Woman grading papers in a cafe

What do ivy-covered university walls, Instagram, and grading on paper with a big red pen have in common? Nostalgia.

Many professors still prefer the red pen and paper approach to grading, because it seems like a simple, proven and effective way to grade. That perception may still be true for those professors whose class sizes are small, and in particular if they aren’t required to work as part of a grading team.

As class sizes keep growing, which is currently the trend in universities across Canada and the US, teachers, professors and TAs need to find new ways to adapt.

Collaborative grading is a must when TAs and professors work on grading large classes of more than 200 students. That’s a reality that red pen and paper were never meant to address. Years ago, class sizes were smaller, meaning that knowledge and education as a whole were much less accessible than they are today. Students were physically bound to the university walls and had to be present in class to hand in their assignments. Administration of the grading process involved boxes and boxes of papers files, and was hardly something people would refer to as ‘fun’.

“When people say they hate grading, they often talk about the administration. For every assignment that I’m grading, there’s always debate about paper versus digital. It seems that where you save time in one area, you’re adding time in another area. There’s no perfect process that works for everybody yet,“ said Jenna Jacobson, social media researcher, educator, and learner currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Toronto – Faculty of Information.

“I opt for digital since it increases accessibility so students with mobility or other issues, even if they’re coming from far away, can submit assignments online,” Jacobson said. “It’s also my attempt to be more environmentally friendly.”

Digital grading deals with scale much more effectively than paper. Aside from the physical aspect of paper submissions, most people type a lot faster than they write. When teachers aim to give more feedback and make the most use of their time per assignment, the right digital tools just might be the way to do it.

Imagine how fast administrating paper tests weekly to a class of 200 students can become a huge administrative burden. Five minutes of shuffling paper in class per student quickly adds up to a lot of wasted time. New grading tools like Crowdmark were developed to tackle these challenges of scale.

Ultimately, each instructor will choose what’s best for them, but it is important to make informed decisions when choosing what works better, without questioning the relevance of the old established models. If you deal with larger classes, technology can make a significant difference.

“While it’s true that the new technology isn’t going to make or break an education system, hopefully it can help us become better teachers, graders, students,” Jacobson said. “As a teacher, if you’re adequately trained in using technology and that software works well, that technology will make your life easier. People get frustrated with new technologies that don’t live up to the expectations that they had. That’s when they wish they could just use paper and pen. But that simplicity limits us.”

Give technology a chance.

Photo courtesy of Dylan Fogarty-MacDonald.

About the Author: Elena Yunusov is a digital communications consultant and entrepreneur.