Jason has a great post about online grading, and I thought I'd add to it. I don't necessarily feel like I have anything new to add to the discussion, and I've talked about some of this before, but I do think it's valuable when more people talk about what they do so that we can each decide what will work for us. I do think that it's important that no instructor try to follow what other people do simply out of a desire for consensus. I do think that students actually benefit greatly when instructors have different submission guidelines. I always tell my students that they need to learn how to adjust to different parameters because they can expect that one boss they'll have will want one thing while another boss will want another. They can expect to be working on a project where they have to submit weekly reports by email for the first few weeks but then, when supervisors change midstream, they will be working on the same final product but have to skip the weekly emails and commit to twice-weekly face-to-face meetings. They have to know how to adjust to different parameters.
So don't take anything I say as advice for what anyone else should do. It's just what I've been doing for the past few years. I've already written a bit about why and how I grade electronic submissions, but I can certainly expand on that.
First, on the point about file formats, I require that students submit everything to me in either .rtf or .doc. Yes, I have a widget on my computer that will convert .docx documents. In fact, it's pretty easy for me to convert documents, but that's not the point. Students have to learn how to convert documents because they will have to submit documents in certain formats when they apply for scholarships, internships, and jobs. I've had students in our professional writing program come to me in a bit of a panic because they are applying for something that asks for documents in a format they've never heard of (there are some strange requests out there, let me tell you). The more experience they have with working in different formats, the better. If a student emails a document to me in the wrong format, I write back and remind them what format it needs to be in, sometimes giving them a deadline for when I need to have it in the right format. I have never had a student not get it to me in the right format pretty quickly. And if anyone thinks that students will intentionally send things in the wrong format to get more time, remember that I have been able to open just about every document I've ever received. Therefore, I can check to make sure that the document in the right format that came a little late matches the document sent in the wrong format on time. And no one has ever sent a different document.
Second, on the point about using macros or copying-and-pasting comments that we make repeatedly, I don't do that. I think it would confuse me to go back and forth between documents like that. And it's important to me that I say things in a way that takes each case into account. I don't want to say, "You could really use an example here." I want to say, "I like this point about the need for more governmental oversight, but can you give an example that would show how this can work effectively?" And it takes me less time to type that out than it would to choose a generic comment from somewhere else. and I think students take my comments a bit more seriously because they feel as though they've been "heard" a bit more than if I'd just sent generic comments. Jason says it's stupid that he doesn't use macros, templates, and the like, but I disagree.
Some other things I've noticed. I like grading at home on the MacBook more than in the office even though the computer in the office has a huge screen and the office itself offers fewer distractions. But I try to like grading (a la Peter Elbow), and it's easier to do that when I have my feet up on the couch and can take breaks to do various other things. I develop a grading schedule where I have to get though a certain number of essays on certain days. I really push myself to stick to it, too. I haven't had to stay up late to grade in years.
I also don't use track changes because I don't make sentence-level comments. I will use the comment feature to put in the balloons in the margins with my comments, but if I want to mark a comma splice or anything like that, then I just highlight the sentence that has an error or other issue. Then, it's up to students to figure out what's wrong and how to fix it, knowing that they can come to my office and we can do it together.
Finally, I keep all of my documents on a flash drive. I have every document of my life on my flash drive. I only revise by pulling up the file from the flash drive. That way, I don't get confused about something being on the office computer or the home computer or the other home computer. That way, my main home laptop is only for back-up (as is the external hard drive). And, since all students email their essays to me and I email their graded copies back, I have everything on gmail, too. I have multiple copies in multiple places of everything.
Now, when it comes to grading, everyone needs to keep in mind that my heavy administrative load of directing two university program and coordinating a third means I teach less than people with 4/4 loads or even my own colleagues with 3/3 loads. This semester, I'm teaching one class. In the fall, I'll be teaching one class. I did all of these things when I was teaching three classes, but it is easier to stick to a grading schedule with just one class, for example.
Oh, one other thing, and I'd be curious what people think about this. In the past few years, I've had my students write shorter and shorter essays. I used to have everyone write papers that were 5-7 pages or 6-8 or 8-10. Now, I usually go with 3-5. Or in the case of what I'm teaching now, no more than six hundred words. I started doing this when I realized that many academic journals are also requesting shorter pieces. I was working on an article once for a journal that wanted pieces to be 5,000-7,000 words. And with the font I was using, I hit five thousand on page fourteen. I ended up with just about seven thousand, and it was still under twenty pages. I thought, why am I asking my students to write papers that approach the length of those we send to academic journals. Should we expect first-year students to write work as long as what we write for our careers? And I do believe that it's a skill to be complete yet concise (even if my blog doesn't represent such thinking). So shorter papers do lead to less grading time.
Everything I do is also grounded in the fact that I allow my students to revise just about everything.
When grading, I average around three an hour when I'm focused, which is about the same as when I graded paper copies. It can take longer when I meander through the process, as I often do when I'm on track. Because of my grading schedule, when I'm on track, I often don't think of the time. I just grade until that day's batch is done, unless I'm behind, of course.
Some people have told me how impressed they are that I have created a grading process that doesn't feel too time consuming or that causes too much stress. I have worked hard to do that. But it doesn't carry over to my research, where I still don't have a process that works. When I am working on a project, I feel like my process is nothing but time consuming and stressful. But, when push comes to shove, I put my teaching first, so it's not a surprise that I found a process that makes that part of my life easier.