David McDowell no longer grades student papers with a red pen -- now that he teaches online, he does his grading electronically. And that saves him from some of the tedium of writing out the same advice over and over again.
Students in Mr. McDowell's online composition courses at Anne Arundel Community College, in Arnold, Md., turn in their papers via electronic mail. Mr. McDowell, who is a professor of English, then opens the documents in his word processor and adds comments and critiques. When he sees a common mistake, like a sentence fragment, he simply pastes in a stock response, occasionally adding a more personalized note. With just a few keystrokes, he can provide a comprehensive commentary.
"This is so much easier, and I can give more detailed responses than I could by hand," he says. "I'm not typing out, 'This is a fragment, see section 10 of the handbook.' I can concentrate on responding to the thought process that's in the paper, which is really the fun part."
A paper that once would have taken 30 minutes to grade now takes about 10, he says. And that means he can return papers more quickly. "I normally return everything within a couple of days," he says.
Mr. McDowell does use a virtual red pen, as well as other colors, when marking papers. He usually highlights students' mistakes in red and makes his comments in blue. He uses Microsoft Word, and then he saves files in "rich text format," or R.T.F., which many other word-processing programs can open without altering a document's formatting attributes.
Occasionally, he attaches clip art -- like a picture of a man yelling "Hooray!" -- to add a playful touch. He has recorded and attached audio comments to papers as well, though such attachments can be slow to download. And he often refers students to World Wide Web sites with information on grammar or other helpful tips.
Mr. McDowell says that many professors don't realize that their word processors offer many tools that can help with grading, like the "autotext" feature in Microsoft Word, which lets users paste frequently used phrases with a few keystrokes. He has given several talks at academic conferences about the time-saving techniques he's learned.
"What I find is that people are sort of amazed that all these tools are there," he says.
Do Mr. McDowell's students mind that their professor cuts and pastes many of his comments? Actually, he says, they don't even notice.
"Students don't compare papers," he adds. "I've never had a student figure it out."
Downloaded from the online Chronicle of Education, December 7, 2000, and reformatted for this page.