Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bar codes or something on homework papers

Grades were due this morning, and so I'm emerging from a few days of intensive data entry and wondering why, why, why we don't use technology for this mind-numbing part of the teaching job. The chore of entering those strings of numbers into the spreadsheet ranks high up there among factors that could drive me out of the profession - few things are as stressful or irritating. I invariably get some numbers in the wrong columns (and at my new school minor data entry errors generate time-consuming exchanges with students and parents about what could possibly have happened with that one assignment of two weeks ago), and the process of switching focus from a sheet of paper, to the screen, back to the sheet of paper, and back again to the screen makes me dizzy. And late assignments - the worst part about late work is going back through the spreadsheet, scrolling up and down and back and forth, to locate the column and enter the score. I'm not naturally good at this kind of task, probably rather poorer than average, and would never have signed up for an accounting job. On the other hand, why would we make strength at such a monotonous, tedious task a critical part of being a competent teacher? I wouldn't make a good robot - but there are reasons why robots were invented, aren't there?

I'm lucky in having small classes and a block schedule this year, so some three assignments per week per student - but many public school teachers have 150-180 students with daily assignments. How they get through the data entry part is a mystery to me. Here's hoping they all get competent TAs - or that someone introduces scanners and software for this task ASAP.

Of course going through the papers and checking for completeness must be done by a human, and this part has some interest. It teaches me a lot about what the students need more help on and what misunderstandings are typical. But when I've gone through the stack of papers and written my comments on them, what I'd like to be able to do is to feed the papers to a scanner and immediately have the assignments entered in the correct cell in the spreadsheet. Late assignments would be as straightforward to enter as today's assignment.

To make the papers scannable (is that a word?), maybe each student could just get a roll of stickers on the first day of school, and they could place this sticker on the top right corner of their paper. There could be bubbles on the sticker for filling in an assignment code and also for the grade. The computer could take care of the rest. In order to check that students completed the sticker correctly the program could maybe highlight the most recent entries before closing, giving the teacher a chance to quickly check that what was entered since last time really was in the correct column.

Now, wouldn't that be nice? Maybe some computer science students could start working on the program while fulfilling course requirements of some sort, and make the resulting code available for free. It would be worthwhile a contribution to mass education to free up time that teachers use for data entry. It would leave more time for designing interesting lessons and giving the students real, relevant feedback - tasks for which I have considerably more aptitude than I have for spreadsheet management.


jonathan said...

I'm a math guy. I really am. And I used to spreadsheet my grades and formula-out my totals. But no more.

I print one excel sheet per marking period, with the days across the top, and then names across the side.

Each little box? upper left if absent or late, upper right check or "Late" or "inc" for homework, lower right "+" for board work, lower left major grades (test, quiz, projects).

I leave 5 blank columns at the right: Participation, Project, Test/Quizzes, HW. The last column is the numeric total (and if the final grade differs from that, I / the box. For example, it might read 83/85 since our school allows only multiples of 5 below 85)

It is so much faster and easier to total by hand (really, just to count check marks) than to set up the spreadsheet and to constantly update. And then it takes me an hour or two to total grades, but that's nothing compared to the daily time saved.

I would never go back.

H. said...


We use PowerGrade, and the gradebook is online and open to inspection by students, parents and administrators at all times. The expectation is that grades are updated at least every two weeks (though I tend to fall behind), and then parents may want to know what was up with that assignment that the student scored less than a full score on two weeks ago. So doing it with pencil and paper only is not an option. On the other hand my error rate has gone down after I started penciling in grades on an excel printout paper first and then transferring the numbers to the online spreadsheet.