Using GradeMark to Help Students Improve Their Writing

Mickey HallBy Dr. Mickey Hall, professor of English

As a composition teacher, I have spent much of my professional life reading and responding to student writing. That’s where the real work of teaching composition lies: a student writes something, then a teacher, a tutor, or a peer (or all three) reads and responds to it—honestly, thoughtfully, and imperfectly. The best way to help students see writing as an act of communication is to make it an act of communication, not just a submission in exchange for a grade.

When I first started teaching in the 1980’s, students turned in hard copies of their essays and we used red pens. In those days, the debate was about whether or not we should require students to type their essays. There were also debates about red versus green pens, but that’s another post altogether. In the 90’s, when we started developing online courses, many of us switched to electronic submissions and used the Comments and Track Changes functions in MS Word. It worked, but it was clumsy, requiring a multi-step process of downloading, renaming, saving, marking, re-saving and finally uploading. After all that, it was time for a beer.

Fortunately, things have gotten easier. Using GradeMark, a feature of, it’s possible to mark directly on student papers in the eLearn dropbox. There is no downloading, no renaming, no saving. None of that. You simply enable GradeMark in the dropbox, open the submission, “Launch Turnitin,” and go to work. When you close the submission, everything saves automatically.

There are two ways to mark on a paper in GradeMark—QuickMark Tabs and Comments.  Tabs are good for inserting comments that you make over and over again. You can create a tab, or use one of the pre-made ones, and then simply drag and drop it onto the paper wherever you want. I use them most often for grammar and punctuation errors. For instance, I have a tab labeled C/intro for when a student needs to set off an introductory clause from the main sentence with a comma. (That one gets used a lot, but they don’t wear out.) When students hover their cursor over the tab, a more complete explanation of the error and a reference to the grammar handbook pops up. Tabs are a quick and easy way to make comments that are simple and repetitive. They can be grammar-oriented (Fragment), format-oriented (Give Your Essay a Title) or content-oriented (This paragraph needs better examples). The down-side of tabs is that they all look equally important. Visually, they give a Typo the same weight as a Weak or Unclear Thesis.

Screenshot of example QuickMark Tabs
Figure 1: Sample QuickMark Tabs

When you want students to pay extra attention to your responses, or when you want them to know that you’re reading their work carefully and responding to them individually, it’s best to insert comments. There are two ways to do that. You can put them in a QuickMark tab, which is less intrusive, but then they get lost in all the other tabs. You can also write directly on the essay, either in the margins or in-between the lines of the student’s text. The disadvantage of this method is that it intrudes more on the student’s writing; the advantage is that it’s easy for the student to see your comments near the text you are discussing. My feeling is that my job is to intrude, to tell them what I think about what they wrote.

Screenshot example of a paper with instructor annotations
Figure 2: Page Annotated in GradeMark

These two methods of marking on essays can be used for making both summative comments and formative comments—that is, both explaining why the paper got a certain grade and suggesting improvements in the next draft. In the last couple of semesters, I have been emphasizing formative comments, and it seems to be working. Typically, I have students submit their rough drafts and read through them quickly looking only at content issues: focus, development, and organization. Using GradeMark allows me to address specific sections of their drafts and place comments next to those sections. On the right margin, for instance, I might write, “This paragraph starts off really well, but the last few sentences drift off the original topic.” Directly above a sentence, I might write, “Your language here is vague; I don’t really get your point.” Occasionally, I even try to make positive comments like “Good lead-in sentence,” or “Your research is excellent,” but, being old-school, I have to remind myself: Say something nice. Say something nice. Say something nice.

I need a tab for that.

Coming soon: “Using Turnitin to Help Teach Students How and When to Cite Sources.”