Electronic Grading


Electronic grading is a great option for anyone looking for something more convenient than the traditional paper format. Whether you’re taking an online course, want to provide better feedback, or just like to save a few trees, electronic grading provides a great opportunity to improve the educational experience of students and teachers alike.

In this tutorial we’ll cover all the nuts and bolts of electronic grading, from creating a good workflow to providing better feedback. For our grading app we’ve used iAnnotate (for iPad), which we think is the best option available at the moment. If you don’t have an iPad or want to use a different PDF reader, you can certainly still make use of most of the advice on this page.

Note: this tutorial is aimed primarily at instructors, but students might like to understand the process and draw this grading option to the attention of their teachers.

Pros and Cons

Electronic grading is not for everyone. It’s not for traditionalists who are too scared to try something new. It’s not for people who enjoy a mild cramp in their hand after marking dozens of essays. It’s certainly not for people who suffer from technophobia. For most of us, though, electronic grading should be easy to try out, and only once you’ve properly experimented can you decide if it’s for you.

It takes a little bit of courage to go paperless, but there are definite benefits. Some of these might surprise you:

  • No more worrying about missing staples or paper clips, lost pages and incomplete documents
  • The due date is flexible. Papers don’t have to be handed in at the beginning of class.
  • Receiving or handing out papers does not take up valuable class time (or cause a distraction)
  • Assignments are time stamped, so there is no dispute when something was submitted
  • Late assignments don’t accrue additional late penalties when a student lacks the opportunity to hand in the document
  • Apps like iAnnotate allow graders to create custom stamps for the most common errors or feedback
  • Emailing back an assignment is more likely to start a conversation, as students are generally comfortable replying via email.
  • While electronic grading is not likely to save you a tremendous amount of time, it does create certain efficiencies. Most importantly, all longer written comments can easily be replaced by oral feedback. The latter can be more in-depth and personable.
  • Instructors retain a copy of the assignment for as long as they wish. This also helps in case students try to pass off another student’s document as their own (a case of plagiarism).

We could go on, but you get the idea. Of course this is not to say that there are no challenges. For example, if you’re giving audio feedback, you can’t be marking in a coffee shop. You’ll need a quiet place to do your work. Looking at screens can also create eye strain for some people. On the whole, though, electronic grading provides enough advantages that it’s a great option to try.


If you’re going to try electronic grading, it’s usually a good idea to start with one class, or even one assignment. In addition, we recommend that students always remain able to hand in paper copies if they feel uncomfortable with online submission. Over time, most students will switch to the latter anyway, but it’s good to give them the choice.

However, before you can grade a single assignment you’ll have to create a proper workflow. This requires a bit of work up front, but once that’s done the process is very efficient. In what follows we’ll describe our recommended setup.

Suggested Workflow for Electronic Grading


For this tutotial we’ve mainly used Dropbox for uploading and storing files. That’s because Dropbox syncs beautifully with iAnnotate, our preferred grading app. However, if you’re worried about security issues, you can instead use Google Drive. In that case, check out our video tutorial (above) for how to use Gmail effectively.

Dropbox has a feature that allows you to request files. With a couple of clicks you get a link (a URL) that you can share with everyone in the class. Students open the link and can easily upload their file without needing to have their own Dropbox account.

Students should save their assignment as a PDF before submitting, but if they forget it’s easy enough to convert the file to a PDF in iAnnotate. The only thing that presents a problem is when students don’t use either a .doc or .pdf file, but upload something like a Pages document. In that case you might not be able to read the file and it may not sync with Dropbox.


We use Gmail, but you can use another email service if you like. There are a couple of things you’ll have to do to get set up.

First of all, make sure you import your students’ email address into your contact list. This is so that when you send back the assignment (in iAnnotate itself) you don’t have to type out the entire email address. You can start typing a few letters and the full address will pop up. The easiest way to import student emails is if your institution provides a CSV file, but there are other ways too. Make sure you do this before the semester starts to avoid headaches later.

