Case Study - Annotating electronic assignment copies with comments


Annotating electronic assignment copies with comments


Jenny Brown teaches postgraduate courses in Education. Her classes usually have around ten students and the assignments are mostly essays. Because of the advanced level essay topics are not tightly prescribed and consequently the essays received show quite a bit of variation. Jenny works with a marking rubric and puts a lot of value on individual comments that she writes directly into the assignments.

With this fairly small class size Jenny asks her students to email the assignments to her directly. She then marks the assignments in electronic format and emails the marked assignments back to the students.

Marking with Track Changes and Comments

Jenny uses Microsoft Word for commenting on the assignments. Her students have to submit either in Word or RTF format (and that hasn’t caused a problem so far). Jenny combines different forms of feedback, depending on what she wants to achieve. For low level, detailed comments that refer to a specific sentence or phrase she uses the ‘Track changes’ feature. Her comments are inserted right where they belong and show up in a different colour, making them easy to spot for the student. For high level, conceptual comments relating to a whole paragraph or section Jenny uses the ‘Comments’ feature. A small icon is placed in the essay text that expands to a comment box with Jenny’s feedback. For the high-level feedback and concluding remarks Jenny types her comments at the end of the essay. She chooses a different font colour to make these comments stand out from the student’s work. She finds that this combination of features gives her all the tools she needs to provide high quality feedback.

Advantages to Writing Comments on Paper Copies

Like most of her colleagues Jenny used to prefer marking on paper. But, she has discovered that marking electronically brings a number of advantages, to her and ultimately her students.

Jenny commutes to work and isn’t in her office every day. The electronic assignments fit easily on her memory stick. Taking the assignments home with her no longer means lugging a heavy bag and it’s reassuring to know that she’ll always have a backup copy in the office. Forgetting to take the assignments back or even losing them isn’t an issue anymore. Jenny has even marked assignments on a plane en route to a conference.

Jenny finds that reading and writing can actually be easier on a computer. She has quite a large monitor in her office. Some students use fairly small font sizes Jenny was struggling to read on paper. Now she just enlarges the assignments on her screen. It used to be quite strenuous to handwrite all the comments and towards the end of a long day’s marking the legibility of the comments would suffer. Overall Jenny finds typing easier and the students certainly enjoy the improved legibility.

Two other advantages became obvious over time. With electronic comments it is very easy to go back, edit, change and even remove. Jenny feels much freer now to start commenting on student’s work as she goes along reading, because she knows that she can always go back. This isn’t often necessary but can be very useful if an essay develops in an unexpected direction. Despite the individuality of essays there are typical mistakes students make and often Jenny has the feeling ‘I’ve explained that before’. Since starting to comment electronically Jenny has maintained a document with frequently used comments. She pastes important comments into this document and uses these as a basis for individualised comments, for the same assignment or even subsequent courses. Having this collection of comments on common mistakes has turned out to be a very good resource in Jenny’s teaching preparation.


The lecturer receives electronic copies of assignments and annotates these with electronic comments.

The benefits are:

  1. Better readability than handwritten comments;
  2. Flexibility in editing comments;
  3. Opportunity for comment ‘re-use’;
  4. Collection of important comments for teaching preparation.

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