2.Electronic marking of student assignments

prepared by Peter Thomson June 2013

Purpose of marking

Main or important source of feedback at critical stages in the module.

To guide, inform, correct, motivate, encourage and assess.

An engagement with the students thought processes in selection, relevance, importance, prioritisation and understanding.

Clear communication

Identify the point under discussion as precisely as possible.

Be clear about the point(s) you want to make in a way the student will understand.

Tutor text / symbols / images should be visible, readable, precise, concise and appropriate.

Feedback can be viewed and read by the student ( easily)

Not all word processors can display all the options for adding tutors' marking comments, but I think there is a balance to be struck between the selection of methods that enhance the value of the marked assignment, and the effort needed to read the comments.

We cannot expect every student to have the latest version of Microsoft Word, but we should expect that a student will have access to Word 2003 or later, Or the free LibreOffice suite, Or will look at the marked assignment using an online Word reader such as Google docs.

Increasingly staff and students are using LibreOffice. The problem might be regarded as Microsoft Office not being compatible!

Just using in-line text for tutor comments has the highest compatibility with other word processors. It is excellent  for marking plain text.

Use a tick in utf8 rather than a specialist font.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Etiam at nibh facilisis, tincidunt augue a, facilisis odio. ✓ This is a tick and comment added into the text. Donec rhoncus ligula sed justo ornare sagittis. Suspendisse fringilla eros mattis, pharetra ligula eu, molestie magna. Praesent hendrerit, orci nec dictum ullamcorper, nisl lorem Keep it simple vulputate massa, eget ornare metus quam et ex. Cum sociis natoque penatibus et magnis dis parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus. Proin maximus, odio et blandit consectetur, massa erat aliquam sapien, et imperdiet nisl nibh at justo. Aliquam vel tincidunt nunc,sed imperdiet nisi. Morbi fermentum, diam ac dignissim cursus, massa lectus convallis nibh, simple styles can be added as a single click on a menu finibus fermentum elit nisl quis odio. Mauris ornare dapibus bibendum. Ut vehicula ultrices feugiat. Morbi convallis lectus eu est sollicitudin tempus. Maecenas interdum eget erat ut dictum. Duis euismod venenatis lacus, sit amet pretium ligula dignissim in.

 LibreOffice can also export the marked document with a click, and places it alongside the original.

PDFs have high compatibility for the reader as well as support for many marking techniques. Perhaps they should be permitted / encouraged for the return of marked assignments.

PDFs can be viewed in a free reader or a web browser

Student should have some way of identifying if they can see all the marker's comments

How do I know what I should see if I don't know it is there?

I suggest good practice should be to insert a brief guide to the marking techniques used at the start of each marked assignment. Each symbol and method should be shown and identified alongside in plain text.

Pasting this into the head of the document also adds your own styles to the document and gives access from the styles and formatting menu.

Information about how to read the marked comments could also be added here in plain text.

A request that students identify any special needs as the first paragraph in any assignment should also be added here.

screen readers, blind, colour blind students

Some students will not be able to find or read comments placed within the text, or overlaid on the text.

These will require different marking techniques.

I suggest that the student should be asked to always add a paragraph to the start of the assignment stating any special requirements they have in order to read the tutor's comments ( as indicated above).



Marking options:

What method, or combination of methods will you use?

Comments need to stay with the appropriate point in the text and remain with them if reformatted or displayed using different software.

Insert text in a different style or colour

  • Highest compatibility
  • breaks formatting of student work
  • may disrupt subsequent pages.
  • hard to locate in screen reader
  • cannot be used in images
  • existing formatting can produce unexpected effects

Text in callouts

  • Very high compatibility
  • Doesn't break formatting
  • Clearly separate from students' work
  • High visibility
  • Can be used over images
  • Very rarely existing formatting can cause problems.
  • out of context in screen readers

Ticks in-line using Windings ( which section does the tick belong to ? – circle, highlight in another colour )


  • High compatibility but not 100%
  • Some students won't see them as ticks- don't have the font.
  • disrupt formatting

floating ticks

  • can be placed over images
  • can be larger than standard font
  • doesn't break formatting
  • Some students won't see them - don't have the font.