Secondly, you’ll want to make sure that iAnnotate is synced with Gmail on your iPad. That way you can email assignments back from right inside iAnnotate.


iAnnotate, our grading app of choice, is best used on an iPad. Other than buying an iPad (the bigger the better!), this is the only thing you’ll have to pay for. The good news is that it’s about $10 to $15.

Once you’ve downloaded iAnnotate, you’ll want to customize the settings. You can create custom stamps and set up your own tool bar. In addition, you can write a template email message for whenever you return an assignment. Here’s an example:

Dear student, please see attached your marked assignment. To listen to the audio, please download the assignment and open it in Adobe. Do not open it in your browser. For more detailed instructions, go to Moodle [or a different learning platform]. If you use a Mac, you’ll have to change the default PDF viewer to access the audio. If you don’t know how to do this, use a PC to access the audio or come see me for help. Best wishes, _______.

Do note that at the time of writing this post, the current version of iAnnotate has had some issues with template messages. They still work but you’ll have to add the message tool to your tool bar and use that to send your emails.

Microphone App

If you want to provide audio feedback, you’ll have to use a microphone app on your iPad. The good news is that there are plenty of excellent free mics available. Find one you like and you’re off to the races.

Adobe Reader

When students receive their essay back, they can open it in any PDF reader (even a browser). However, there is a catch. Not every PDF reader will display audio files. For that reason we recommend that students use Adobe Reader (which is a free download) to open their file.

Student Support

To make sure that you’re not forever answering student questions, you’ll want to provide good support up front. Here’s what we recommend you do ahead of time.

Provide easy to follow instructions about how to upload the assignment. Here’s an example:

In this course, written assignments may be submitted either in printed form or electronically–your choice! Electronic submission is due at midnight (after the class); printed copies are due at the beginning of class.

If you submit your assignment electronically, the following guidelines apply:

  • Please save your document as a PDF.
  • When you save the document, include both your name and the assignment name in your title. E.g., John Smith Essay 1.
  • In the week leading up to the due date, I will provide you with a link (via email and Moodle) so you can upload your assignment to Dropbox. You do not need to have a Dropbox account yourself.
  • Upload your assignment and you’re done! 

Additional notes:

  • Submit your assignment as one document (e.g., no separate Works Cited file).
  • Once you have submitted your assignment, you cannot do further editing and resubmit later.

I will use the app iAnnotate to mark your paper.  This allows me to give audio feedback, which you may find a more personable approach to marking. For more information about how to upload your assignment or open your marked assignment, please see Moodle.

Feel free to adopt these instructions as your own.

If you want to go all out, you can also provide a video tutorial. Here are a couple of sample videos as an example:

Again, you can share these if you find them useful. Whatever you do, the more resources you provide up front, the less trouble shooting you’ll have to do when the essays are due. In fact, the process is so straightforward that few students run into problems.

Better Feedback

We think that the best reason to go paperless is to give oral feedback. Instead of spending a long time writing comments, you can just talk to the student. It’s as if you’re having a conversation. Of course it’s a one way conversation, but still …

The app iAnnotate allows you to create audio clips of up to 1 minute in length. The time limit takes a bit to get used to, and it’s normal to mess up the odd comment and start over. Once you get the hang of it, though, it is incredibly rewarding to simply explain in detail what you think — whether you’re talking about a specific sentence or the whole assignment.

We recommend you produce on average no more than 5-6 audio clips per document, as the file size will start to creep up. In addition, for the final comments, 2-3 min. of feedback is usually sufficient. If you had to write that all out by hand you could fill well over a page.

The other thing that is great on an iPad is that you can use audio recognition on your type pad to simply speak written comments. For example, instead of writing “Great choice of quotation” you can just say it. Plus if this is a frequent comment you can turn it into a stamp!


Finally, if you ever run into technological issues, the most common fix is to make sure you update all your settings. Make sure you have the latest version of iOS on your Ipad. Check that your email password is still correct and that your emails are being sent.

That’s not to say that you’ll never face challenges. If you do, consult an IT person or contact Branchfire, the company behind iAnnotate.

On the whole, though, electronic grading should be a seamless experience. Give it a try and you might be pleasantly surprised.