Using an online dropbox to make grading manageable

I am sitting in my office near the end of the Spring semester and I am surrounded by piles of paper (see the above picture- yes that is from my office). For the most part, these piles consist of assignments, lab reports, quizzes, exams, etc, that I have long since graded, but students have failed to pick up. Each semester, I dutifully box up the unclaimed papers and save them for the requisite two semesters before they are summarily dumped into the box destined for the shredder. I hate paper. It clutters up my life and keeps me from thinking clearly. It is distracting and it makes it hard for me to keep track of what is done and what is left to be done.

I am currently taking a training class on online teaching. One of the tools that we have discussed is a dropbox for student submissions. We use the Desire2Learn LMS, but I’m sure that the other systems have similar functions. While the training class was focused on using this tool for an online class, I think it would be incredible useful for my traditional classes. If nothing else, it will reduce the amount of paper that piles up in my office each semester.

Assignments where I plan on using the dropbox for student submission:

1)      Lab reports. Each lab report includes a summary of the procedures for a given lab, the results, conclusions and a set of given discussion questions.

2)      Article summaries. Students are required to find articles in the general media related to the topics covered in class. I ask them to write a short summary of the article, describe how it relates to the material we’ve covered in class and why they thought it was interesting.

3)      Unknowns project. I am thinking about implementing a project in which the students will have to identify an unknown microorganism. They will write a report summarizing the biochemical tests they used to identify the organisms. This report will include a dichotomous key and a profile of the microorganism they identify.

I am actually planning on shifting to this approach for my traditional delivery course in the Fall. I already require my students to submit lab reports and article summaries, so this will just be shifting these assignments into the virtual space. I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantage. Top on my list is that it will cut down on the amount of paper that have in my office. There will be no chance that I could lose or misplace an assignment (which has been known to happen).  The other advantage is that students will have a more clearly defined deadline. I will probably still accept late assignments, but I think this will cut down on the number of assignments that trickle in after the due date. The disadvantages will probably be related to technical problems. Students without decent access to a PC at home (which should not be an issue if they signed up for an online class!), or with remedial computer skills will struggle with getting the assignments turned in on time. I will try to mitigate these problems by providing as much technical support as possible and writing out clear instructions for submission.

Each of these assignments will be graded out of a possible 100 points using a rubric that I will provide to the students. I will grade the assignments and provide feedback, as I see fit, within the comments section of the gradebook. Grading is one of the hardest parts of my job. I often get overwhelmed with the piles of papers and tests to grade, but I think that this tool will allow me to better manage the work flow, rather than overwhelm me. What is your experience using online submission tools? I know that some professors utilize programs like TurnItIn.com. Are there others that work better? I’d love to hear from you!

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