Paper or Digital?

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Recently I came under some good-natured (?) teasing about being a 21st-century professor who still collects paper copies of student writing. Yes, I do, for several reasons. I believe that manuscript presentation is part of the writing process. This includes final editing, document formatting and yes, stapling a paper so that its pages stay together for reading. On that last point, stapling a paper has become an area of contention in some of my classes as students don't think to take this final step. Thus, I receive papers with loose pages, turned-down corners, paper clips, and recently, a hair pin. Yes, I could avoid all of this by having all final drafts submitted electronically, but I think this takes an area of accountability away from a student. How easy to just hit "submit" and let me print off the paper if I need to examine pages side-by-side or want to "draw" on the paper as part of my feedback. I also don't just take in the final paper alone; I ask for successive drafts, in-class peer reviews, and post-writings so that I can examine the student's writing process, not just the final product on a flat screen. There is a certain amount of pride, it seems to me, with presenting a printed paper copy of a composition in physical form. I want beginning writers to feel that sense of ownership and responsibility for their work. Sometimes, for logistical reasons, I do ask for electronic submissions--this also has its merits in terms of feedback--but I am not quite ready to give up the paper copies. Does this make me a dinosaur as a professor? What do you prefer--paper or digital? 

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Glad to hear these rationales!

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I'm with you, for all the same reasons. I do require electronic submissions for plagiarism detection (we use Canvas), but I also require hard copies of final drafts + earlier drafts. It takes more time to grade, particularly since I like to glance at early drafts to see what changes they made. One difference in my approach--I create a rubric which I use on Canvas. So whatever notes I make on the hard copy is also accompanied by a rubric score. 

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Hello Suzanne.

I definitely am a member of your "hard copy" club! I like a printed

document for all of the reasons you have mentioned. I am a little tougher,

though, when it comes to students securing their work. Students are

required to buy a stapler for my courses. If an assignment is not stapled

(or at least paper clipped), I will not accept it. No loose pages, they

are warned!

Here is something else to think about: Sometimes technology fails us, and

it is more foe than friend. Thus, if our campus course management system

(CMS) is down, I can still grade student work if students have provided

hard copy assignments as a back-up measure.


Dr. Brenda Eatman Aghahowa

Associate Professor of English

Chicago State University

On Sun, Nov 11, 2018 at 2:32 PM sesmith <>


Suzanne, I wholeheartedly agree with this blog post.  While I always ask my students to submit a digital copy of their papers (for plagiarism checking and for a record of submission), I also require that they bring a paper copy to class with all their prior drafts, peer revisions sheets, and final reflection.   This emphasizes to students that writing is more than hurriedly typing something on a computer and then hitting the submit button.  

However, I am not as strict as others regarding stapling papers.  I have a folder for each student.  I give this folder to students when they are handing in essays with drafts, etc.  They put everything inside the folder, and then I collect them.  It's an easy way to keep all student work together.  I don't mind stapling everything together after I have read through the student work. In fact, I prefer it that way.  I also will attach a rubric to the student work with all my comments.

Another thought:  When I return papers, I give students time to look through my comments and ask questions.  I also make comments to students as I return the papers.  I have found when I make comments and grade using digital copies of essays, students hardly take the time to look at my feedback.

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Learning to follow instructions is a practical and important life skill students learn in college, so there's no reason to question something as simple as asking for a hardcopy product from them (IMO). 

I mainly tech general ed comp classes, so for my face-to-face classes, not only do they turn in hardcopies, they write them with pen and paper in class (outlines, drafts, and finals). I feel like I have to do this for a few reasons: 1) Too many students won't do any work outside of the classroom; (2) Many of the population I teach do not have computers at home or anything other than a phone; (3) We do not have easy access to computers in class for students to use; (4) Class becomes more of a writing workshop for students as I'm able to answer questions as they write. 

Because of the plagiarism software embedded in our online platform and the fact that it's just way faster for me to grade electronically, I prefer to have students turn in digital work. However, if I required my non-Web students to do that, well, it just wouldn't happen. 