Floating symbols

  • High compatibility but not 100%
  • can be placed over images
  • Specialist symbols can be used
  • doesn't break formatting
  • Some students won't see them - don't have the font.

Comment function in Word

  • Separate from student work
  • don't disrupt formatting
  • Lower compatibility. Not always displayed in correct place
  • cannot locate points in images
  • can be switched off

Track changes

  • Low compatibility.
  • Low visibility or don't stand out at all.
  • What is seen is set on user's computer
  • Can be switched off.
  • May not show separate from student's work

Pdf annotation

  • Free software available
  • Very high compatibility
  • Doesn't break formatting
  • Clearly separate from students' work
  • High visibility
  • Can be used over images
  • Specialist symbols and fonts can be used – use embedded fonts with the pdf
  • May not be permitted marking method.
  • Inserting images depends on software used.
  • Must be printed to pdf to fix comments as a pdf

But note the problems!

Work saved as a Word.doc file is mostly compatible and will display in LibreOffice

but the same page saved as Word.docx (2007) has a lot of display errors in Libreoffice.

Recommended for highest compatibility and ease of student viewing:

Avoid the problems - ask students to use the latest version of LibreOffice, save their work as doc and not docx.

Mark using inline text wherever possible. Save the marked script  as a doc and export to pdf as well.

This is the best!


Mark in Word, then export as pdf to return to student. Use embedded fonts.


Convert to pdf, then mark using a pdf annotator – but it must be exported to pdf back to the student folder. Use embedded fonts.


Students can view their marked work in a pdf reader or in a web browser in Windows or Linux systems.

For students who cannot see screen content - use normal comments for a sighted helper, but write a separate plain text feedback document describing the problems and providing feedback

Preparation for marking

Documents to hand

  • The student question
  • The mark scheme
  • The file handler
  • Pre-prepared specimen answers – not to paste into the student's assignment, but as a source of clips to illustrate particular points.
  • A document to hold frequently used comments – ready formatted in your font, colour and size. ( You could add these to the mark scheme so they are alongside each question)
  • and the student's document(s) ( but only have one student's work open at a time. It is easy to lose track of which document belongs to which student!)

Suitable Screen hardware

Electronic marking is at its most efficient if you can quickly switch between all these open documents, and make use of other utilities on your computer at the same time.

A single small laptop screen will never make a comfortable marking experience.

A screen that will display two readable A4 documents side by side is better.

Two screens that will each display two A4 documents side by side is much better

For comfort the centre of the computer screen should be slightly below your eye height when you are seated

If you wear glasses, ask the optician for glasses that have their focus at your outstretched finger distance.

Ready to mark the first student script?

Checking the student's assignment

Skim or review the whole of the student's document to see how it is formatted before you start marking.

Your additions may on occasion make a mess of the student's carefully crafted layout!

Making room for your comments

Some students will leave you lots of white space into which you can add comments.

Others may apparently offer white space, but tie it up with formatting so that it almost unusable ( except for floating comments and symbols)

In some scripts you can safely add lines to create space after each paragraph.

In others adding an extra line creates a cascade of broken formatting further down the document.

Pages fully occupied by graphics may not appear to offer any space for comments

For problematic scripts you can increase the size of the page, but keep the student's work the same width, giving you a broad margin for comments. (use a macro )

Adding page breaks at intervals (at the end of a student's page) can stop formatting changes cascading down through the document.

Adding a comment

The minimum activity needed is to make one click on the document to select where the focus of the comment is. A second click should select the full style of the entry, leaving you just to type the comment, or paste in a pre-written comment.

The second click here selects a macro from your ribbon or toolbar– a pre-recorded sequence of commands to the word processor.

A macro might insert a tick into the text, or float a tick over the top of an image.

A macro might set the style of font, size, colour and spacing for your in-line text.

The macro I use the most creates a transparent callout (balloon) with its pointer on the spot I first clicked ( mostly, not always!) It has the text set to the font, size and colour, left aligned, that I want to use.

How to obtain Macros

You can record your own easily in Word

You can load macros created and shared by other people.

