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Several years ago, I began asking students to submit their papers electronically and I began writing electronic comments using the Formatting options in Microsoft Word. Although this change enabled me to go paperless, my grading practices changed very little.  I still wrote lots of notes in the margins that commented on the student’s reasoning, use of evidence, organization, grammar/syntax, etc. From my students’ perspective too, very little changed.  It was still difficult for them to navigate my comments, to distinguish the more critical, higher-order concerns about their ideas and argument from the lower-order concerns about presentation. It was still overwhelming for them to encounter so many comments; some students reported that they weren’t able to absorb them all and, thus at times, they didn’t even read them all.  I needed to change my practice of grading to 1) distinguish types of comments; 2) prioritize the most crucial comments; and 3) present my comments in such a way that facilitates student learning.  As I have experimented with iAnnotate, I have found it much easier to address these demands.

Since I tend to evaluate papers on the same criteria, I tend to write the same sorts of comments on every paper. This process [of using iAnnotate] saves an inordinate amount of time grading and I can more easily track students’ progress over the course of the semester.

One of the most useful features of iAnnotate is its “stamps” that you can imprint into the margins of a paper.  iAnnotate has many default stamps, comments such as “excellent,” “good job,” etc., as well as symbols such as check marks, smiley faces, exclamation points, etc.  It also allows you to customize stamps.

I have created several stamps, includingscreen shot iAnnotate stamps “interesting idea,” “develop this idea,” “more explicit reasoning necessary,” “imprecise reasoning,” “awkward prose,” “well-written,” “citation necessary,” “clarify the point of this paragraph,” “transition necessary,” “nice transition,” “interpretation of evidence necessary,” “nice use of evidence,” etc.  This marginalia simply marks that type of issue.  Then at the end of the paper, I include more substantive comments that point back to the marginalia throughout the paper.  In these final comments, I can point to the two or three areas in which the student is succeeding and I can prioritize the two or three most important areas on which the student needs to work.  With regard to both, I point back to the stamps as evidence of the success/problem.  (Note: the stamps can be color-coded to further distinguish lower-order issues regarding grammar and syntax from higher-order issues of argument.)  Finally, I offer suggestions on how to improve.

See more screen shots and descriptions of iAnnotate from the itunes preview or from the developer page Branchfire.

Not only does this new protocol concentrate and prioritize my comments at the end of the paper, making it easier for students to navigate my feedback, to identify the areas on which they need to work, and absorb suggestions on how to improve, but this process saves an inordinate amount of time grading.  Since I tend to evaluate papers on the same criteria—interpretation of evidence, reasoning, organization, and prose—I tend to write the same sorts of comments on every paper.  The stamps, therefore, are a quick and easy way to make marginal comments.  Although for years I have tried to limit the comments I write in the marginalia, I don’t have the self-control myself and, thus, the stamps impose a limitation on my inefficient and ineffective impulse to write more.

The other benefit of this new workflow is that I can more easily track students’ progress over the course of the semester.  I maintain electronic copies of all papers with my comments.  While consulting students on an upcoming paper, I can quickly re-read my summative comments and remind them of the areas on which they need to work.  As I am grading, I can look for trouble spots that recur again and again.  This was particularly useful when teaching two writing-intensive courses in the Core Studies Program!