Learned Patterns of Behavior

So I’m reading the Stupid Motivational Tricks Blog where Jonathan describes his system of grading students’ papers. Students send their papers to him by email and he enters corrections as comments in the Word document:

I never print anything. Students never print anything. I never have to struggle with my own handwriting. Students never struggle with my handwriting. I never lose a paper. Students never come late to class because they are still printing the paper due that day. I never struggle with a paper printed with an exhausted toner cartridge. Students get their papers back even if they are absent on the day papers are returned. I have an electronic record of the grades on each paper. The turn-over on papers is faster and more efficient. I never spill coffee on a student paper. Students can revise their papers by accepting my changes and going from there.

I never use this system. To the contrary, I’m a martinet when it comes to the way students hand in their papers. I insist that they never ever ever submit an essay in a file attachment. Essays have to be printed out and handed in to me in paper form. Then, I have to lug a heavy stack of essays around and try to fit my comments in between lines and on the margins.

And do you know why I use this inconvenient system instead of doing what Jonathan does and making my own life easier?

Because when I was a student my professors always insisted that papers be handed in to them in the paper format. I have no idea what the motivation behind this policy was (maybe people were simply uncomfortable with the Internet). I simply heard the exhortations not to send essays to the professor as a file attachment so many times that I started copying this practice in my own teaching.

Just think about how often we do things just because we’ve seen others do them and we simply imitate their actions unquestioningly.

20 thoughts on “Learned Patterns of Behavior”

  1. I’ve been doing electronic submission forever and it is so convenient. I have a dedicated gmail account for the students and I will NOT read anything sent to my college account. the sole issue is when they say they sent it and they didn’t but I tell them straight out 1. you must have a copy in your sent file to not be penalized for lateness and 2. I send out a confirmation (cut and paste) after the deadline.


    1. I think I will start using this system this semester. It’s very weird that it took me so long to realize this can be done.

      Thank you for the practical suggestions!

      Why do you have a separate account for the essay submissions?


  2. I also told my students a trick for not sending a message without its attachment. You initiate the process from your wordprocessing program rather than from the mail program. So you are never starting a message without the attachment already attached. In Word, go to the file menu, then to share, then to email as attachment. Then you just type in the address of the person you are sending the message too. I got zero messages with no attachments.


  3. This electronic process makes it impossible to grade the papers. I always heard the profs stood at the top of the stairs, threw the papers into the air, and the one that went the farthest (the heaviest) got the A and grades descended from there to the top. 😉


  4. The problem with email and electronic documents is that in many cases, the integrity of that document cannot be guaranteed. At least not in front of a court.

    First of all, you can never be entirely sure of the sender, because the protocols underlying our current email system have flaws (These flaws enable spammers, for example). Using a certain kind of email server, I could for example send emails to you that had clarissa@clarissasblog.com or obama@white-house.com as the sender.

    Also, one could just change the document after receiving a grade for it and claim that you manipulated it in order to make someone look bad and there would be no way to prove right from wrong.


  5. I prefer to write my comments in my own handwriting on hardcopy. For math homework, I prefer handwritten copy, although I will accept LATEX compiled to PDF. I do not like to accept homework by email, but I will if a student is out of town. My handwriting is good, and I believe that students should be able to write legibly also.


  6. I had one teacher who insisted that we do both papers and tests online so that we wouldn’t waste paper.
    Then there was another one who insisted on a hard copy of everything so that he could go to the beach to do his grading.


    1. Why would anybody bring grading to the beach??? The beach is for fun, not for work. Unless you are a lifeguard.

      Some people have no idea how to relax and then wonder why they are so burned-out by 50.


  7. I’ve just gone back to uni – everything must be submitted electronically so it can be run through Turnitin. I did a short H.E course as ‘evidence of recent study’ as part of my admissions criteria, and it was the same there. Some professors still like a hard copy as well mind, and anything that had to be externally moderated had to be printed off for submission.


  8. I like to grade outdoors, too, don’t like MS Word or using tracks in it, developed grading habits before anything like that existed (the first half of my dissertation was written before PC times and I composed on the typewriter, although you could get time on the mainframe).

    Doing it electronically just adds to time spent before screen, I find, and I get really bored / claustrophobic, and don’t do as good a job. Plus, then you have to teach students how to get things into formats that will really e-mail. Many have only very antiquated word processors and don’t use them well, so if I want to be sure to be able to read what they’ve written I need a hard copy. Insisting they buy Word isn’t realistic, nor is expecting them to download Libre Office.


    1. ” Plus, then you have to teach students how to get things into formats that will really e-mail. ”

      -Yes, that will be an issue. I discovered – to my complete surprise – that many students have no idea how to attach a file last semester. Some computer generation, eh?


  9. I prefer paper submissions, because I spend too much time in front of the computer as it is, and I like to grade in a variety of places but can’t type effectively or use the trackpad on my laptop (I have some minor hand issues), so if I need to lug my ergo keyboard and remote mouse along then I have to sit properly at a table and the battery runs down faster etc. etc. I do use electronic submission where it’s easier for the students – on formative work or work worth a small number of points, to avoid the legal issues mentioned above by Tim – but I print off the essays, annotate them and then type a summary comment on the assignment for emailing back (which is best done after reading all the essays – I can add personal comments if I need to for the few outliers from the class pattern) – apart from anything else, I find picking up their essays with the comments encourages attendance (we aren’t allowed to give grades for attendance or participation, and they miss out if they miss class…).

    All of which is to say, it’s not just luddites that like paper copies!


  10. I’ve tried both ways. In general, I can simply echo Jane B about my reasons for preferring to grade on paper most of the time. Electronic comments may be better for grad students who actually care about getting detailed responses, but most of my undergrads just don’t care that much, and paper is easier for me. I can save time by surveying papers for the most common problems and then preparing general comments that I write up as bullet points and go over in class. Then on individual papers I can say “You had general problems 2, 4 and 5, and here’s what you did well that you should keep doing!” It makes students feel better both to have company with the problems and for my individually-tailored comment to emphasize what they did well.

    That said, I also require them to turn in electronic copies of the paper for three reasons: so that there is a permanent record in my files of when the paper was turned in and what that paper actually looked like, so I have it in case they later decide they want a letter of recommendation or something after dumping their returned hard copies, and so that there’s a clean copy in case I spill something while grading.

    But it’s certainly worth thinking about why we do what we do and whether there might be a better way. It took me a long time to come up with the general comments in class/specific comments on paper approach, only after I spent a lot of time writing out (or cutting and pasting) the same comments over and over.


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