets working properly.

At the end of the semester, I found that I preferred this approach to the grading systems
I’d tried. Students were able to access feedback more quickly. Because everything
happened within students’ individual folders, it was easy to be sure that feedback was
going to the right person, and I never had to worry about accidentally sending the wrong
paper or the wrong grade to the wrong student. While this system didn’t make grading
any more fun, it certainly mitigated against one of my biggest stumbling blocks for
getting grades done on time.

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