If you didn’t know, I work as Professor of Archaeology at a UK Higher Education institute. When I’m not researching death and burial in the human past and present, I spend my time teaching and dealing with the administration of courses and programmes including undergraduate courses on Medieval Britain and Vikings. I also run the MA Archaeology of Death and Memory as well as supervising MPhil/PhD projects.

This post is one of my rare departures into discussing the teaching side of my job since it relates to how I educate regarding ‘Archaeodeath’ topics. It’s a personal view of a rapidly changing part of my job: how I mark student work.

Appraising university student work is supposed to be a process of engagement with the research and ideas of the student on the part of the academic marker. Conversely, it is supposed to foster engagement on the part of the student with the feedback given. This is so they can learn and improve their skills in writing, presenting and researching, as well as knowledge and understanding.

As a Department and a University, we’re aware that some students simply look at their grade and don’t engage in any specific or enduring fashion with the detailed feedback they receive. We always want to help students learn from their successes and their errors, so the more we can do to encourage student engagement with feedback the better. We hope, in so doing, that benefits will accrue for them in their knowledge and understanding of the subject. Furthermore, we anticipate this will help them to effectively communicate their ideas during their degree programmes, as well as beyond their degrees into their subsequent careers.

Electronic Marking

Here’s the challenge, however: our university, like almost all, has moved over to electronic marking. This is apparently what the students want. It is certainly what the university administrators want. Academic views are mixed in their views. Yet seemingly it what some of my academic colleagues (including the managers) want too.

I was not personally consulted on this process and my initial concerns were met with ‘we simply have to do this since it is what the university is doing’. I’ve been understandably sceptical. Still, I accept that I find some dimensions of online marking more effective. However, at present I remain of the view that the technology isn’t yet fully fit for purpose. In my view the engagement with student work resulting from electronic marking isn’t the same in academic, practical and technical terms to engaging with hard-copy student essays. Moreover, while in some regards the system is more versatile and allows rapidity of marking, in other regards marking has been altered to the detriment of staff and students due to the limitations of the software being used: Feedback Studio.

Let me explain a bit more. I’m someone of the computer generation who does most of my work in front of a computer, so my objections to marking online do not stem from a technophobic reaction to yet more staring at a computer screen (although there are massive Health and Safety and workplace-related issues here that I haven’t been consulted on). Certainly there are features similar to working with a physical essay and marking top-sheet. We can write out long-hand comments, we can use a grading rubric on a slide scale to identify the various qualities of a student’s work. In these regards, the system is an electronic version of the pre-existing grading process. It is also easier to spot plagiarism: one of the key perceived benefits of the system. In addition, it should be easier (in theory) for the monitoring and external examining of student work to take place. However, I’d like to identify one particular problem I’ve found.

Annotating during Electronic Marking

I regularly edit and comment on academic texts in Word and upon pdf proofs of articles, and my concern is that the ability to comment on student work via Feedback Studio is a retrograde step by comparison. Annotating essays in Feedback Studio is like working on a pdf in the 1990s: it is slow, imprecise and restricted.

Now, superficially Feedback Studio looks fast and efficient, giving you drop-down menus of ‘click comments’ to add to the essay , the ability to write on the essay, highlight texts, draw lines through the text, and add freehand comments wherever you want. However, each process is slow and imprecise – having to click on drop-downs, find the precise comment, add it – so that it is easier just to add a comment free-hand. Then the freehand comments are in bubbles that can cover the student text and need to be moved around so that the marker, monitor, examiner and student can actually see their original text beneath. As I said above, working with the clunky Word tracker changes is a million times easier!

What is the result of these annotations? I’d argue the result is a bewildering mess of comments and mark up that the monitor, examiner and student have to click on to read. And guess what? Surprise surprise, we’re finding this impossible to access and digest as a reader once we’ve finished. I’d be surprised if students assiduously wade through all these comments and consider them, since they are so difficult to work out.

Possible Solution 1 – Voice Comments

Faced with this situation, I tried to utilise the one additional tool that could never have done with printed out hard-copy student assignments: record a voice comment. Feedback Summary has the facility to use up to 3 minutes of sound recording to convey further detail on each student assignment.

I gave this a try. It was fine, but the saving process was so slow, especially when working at home. Also, it seemed to be unclear which assignment it was saving the message to and there seemed to be glitches where instead of overwriting deleted draft comments, Feedback Studio was saving the new message to the next (i.e. wrong) assignment. Hence, for now I’ve given up with voice comments as too time-consuming and cumbersome, but more importantly I lack confidence in its reliability.

Possible Solution 2 – Emojis

My next attempt to help myself as marker, monitors, examiners and the students to navigate the mess of Feedback Studio annotations on assignments was to start importing emojis into the ‘click comments’ facility.

Emojis (emoticons) are a ‘blunt instrument’ – like a tick, cross or question mark-  but far more flexible and diverse. Moreover, unlike the antiquated tick, they are unquestionably a near-universal dimension of human communication in the 21st-century global community. Most people regularly use ideograms and smileys in their communications, and even if there are a ludicrous number of them, the basic ones are readily understood by many. So I’ve decided to deploy a very basic selection and their general sense should be readily understood to most individuals who regularly deploy social media on a variety of mobile devices and personal computers. Given the time taken to compose feedback to students and concerns that students aren’t even reading it, let alone responding to it, I would have thought this would at least be considered a viable strategy for feedback composition.

I then faced limitations with Feedback Studio, namely that it glitched and wouldn’t allow me to add explanations to the emojis to give students more detail, so I added a few or two beside each emoji so it was clear. This is now sorted and students can click on the emoji and acquire a longer description of the meaning intended to avoid confusion.

I next realised, with the help of our Learning Technologist, that only unicode emojis will show in most browsers, so many of the more versatile and specific emojis wouldn’t appear on some users’ screens. So I’ve tried to revise and consolidate a new set of emojis – they are basic, but they seem to appear on student work.

That aside, I was alerted to the possibility that students might think I’m being frivolous and students might take offence at my emojis. However, I haven’t used anything too negative: no vomiting, no rude gestures, no poo. And if they don’t like the emoji, they can look to the rest of the extensive feedback for guidance: it is not as if I’m only using emoji comments and emojis will be the only means by which they can acquire feedback!

So, I’m looking forward to student feedback on this attempt to overcome the more negative dimensions of marking online. Hopefully the technology will soon catch up and a fuller range of emojis can be deployed.

And wouldn’t it be great if one day I could deploy gifs….

For now, however, I’m marking with emojis. Not only do I think this has potential pedagogic benefits, but it should hopefully articulate something more fundamental. I already mark with emotion: given care, detail, energy and concentration to the process. As well as a tough and tiring intellectual journey for the marker, the processes elicits emotional responses when students get things right and when they get confused. In this regard, marking with emojis is perhaps more honest, as well as helpful to academics and students…