I have terrible handwriting, to be frank. And I know I’m not the only one with this problem. When I was a teenager, I went to the doctor’s for an ear infection, and he had me memorize the illegible prescription he had written for me. He jokingly said that “the smarter you are, the worse your handwriting is.” He more seriously said he wanted to be sure I got the right medication from the pharmacy. Looking back on that as an adult, less enchanted with the humor, I can see the danger is a misunderstood prescription. Now, there’s no imminent danger when it comes to the student feedback teacher’s leave on papers, but there is another kind of danger: frustrated students, illegible critiques and suggestions, and a classroom where writing feedback is never followed for the simple reason that the feedback can’t be read by students.
While I have not yet rose to the rank of professor, I do work with undergraduate students on a regular basis as their advisor and as a paper grader for multiple professors. My feedback being understandable on the statements of purpose, personal statements, and essays I give feedback on can mean the difference between a student getting into graduate school for an outstanding statement or improving the structure of their paper for a higher score in their class.
I do plan on teaching, and my terrible handwriting has been a point I’ve pondered over. Luckily, we live in the digital age, and the digital age has solutions for people like me who plain old suck at penmanship. There are a few platforms I use now to give feedback to students. Each have their merits, depending upon the purpose of the writing assignment:
Since I grade for multiple online classes, I use Blackboard the most to give feedback to students on their writing. While each class structure varies, Blackboard has a lot of options to give students feedback. First and foremost, you can create rubrics right in Blackboard and attach them to the assignments they go with, so you can give blanket feedback to students per the perimeters of the assignment. Further, this platform provides multiple areas for the teacher to take notes for themselves and to give notes to the students.
There are a few disadvantages to Blackboard that I’ve noticed, like the inability to give direct feedback on student writing. If you want to highlight a sentence in their third paragraph, for example, you can cut and paste it into your feedback area but you can’t attach your comment directly onto the sentence, as one could do by hand or even in Microsoft Word. Rubrics are also limited—you cannot attach a rubric to a quiz, for instance.
When I work with personal statements and statements of purpose, I use Microsoft Word. The majority of us working in academia are familiar with Word’s features. Not only can you comment directly on student writing through the revision tab, but you can make direct edits and changes to a draft and show the student what you’re doing through the track changes feature.
The biggest factor against using Word, for me, is the amount of time it takes. Reading, rereading, and making comments through Word takes a lot more time than just picking up a pen and leaving feedback directly on the student’s paper. Personally, I feel the feedback is not just more legible, but more complete on a digital platform because I have more room to give fully-developed comments (as compared to the limited space on a piece of paper). Another drawback is availability—Word costs money and doesn’t come installed on every computer. Some students don’t own or use Word, so the feedback given can be hard to get rid of without Word’s accept, reject, or delete feature for comments and changes.
Google Docs is Google’s free document editing platform, and it, like every other platform, has its advantages and disadvantages. Google Docs is nice in that it’s completely free. Much like Word, you can make comments directly on a document by clicking on a little balloon that appear in the margin when you highlight a section of text. While it’s free to use, not every student uses Google, nor Google Docs, so they may need to make accounts or connect their existing non-Google emails to Google in order to use the service. Google Docs can be downloaded as a PDF, .Doc, .Odt, etc. to send back to students if they don’t use Google Docs, but doing so means a lot of extra time downloading and uploading documents to send to students. I can’t personally attest to how well the comments transfer from one format to the other.
Turnitin is a stand-alone citation checking website, which has now been integrated into Blackboard (and, I’m sure, other education platforms). Many professors and students alike mistake Turnitin for a plagiarism checking site, but that’s not what it really is. Turnitin simply highlights citations—correctly or incorrectly executed. It also gives students automatic feedback on the amount of citations they use and gives them a rating (green is a low amount of citations, yellow is a cautious amount, and red is way too many). Turnitin also offers a space for professors to give feedback to students, outside of the integration. When it’s used in conjunction to Blackboard, rubrics and feedback to students can be given there as well.
Granted, my experience is limited to the platforms each school provides (in California, my experience is that most schools use Blackboard, for example); nonetheless, I think there are plenty of options out there for teachers to use for student feedback that don’t involve a pen, paper, terrible handwriting, and frustrated students. Even if a teacher wants to go analog and keep with the pen and paper technique, typing up a page of comments for overall feedback to the student takes only a moment and can blend the best of both worlds: teachers get to have that red pen in hand and students have a set of readable comments to help them improve their writing.
If you’ve had experience on a different platform, or want to add in something I’ve missed, or have perfect handwriting and don’t need a technical intervention, feel free to comment below. We’d love to open up a dialogue!