Why Teachers Need Something Better Than Microsoft Word

Onscreen grading is a revelation.

I have resisted the transition from paper grading to onscreen grading for a while now.  I experimented last fall with having students submit a paragraph online once in a while, but I was reluctant to use Track Changes tools, as I knew most students weren’t familiar with them, and so I tried to mark by underlining and inserting comments in bold – tedious, time-consuming, ineffective.

This term, I clued in to the fact that if students are unfamiliar with reviewing tools, then it’s up to me to start making them familiar.  So I’m now in the process of having all my classes submit small assignments to me online.

I have a repetitive stress injury in my writing arm that makes writing by hand physically painful.  My hatred of grading is perhaps even more intense than other teachers’ because of this added physical suffering.  I had no idea, though, what an eye-opener onscreen grading would be.  I am actually ENJOYING grading these paragraphs.  I’m writing three times as many comments as I normally do – which is to say that the tools aren’t really saving me any time, but they are making me a better, less miserable teacher.

Microsoft Word, however, while it seems to be the best tool we have, is not the best tool we could want.  It is lumpy.  My most serious complaint is that when we turn on Track Changes, Word tracks every change.  This is a problem when I am marking up drafts, because I highlight student errors without correcting them, and my sidebar becomes cluttered with an endless series of red bubbles saying “Highlight,” “Highlight,” … I find myself triple-spacing the student’s work just to make all the marginal comments visible.

What’s more, if the student and I are using different versions of Word, some of my feedback is lost.  Those highlights I mention above appear instead as a weird font change or disappear altogether in the conversion.  I have no way of knowing what the student actually sees when s/he opens the document I have corrected.

Do any of you have tips on solving these issues?  How do you make onscreen marking as efficient as possible?  Is there any other, better marking software that you know of that either exists or is in development?  If not, can you please call up all your software programmer friends and tell them that there is a need here that desperately needs to be filled?

Image by Michael Faes


20 thoughts on “Why Teachers Need Something Better Than Microsoft Word

  1. A temporary hack might be to print the commented word document to pdf and return it to students that way. They would have to have access to their original document to edit it, but at least you’d know that they could see your remarks.


    1. Jessica: that is a smart solution. Another that occurs to me is that if a student is having real problems, I could simply print the Word document from my own computer and give him/her a hard copy.


  2. Great post! I agree in regards to writing more comments. I too was reluctant & then tried it this semester. I practically wrote a”book.” 😉 Fun stuff.
    As for a Tool, I think Preview might be a better choice for now. It’s an app on the Mac but has highlighting and marking tools. Haven’t made the plunge to di this yet but am contemplating the idea!

    Cheers and thanks for the post!


    1. Mandy: What about correcting language errors? Or formatting? Depending on the assignment I either want to a) correct language errors for them or, more frequently b) highlight the error so they can correct it themselves in the rewrite. I can’t see a way to use the “insert comment” function for that – do you have a method?


  3. Siobhan, I use the comment feature for grammatical errors. I highlight the error (let’s say an incorrect verb tense) and in the comment write (VT).


      1. If you use the Comment feature, you can keep Track Changes off and then you can easily just highlight errors without producing all the marginal balloons for formatting. However, I switched from highlight to using dotted underline and double underline, because I could apply those in one click without creating a macro. And I have an AutoText or AutoCorrect that puts the legend in a comment on their title page, so that they always know which underline stands for what. And to Maia, you can set up AutoCorrect to replace VT with “verb tense”, which can’t hurt.

        I find Track Changes encourages me to rewrite more than I like to do.

        I do usually print to return e-graded papers, although recent versions of Word are much better in terms of them seeing what you see. The problem with PDF annotations is that I’m not sure they transfer from computer to computer as well, depending on the program, while most students have Word, or I think Open Office is designed to allow exchange of Comments/Changes. (Plus, I find annotations way clunkier in Preview than in Word, where I have a custom toolbar set up for grading)


      2. Dance:
        This is very helpful. I’m beginning to see that Track Changes is more trouble than it’s worth – I will try working without it next time. And yes, even though different versions of Word cause problems, at least we know that all students have access to it (if not at home then at the college)…


  4. It’s not just teachers who could use something better for commenting on and correcting drafts. This kind of tool would be so useful for any kind of collaborative writing.