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I require a paper copy and a digital copy. The digital copy is just for my files, because my department requires me to keep work on file for a year. The paper copies I carry around, write on, and give back with comments. It is much more practical for me to grade this way, partly because of shoulder and neck issues that computer use only aggravates. I just graded a set of research papers this weekend, and I went through all of the Works Cited pages first, so that I could keep in mind what to check off without being distracted by the content of the essay. I could not do that on a computer. 

The only problem I have with paper copies is that sometimes, students come up to me and ask me to read my comments to them because they can't read cursive, which does make me feel like a dinosaur! :smileygrin:

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I like the hybrid approach: paper copies as well as digital submissions for checking sources and keeping files. 

As to being able to read my feedback on papers: I am aware that my handwriting is not always as clear as it could be and I am working on that. However, this semester I also have discovered that about half of my students do not know how to read cursive. Apparently, cursive writing is no longer taught in many schools in my state (Ohio), so many new freshmen this year cannot read it. One student seemed embarrassed to tell me in a conference that his inability to read my comments was not due to my handwriting but to the fact that he cannot read cursive at all. I was shocked, but my teaching assistant told me that this is true for probably about half the class. She turned out to be right. Printing letters takes me too long, so my days of personal, handwritten feedback may be coming to an end. I think something is lost in that transaction. 

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sesmith, paper copies are better I think because the student has to be more accountable in the following ways: organization, mla heading, grammar errors, and overall presentation!


Suzanne's good-natured teaser and I started grading in exclusively digital copies of student work and portfolios at about the same time. I graded major papers and portfolios on screen only for 7 years... and then, four years ago, I spent a summer researching ways to cut my grading load without sacrificing the quality of my feedback. Everything pointed to returning to hard copy grading for most major assignments.

When I write, I always print a copy and read using a colored pen and highlighter to note edits. I encourage my students to do the same. Screen reading of non-academic writing is usually done quickly. That skimming mentality transfers into academic-paper reading. They need to focus on close and careful reading and paper allows that.

These are the advantages:

  • I write less by hand, but my comments are more useful.
  • Students get a hand-written letter at the end of their work with notes for revision.
  • I can be 100% sure that students see my comments-When I collect in Blackboard, too many students don't access their papers with until the end of the semester  portfolio revisions were due, if at all.
  • I can grade anywhere and anytime. I don't feel tethered to a desk or have a screen in my lap. I grade in the doctor's office waiting room, at a picnic table during a soccer practice or on a gymnasium floor during a basketball practice, at my desk, in the recliner, or at the ping-pong table in the garage when my house is filled with kids watching a football game.
  • It puts grading work in sight and in mind. When I have 80 essays waiting for me in online space, it isn't easy to visualize the workload. When those papers are in four folders on my desk, it's like the dishes on the kitchen counter--you have to get that work done!
  • I do collect some work online--(the last paper, for instance, needed clean hyperlinks.The digital writing project that they are currently working on will be evaluated in digital space, but I will see paper drafts of text) AND I collect my final portfolios online.. All in all, I prefer paper!

Here in Connecticut, cursive is taught in the third grade--but--the only cursive that students learn is how to write their names!  Gone are the days when cursive was part of the curriculum, sad to say.  As you discovered, students no longer can read cursive.  Research studies have shown that learning cursive has many benefits, but elementary schools just can't find the time to teach it due to other curricular demands.


I still require hard copies. My rationale has several components to it, some pedagogical, some purely selfish, some generally admonitory.

• Most schools I have worked at, including my current place of employment, do not have current satisfactory software that allows for "easy" online grading. Their systems are awkward and clunky and make grading online very slow and time-consuming.

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Very true, it often feels like grading software was created by someone who never actually graded papers. Over the years, I've finally come up with keystroke macros that help a lot as well as longer canned comments saved in txt files. I download their papers, use the keystroke macros for quick grammar corrections, and then copy and paste notes from the txt file before uploading the file back to students. Still, it is a bit clunky, and I find it easier and faster than grading by hand. But, I definitely find the Word macros to save me lots of time. 

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Very true, it often feels like grading software was created by someone who never actually graded papers. Over the years, I've finally come up with keystroke macros that help a lot as well as longer canned comments saved in txt files. I download their papers, use the keystroke macros for quick grammar corrections, and then copy and paste notes from the txt file before uploading