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!


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9 thoughts on “Grading with my iPad

  1. I started grading with my iPad too, last fall. I did it in order to force myself to offer fewer comments. My motivation was self-preservation, but your comments about students only being able to absorb so much ring true. (I also like being able to do some of my grading in a coffee shop, for which the iPad is perfect.)

    I tried switching from iAnnotate to GoodReader this semester, because GoodReader’s file management is so much easier, but I’ve found it is easier to undo stuff with iAnnotate, so I have gone back to that. (And GoodReader’s nice squiggly underline markup doesn’t get picked up by Preview on the Mac, so it helps to avoid that temptation.)

    After marking up papers, I simply email them to my students from within iAnnotate, first copying a basic form email from TextExpander. (I have a few versions, some including a link to a specific problem area of grammar on Purdue’s OWL.)

    Lastly, I record the grade on my spreadsheet in Documents to Go.

    Everything stays on DropBox, by the way, until the end of the semester, so I have access from whatever device I happen to be using wherever I am.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this, I’d been considering something similar. One question — why are you converting the files into PDFs? I have very strict requirements about file names and formats.

    (This may because I get 100 reading responses at a time and it’s a pain to reformat them. Obviously my commentary is limited on these, but students report they find them useful and I get a feel of whether or not the students are grasping material in a big lecture course.)

  4. I convert to PDFs, because there is no editor on the iPad with comments and tracking features like MS Word has. Using PDFs also has the advantage of producing a document true to the original formatting, glitches and all. And I use this step to name the files properly, because I find that easier than trying to train students on this point, too.

  5. Concerning simplifying the rubric grading workflow, have you considered instructing students to past the rubric into their assignment submission, at the end of their text? This would provide a built-in rubric for each submission.

  6. Thanks for the feedback. I agree the easiest thing on my end would be to require students to append the rubric to their file and convert to PDF themselves. When or if that’s not practical, @cliotropic suggested that I write an Automator workflow on the Mac to do the dirty work for me.

    I wasn’t quite able to get an Automator workflow to do what I wanted, but I posted my question on DHAnswers, and @wayne_graham provided me with a quick Ruby program that does the same thing.

    To anyone reading this who wants to use Wayne’s Ruby script but is as green as I am about this sort of thing, here’s the step-by-step of what to do:

    1. Copy the contents of the Ruby code to a file saved as ‘append.rb’ in a folder on your computer. (For example, “Undergrad Papers”.)

    2. Using Finder, move your rubric into the same folder, renaming it “rubric.pdf”.

    3. Within that same folder, create a folder called “pdf_files” and put all the student paper files that don’t have a rubric into this folder.

    4. Within Finder, select the root folder (in this example “Undergrad Papers”), and copy it (using Command-C or the Edit menu).

    5. Open the Terminal application, which is in the applications folder on your Mac.

    6. Type in “cd” followed by a space, and then type Command-V to paste the pathname to the folder where your papers are. Hit return.

    7. Now type in the command line that Wayne provided (ruby append.rb -a rubric.pdf pdf_files/*.pdf) and click return.

    8. Voila. The new files with rubric appended will appear in a new folder called “output,” which you can find in the root folder (in this case “Undergrad Papers”) in Finder.

    One problem I encountered–make sure all the PDF files have a simple, no-spaces file name. (I always rename the student papers to the last name of the student, followed by the *.pdf extension.)

    This may seem like hassle the first time around, but for me it will simplify matters in the future. Now, when students send me a paper, I will simply save the PDF file in “Undergrad Papers”. When all the papers are turned in and I’m ready to move them to my iPad, I’ll simply fire up the Terminal and run the “append” script, and then move the outputted files to my iPad.

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  9. Glad i stumbled across this , I didnt know that you could read PDFs on ipad, i thought that software was blocked because of apples problem with adobe . I was just about to buy an android tablet so thanks for this 😉