To print or not to print? That is the question

By Paul Stephenson

So we have just started period 5 and I have a stack of assessments to do of individual papers, group papers and take-home exams from across the BA and MA programmes. Ordinarily I would print the papers, grade them from my desk, in cafés, on the train, in the Channel Tunnel.

But now I find myself at home with my MacBook and a small printer. No fresh paper, but two ink cartridges in reserve. Do I print it all? Do I use my ink and reuse my paper? Or do I beg the exam administration to print it all for me and post to Brussels? Else do I just suck it up and start grading electronically, paper and assessment form open on the same small screen? If only I had bought that second laptop six weeks ago when it seemed like the thing to do! O, to have two screens, to read the paper on the left and fill in the assessment form on the right!

But I like the physicality of the printed thing. To be able to hold it, turn the pages, flick back and forth, go quickly from introduction to conclusion. I like to be able to underline, highlight, write notes in the margin, to tick, to cross, put exclamation marks – it’s all part of my mental processing. These marks and graffiti are derived from my own physical/bodily response to the quality of the work and the ideas within.

From the printed paper I can quickly get a relative sense of the overall quality based on the presentation of the text. Like Esther, it’s the end references that I always first turn to, not only to see the quantity, quality and variety of sources, but also to see how accurately they have been presented in accordance with the APA. Do all journal articles have volume number, issue number and pages? Do all books have publisher and place of publication? Are the references alphabetical? Small things that are indicative of the overall quality of the paper.

It’s like with journal articles for research that I read, then dig out again and re-read, whose layers of annotations build up over time in different colours, in so doing, revealing the essential ideas and what’s really worth knowing.

I’m asking myself a few questions: Will reading students’ papers electronically slow me down? (Some authors claim it takes twice as long). Will I be able to grade as effectively in terms of managing content and reading the words? Will I be stricter or more liberal with my grades? Moreover, will the present circumstances make me a more generous grader? (It might be interesting at the end of the academic year to analyse the grades across programmes to see if there has been a Covid-effect in terms of grade ‘inflation’).

But I started reading around to find about the pros and cons of marking electronically.  Jeffery E. Frieden’s blog contains six arguments in favour, including less paper, instant organisation, and being able to ‘pass work back and keep it too’. And of course, another advantage is being able to make comments in the text, though whether or not such micro-feedback is useful or desirable for an end paper is open to question. In a summative assessment we shouldn’t really be spending time copy-editing or correcting grammar mistakes, even if ‘language’ is a criterion.

Of course, using electronic assessment forms has a certain advantage in so far as, if certain generic issues reoccur across papers, then comments can be copy-pasted from one assessment form to another. Reading the papers electronically, it’s also possibly to back up one’s critical comments by copy-pasting examples from the paper into the assessment form rather than having to retype them from the paper.

Nonetheless, most of the sources I find online seem to debate whether or not students should hand in paper or electronic documents; I didn’t find much on the pros and cons of grading on screen.

But one idea I stumbled upon is to ask students to include the grading rubric template in the paper itself. It would do away with the need for having two documents open at the same time, for reducing windows and minimising open documents, but it would nonetheless mean a little more scrolling up and down. However, like this we could copy-paste examples from the body of the paper down into the assessment form.

No time wasted by the grader in filling out and duplicating personal information. And no time wasted in the first place by having to create and save a gazillion new Word documents. The student would also be more aware of the criteria on which their work will be graded. Moreover, wouldn’t this cut in half the number of Word documents that the Exam Office has to handle and subsequently store?

I’ve heard that this is something that is already done in some courses. It would only require the course coordinator to provide a template document, including a) faculty cover sheet; b) blank page(s) for the essay; c) assessment form.

But for the time being, two windows, two documents, one screen. I’m still not sure how long this will take or if I’ll grade fairly. Scott of the Antarctic said ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’. With confinement, I can’t. ‘I am just staying inside and may be some time’.

About the author

Paul Stephenson teaches courses in the BA ES, MA EPA and RMES. He is also on the BA AC programme committee. Paul is also active as a poet and on the editorial board for the faculty’s magazine Mosaïek. He’s currently locked down in his apartment in Brussels.