My first two semesters as a professor, I was swamped in paper, particularly because all my courses have an associated lab section. I was hired about a week before the semester began and took on my position while finishing my dissertation. I was desperate to get some semblance of lab sections going, so I culled together and roughly edited what had been done by my predecessor. The labs were actually pretty good, but all involved receiving multiple pieces of paper from each student each week and then returning them back in a (ideally) timely fashion. Each week I would take in about 60 lab reports and try my best to give back 60 lab reports. Everything – lab setup, supervision, and grading – was all me, as my institution has no teaching assistants. There was a seemingly endless traffic pattern of folders going in and out of my house on weekends as I tried to keep up with the grading. For those of you in the humanities, you’re likely familiar with the situation and have developed systems to keep track of everything. But dealing with so much paper was a new challenge for me. I defended my dissertation three days before my second semester began, so any revolution in this system had to wait until the following summer.
Finally, last summer I developed the system I’m about to describe. It’s revolutionized my teaching. The only papers that travel around are the lab instructions my students print out for themselves for reference during the lab and regular tests and final exams. While any situation has its own unique constraints, I’m sharing here what works for me, and welcome in the comments any other fixes you’ve found for tackling the laboratory submission process paper monster.
First, a priority for me was to not introduce any digital tools other than what the students already use. My institution oddly advocates the use of two learning management systems (LMS), and the students are confused enough. Secondly, I wanted to make sure my students could still get the same type of feedback I had been giving in handwritten form when I returned the labs.
The following describes the system I put together and currently use for grading all lab reports for three courses (two sections of conceptual, non-science major physics, and introductory physics for pre-med majors). Each course requires students to submit a written lab report, produced using a word processing program, with specified sections (introduction, materials and methods, data, results and conclusions).
Students submit their lab reports in a word processing document to turnitin.com. At my institution, most students already have an account there for submitting composition papers and they can still use that account instead of having to create one elsewhere. This was a necessary step, because as much as I’d like to believe my students are thrilled to get to communicate the science they’re doing and won’t plagiarize each other on labs, it happens.
Grading With a Rubric
In the LMS (Blackboard Vista for me, which is really just a reincarnation of WebCT), I create a “grading form”, i.e., a rubric. It’s not perfect; the LMS makes limitations on the grading form which force me to fudge a bit. For example, for the conceptual physics course I give a maximum of two points in the Data section, but a maximum of just one point for spelling and grammar. The grading form forces the same number of performance indicators for each grading criteria. But I just go with it by making two zero-point entries for the maximum one point entries. Students get the message when they get a zero, no matter what performance indicator they see. Here’s an example of my grading form for the conceptual physics class.
Doing the Actual Grading
When I grade each lab set, I create an entry in the LMS grade book that is linked to the grading form. Then I check the similarity index in turnitin.com, to confirm originality of content. I download a student’s original word processing document from turnitin.com and assess it according to the grading form. Usually I tile the windows so that the grading form is in one window and the document is in the other and I can see them both. (Turnitin.com, if you’re reading: please get rid of that little “Download file” box that pops up with each file I access. Or at least close it automatically when I open the next file. It’s annoying to have 60 of them open after a grading spurt.) If I don’t give a student “high” for a category, I’ll type a quick note explaining why in the comments section, with the hopes that they’ll take it for formative assessment and improve on the next lab.
Finally, I save the grading form. The grade automatically goes into the student’s grade book, along with the comment. And then it’s on to the other 59 lab reports.
This system has worked really well for me this academic year. In a perfect world, there would be many ways to improve upon this system (but if the world was perfect, we wouldn’t need to be ProfHackers, right?) There have been a few caveats, such as the limits in Blackboard Vista on the number of grading form criteria you can have. My grading rubric for the introductory physics course for pre-meds is much more extensive and goes beyond what the LMS will do. So I made an Excel spreadsheet for the rubric, and I email it to the student when the lab is graded. I still enter the grade in the LMS grade book, but there’s no grading form neatly associated with it in the LMS. Turnitin.com will integrate into the LMS we use, but no one’s taken that on at my institution.
A group of ProfHacker-related folks worked together on a great in-browser rubric (cunningly titled Rubrick), and while it didn’t win in the Mozilla Jetpack for Learning SXSW competition, it got to the finals and has great promise for a digital grading tool for labs.
Math prof Maria Andersen tweets about using digital stamps in Adobe Acrobat to add feedback to digital submissions. In physics, correcting drawings is often key so I’d love to get a tablet and write feedback on pdfs and then return those to students, and I’m hoping to get the system down over the summer.
So there you have it: my system for digitizing the lab submission process. What have you done to go paperless in your courses?
[Image by Flickr user SeattleMunicipalArchives / Creative Commons licensed]