You can edit an existing macro, to change what it does, or to make a copy that does something slightly different

You can add macros or buttons to the tool bar in Word that allow you to call a macro with a single click.

Marking the problem assignments

All faculties have assignments that are hard to mark electronically such as hand drawn and scanned work, and full page sized images, and where special symbols are needed to add corrections and comments.

For these a set of appropriate macros can be quite effective.

You can also have hand drawn and scanned specimen answers ready, and clip out small sections as images to add into the students work as images in a callout.

The sequence you might use for an assignment page that is a large image where you need to annotate the detail.

  1. Macro – create a wider page with broad margin
  2. Macro – overlay image with a clear pane of reference points
  3. click on first point on image
  4. Macro add callout
  5. Move body of callout to desired location, type in comment, or insert clip image of that aspect taken from your specimen answer (drag and drop from folder or copy and paste )
  6. click on second point on image.

Special symbols can be selected using online keyboards and then pasted into your callout.

http://math.typeit.org/ mathematical online keyboard

If you do need to draw lines by hand, or mark by hand

31st July 2013. I decided to follow this up with some more research.

I picked a tablet from Monoprice - sold via Amazon.co.uk 9 inches by 6 inches. (Just under £40) This plugs into a USB port.

By far the best software to use when annotating a document is Word 2010 or better. You can try this out with Windows 2010 starter edition.

http://www.pcadvisor.co.uk/downloads/3250058/microsoft-office-starter-2010/ No key is needed.

Word 2010 uses the pressure sensitive property of the stylus to change the width of the line.

This gives a much more fluid writing style than any pdf editor I tried.You can also draw any diagrams using this mode.

When you use the tablet an Ink Tools menu appears at the top of the screen, and includes options to change colour of the lines, as well as default thickness, eraser and highlighter.

[ LibreOffice doesn't have a tablet input option ]

You can zoom into the page in Word until the default handwriting style on the tablet matches the size you want on the document. I very quickly got used to writing on a tablet at my side while watching it appear on the screen. I didn't find that a problem at all.

Windows 7 also has a handwriting recognition mode that works with any application to insert text at the cursor.

Zoom into the page as much as you can and write large! Will look much neater when you zoom back out.

One potential problem is that the file size is much larger when you add handwritten comments on a document. I would also suggest that you should save or print to pdf the marked copy of the TMA to ensure the student can read it.

I would recommend continuing to use typed comments wherever possible for legibility. But ticks, crosses and highlighting as well as brief comments were very much faster than using the macros!My handwriting isn't very good on paper - it looks very similar on the tablet!

The pen cursor also switches to mouse cursor if you move it over clickable items, so it is easy to swap between different options, change colour etc.

Marking with PDFs

Annotations added to pdfs and then resaved are not as compatible as you might expect! They must be converted to a full pdf first.

PDF-XChange viewer – provides an excellent print to PDF utility that can be used by any other program. It appears as a printer in the print options.

PDF-XChange viewer – must print as pdf to save annotations as full pdf format. But can then be viewed in a web browser

- cannot insert images as comments

see this link for the printer driver: http://www.tracker-software.com/free_lite_home.html

Foxit reader ( beware extras in the download!) Can use images as comments. But need to use print option with PDF-XChange viewer to convert annotations to full pdf format.

Added hasssle with print pdf to file is making sure it goes in the correct folder.

PDFedit cannot display all content of this sample TMA

-seems somewhat buggy

Reading Word files if you don't have Microsoft Word

LibreOffice is free and it works well - especially for documents saved as doc rather than docx. Sometimes images and graphs created in Microsoft are not well displayed.

A free alternative to Word is WPS writer - look for the free version. It also works well on Linux. It looks and feels like Microsoft Word, but without the macros.

Microsoft provides a free Word.doc reader, called Word Viewer. It needs an update to read all Word versions up to 2013.

Details are here: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/891090

It will allow you to print the Word document, so combined with a print to pdf printer driver, you can save it as a pdf. You can then use a free pdf reader to annotate the pdf to mark it, then print it back to a pdf to the student's folder to be returned through the eTMA system