I do know people who do all their grading using MS Word’s reviewing features and return the papers as PDF, or who mark papers in various PDF programs. I’d really like to do paperless grading, especially since my handwriting is awful. But I just am not able to, for a number of reasons. Luckyjane commented here that:

At my previous job, I commented using the, um, “comment” feature on Word until I discovered I was writing more because I could type so much faster and revise my thoughts mid-sentence without erasing or crossing out. What started out as a time saver too often resulted in the absurdity of my comments being longer than the paper.

I also found that trying to do electronic grading changed the way I graded and read. For some reason, to absorb the whole of a paper, I really need to flip the pages on essays, jump between beginning and end. I have a much better sense of where I am in a essay when reading on paper.

I tried using Word’s reviewing features. I pretty quickly decided not to use the Track Changes feature at all, as it encouraged me to rewrite sentences far too much.

But I was still left unable to scribble on the paper. There’s no easy way to circle a typo that should be self-explanatory to the student. I normally flag places that need improvement, but doing this in Word required returning papers with a legend: pink highlight means this is a typo; orange highlight means this sentence is clunky and awkward; blue highlight means you are using this word too frequently. Of course, I have a legend for my paper grading anyhow, but it’s much easier to differentiate scribbles, and shape is more communicative than color. The little tick that I put under overused words matches the level of the criticism—it calls attention to a minor issue that could be improved, especially with a very faint line drawn to the other use of it.

And it’s not easy to apply different color highlights in Word. I had to set up a bunch of macros, and it took more time to apply than to write.

So I was left with Comment balloons to do marginal notes. Well, often the real issues with an essay cannot be captured in marginal notes. My main concern is that essays hang together structurally—a clear thesis, some foreshadowing of how one will prove that thesis in the introduction, paragraphs that focus on proving a single idea. Marginal notes are not the best place to discuss these systemic issues. Sure, they are handy for saying “what do you mean here?” but it’s just as easy to bracket a sentence and scribble “confusing,” and put my time into typing overall comments at the end of the paper.

Now, for small assignments, I can do paperless grading. If I’m reading line by line, Comments work pretty well. I sometimes have my students write 300-word abstracts of certain readings, and Comments work very well for that, where really, each sentence needed to stand alone. I had students turn in a bibliography for a proposed paper topic, and Comments worked great. I’m normally grading these things credit/no-credit, and since typos, etc, don’t become a grading factor, I don’t feel obliged to flag them.

So, no paperless grading. But I still collect electronic copies, which I will eventually post about.