Scanning exams

By Gregor Kiczales posted on February 20th, 2014

Most of my posts have been about MOOCs and other “fancy” ways to use online technology in higher education. But there are lots of other ways online tools can be used to improve the student experience. This post describes a simple online tool we are using in the Computer Science department to make exam grading easier and significantly reduce the time it takes students to get their exams back.

Most exams in the computer science department involve writing out solutions, in some courses these are equations or figures, but often they are programs or program fragments. These exams all require hand grading by instructors and TAs. For our largest courses, our work practice in the past was to grade the paper exams, during which graders wrote the per-question scores on the face page of the exam. We then sorted the exams into groups by lab section, then entered the grades from the face sheet of the exams, and finally returned the exams to students in lab. Those last three elements-sorting, data entry and returning exams-were the least fun and the most cumbersome. In our largest course, CPSC 110, we often use multi-part exams, so we sometimes have 3 separate stapled exams for each student; that makes for a lot of sorting, data entry and exam returning.

About a year ago Anthony Winstanley developed a tool that streamlines our process considerably. We still hand grade the paper exams, but once that is done we guillotine and scan them, and that is the last time we touch the paper exams. They go into a box, never to be touched again. An automated tool processes the scans to read the per-question grades from the face sheet of the exams. The tool also makes each student’s exam available to them online. Note that in this system we still use paper exams up through the grading process, we are not moving exam taking or grading online. This means that we preserve the affordances of paper that make it a great medium for taking and grading exams. We are just moving the parts where paper is cumbersome online.

One advantage of this tool for students is that they get their exams back much faster. There is fairly unsurprising research showing that getting feedback quickly improves learning outcomes. But timeliness returning exams has more practical consequences as well. In a class of 700 we can have an exam on the Tuesday of drop week, and return the exams to students by noon that Friday. That means we can make the first midterm cover a good fraction of the course, and get the feedback to students in time for it to inform a drop decision.  This system streamlines regrade requests, because students do not have to return paper to us, we have a scanned copy of their exam. (It also prevents cheating in regrade requests.) This system also makes it easier for us to go back and look at past final exams. Instead of someone having to go in the basement and figure out which of the boxes a specific final might be in, we can just call it up. Or we can easily look at every problem x from a given final, perhaps together with a similar problem from another term’s exam.

This isn’t super sexy like MOOCs. But it improves the student experience and cuts out a whole lot of non-quality work instructors and TAs used to do. Well used, technology can both improve the student experience education and save money.


Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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