    I’ve been using the comments function in MS Word, but after a while, the bubbles occupy so much margin space that you wreck the layout of the original piece. In a creative project, layout can be everything, so once you get a couple of people leaving comments, you’ve got more bubbles than text.


    1. Ohemgille:
      This is a problem in marking too – part of my students’ grade goes to their formatting, but sometimes I have to change their spacing to accommodate the marginal comments, and sometimes when I make corrections their format shifts, especially if there’s a conversion issue – it’s a big pain in the butt.


  5. I use both Track Changes and Comments. (Comments do not affect formatting in current versions of Word…However, Track Changes will.)

    I don’t use Highlighting at all. I return all papers in PDF format. I have been doing electronic correcting for two years now. It took me a while to figure out my personal workflow, but I will never go back to paper correcting (unless forced to!)

    Keep on experimenting!


    1. Maggie: thanks! It seems from all these comments that the choice of tools is ultimately personal and idiosyncratic…I will have to practice until I find my own system.


  6. Siobhan,

    I also have been grading online screen and while I find it much better than paper based grading I was a lottle frustrated by the tools built into Word. I ended up writing an addin that adds the following types of tools to any version of Word for Windows:
    * easily store and reuse comments
    * comments can contain text, links images
    * add audio comments and save them for reuse
    * grading rubrics that automagically add and rescale marks and convert them to grades

    One of the big advantages is that because the comments can be easily reused it is possible to make them more detailed and include links to the web or prompts for addressing the issue in future. And the time saved repeating common comments can be spent providing more individualized feedback to students.

    You can see a demo of it being used at http://emarkingassistant.com/emarking_movie.htm
    (about 2 minutes in it shows some of the functions)

    There is a 30 day trial but I would be happy to provide some free licenses to the first 5 people who write to me at info@emarkingAssistant.com

    Peter Evans
    Marking Assistant


    1. Peter:
      Thank you for this – I checked out your link and this does indeed look intriguing. I would encourage people to try it out and let us know what they think!


  7. Hello Siobhan,

    A colleague of mine turned me on to using audio feedback. Something I do when I have A LOT of grading to do online is give my feedback via an audio recording. I have their paper on the screen in front of me, tell them to do the same as they listen, and address my comments specifically. I send the audio file to the student as an attachment.

    Example: Ok, Jane, I am on page 2 of your essay now and looking at the second paragraph that begins with “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .” The first sentence is good – nicely focused. But the next two sentences are very general and actually repeat what you said in the first sentence.” Etc.

    Sometimes I highlight the text I am referring to and send that modified file along with the audio file attachment. It saves me from having to type alot, provides me and the student with a record (I save the files on a CD which I toss into my file folder for that class after the term is over), and lets the student feel I am connecting with them in a more personalized fashion.

    The two programs I’ve used successfully are Audio Recorder Pro (http://www.ezaudiorecorder.com/) and the software that came with my Sony Digital Voice Recorder.

    Judith Jablonski


    1. Judith:
      A colleague of mine has also told me about the joys of audio feedback, and I’m thinking of asking him for a tutorial and trying it out next semester. However, I have a hesitation when it comes to using technologies beyond text-on-screen. The first is that, of course, some students get confused, but a bigger problem is that some of my students don’t have computers or internet access at home. I feel it’s entirely reasonable to expect them to come use the school computer lab to read or even print up my comments, but asking them to figure out audio technology and then sit and listen (even to remember to bring headphones!) might be asking too much of them! Nevertheless, this is definitely something I want to give some more thought to – thanks for your input on it.


  8. Siobhan, I also just realized that you can Accept the simple formatting changes yourself–it will keep the Highlight in the text, but will delete the balloon (in recent versions of Word, click the checkbox on the balloon). Since the Highlight a bright color, you don’t need the balloon to call attention to the mistake that needs to be fixed. (I have various types of fixes set to show in different colors, which would make accepting some of the balloons easier)


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