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AI-powered Grading Software Earns High Marks

Online Tool Gradescope Saves Faculty Time, Improves Feedback to Students

A person writes on a chemistry exam Photo by Ed Brennen
Gradescope lets faculty scan the work that students do on paper and grade it online using AI-powered software.

02/07/2020
By Ed Brennen

Each week, Asst. Teaching Prof. Leslie Farris gives students in her Chemistry II class a quiz to make sure they’re grasping complex topics such as thermodynamics, kinetics and chemical equilibrium.

With up to 150 students spread over several sections of the course, grading the weekly quizzes and returning them to students in a timely manner is no small task.

But as one of the first UML faculty members to use Gradescope, an online tool that streamlines the grading and feedback process, Farris no longer finds the weekly pile of quizzes quite as daunting.

“It’s a phenomenal tool that saves so much time,” says Farris, who volunteered to pilot Gradescope for the Information Technology office the past two semesters. “I’ve gotten a lot of really positive feedback from students about it.”

This spring, the university has made Gradescope available to faculty campuswide – the latest piece of instructional technology provided at UML to help students succeed in the classroom.
 
“Gradescope really fills a niche for our faculty,” says Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Michael Cipriano, who co-chairs the Academic Technology Committee. “It’s all about student success, but with the added benefit of easing the burden on faculty grading. It’s a win-win.”

Gradescope doesn’t actually grade students’ work, but it does digitize and simplify the process to cut grading time in half.
Leslie Farris loads a piece of paper in her desktop scanner Photo by Ed Brennen
Chemistry Asst. Teaching Prof. Leslie Farris demonstrates the desktop scanner she uses to enter students' work into Gradescope.

When students hand in an assignment, lab, quiz or exam, their instructor uses a standard document scanner to upload the work to Gradescope, creating a PDF file. Integrated with the university’s Blackboard learning management system, Gradescope automatically links each student’s work to the class roster by identifying their name or student ID number.

Gradescope then lets instructors grade question-by-question instead of student by student. Using artificial intelligence, Gradescope looks at each question and sorts similar answers into groups. For instance, if students taking a physics quiz came up with three different answers to a question, Gradescope identifies the answers and sorts them into three groups. (If the software can’t read a student’s handwriting, it is put into a separate group for the professor to review.)

The instructor can then apply a rubric that gives full credit to the correct group of answers and partial credit to others. If the instructor decides to adjust the grading rubric on the fly, they can apply the change retroactively to the quizzes they’ve already graded.
 
“It takes the paper shuffle completely away, which is one of the biggest things,” says Farris, who, along with 14 other instructors, used Gradescope to collectively grade more than 880 final exams in Chemistry I and II last semester. Not only did it save time, Farris says, but it assured a consistent grading process across the board as they shared the same rubric.

Assoc. Prof. Chris Hansen estimates Gradescope cut the grading time for his department’s mechanical engineering finals in half last semester, from eight hours to four.

The software also makes it easier for professors to provide feedback to students.
A screenshot of the Gradescope grading software Photo by Ed Brennen
Gradescope allows faculty to create a point-and-click grading rubric that saves time and ensures consistency.

“Writing out comments can be hard to maintain through 150 quizzes,” Farris says. “This gives me more time to give better feedback to everyone, which is the part I really appreciate.” 

When grading is complete, an instructor can immediately email students their PDFs, giving students more time to see what they got right and what they need to work on.

Using Gradescope’s detailed data analytics, faculty also get a clear picture of what topics they may need to revisit with their class. They can also easily compare results from year to year.

“It’s totally unique. There’s nothing like it,” says Fred Martin, associate dean for teaching, learning and undergraduate studies in the Kennedy College of Sciences and co-chair of the Academic Technology Committee.

Khalilah Reddie, an associate teaching professor of chemistry, came to the Academic Technology Committee in 2018 in search of a tool to help with student assessments. Martin remembered testing a beta version of Gradescope eight years earlier for researchers at the University of California at Berkeley. He suggested UML pilot the software, which is used at more than 500 colleges and universities nationwide.
 
While Gradescope can be used with online assignments, Martin says one of its key features is that students can still do their work on paper, which research shows to promote student success in many science and engineering courses.

“Despite all the high-tech stuff, paper is a really great user interface,” he says. “It’s easy to distribute, easy to collect, and you can use your hands to make drawings and write words, numbers and equations.”
It takes the paper shuffle completely away, which is one of the biggest things. -Asst. Teaching Prof. Leslie Farris

Assoc. Director of Academic Technology Donna Mellen has spent the past year introducing Gradescope to faculty through workshops and webinars and working with a team to integrate the software with Blackboard.

After five faculty members piloted the software with 329 students during the spring 2019 semester, the pilot expanded to 45 faculty members and 2,354 students last fall. In 55 courses, those students made 15,464 submissions through the system.

Yuko Oda, an assistant teaching professor of art and design, even used Gradescope in her sculpture classes last fall, having students upload photos and videos of their work for her to evaluate.

“It’s exciting to see what faculty do with it and how they think about it,” Mellen says. 

UML is the first campus in the UMass system to adopt Gradescope, which is funded by the Campus Technology Fee.

Farris, who shared her thoughts on Gradescope with colleagues at last fall’s Faculty Symposium, can’t imagine teaching without it now.

“It doesn’t do the work of grading, but it does all the little pieces that take up time,” Farris says. “I highly recommend it to faculty.”