Six things you need to know about paperless grading tools
A white paper from Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State

At a glance:

This paper reviews two types of paperless grading applications:

  • Annotation tools to add comments, shapes, and handwriting to PDF and other documents
    • Tools: iAnnotate, SNote, Adobe Acrobat Reader, Skim, Preview
  • Text expansion tools to create codes to insert long text passages and special symbols
    • Tools: TextExpander (Mac), Breevy (Windows)
  • See also a previous white paper that discusses Turnitin GradeMark

Who to contact

Elizabeth Pyatt, Teaching and Learning with Technology

Usage scenarios

Professor Pyatt, an instructor in linguistics, is able to use a suite of paperless grading tools to prepare and grade homework assignments. She uses the text annotator to insert comments on standard errors found in homework. She has also created a series of codes to insert phonetic symbols and uses these codes to comment on homework, prepare lecture notes, and communicate with her colleagues. For grading, she uses Word annotation but finds PDF annotation very helpful for highlighting examples in journal articles that she can share with her students.

Professor Beale is using an annotator plus a text expander to grade photos in his photojournalism course. He works on a Mac, primarily using Adobe programs and photo editing software. His students are required to upload photos weekly with a brief (one paragraph) description of the photo as well as all applicable metadata. Professor Beale imports the photos into a photo editing platform and opens the metadata. Using macros he created in TextExpander, he edits/adds his grading comments to the metadata in each photo. He can use the mark-up tools available in annotators and photo editing software to draw and/or write on the photo itself to provide feedback. He then sends the file back to the student. The student can see all of his comments on the photo and in the metadata to improve their skills.

Research team

  • Glenna Emel, Teaching and Learning with Technology
  • Shannon Kennan, College of Communications
  • Elizabeth Pyatt, Teaching and Learning with Technology
  • Suzanne Weinstein, Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence

Additional input from:

  • Christopher P. Long, College of the Liberal Arts
  • Stuart Selber, Department of English
  • Daniel Tripp, Department of English
  • Vicki S. Williams, Teaching and Learning with Technology

1. What tools are used?

This paper investigates various paperless grading tools that allow instructors to give feedback on written assignments without needing to print out and write comments on a paper document. Two classes of tools were investigated, annotation tools and text expanders.

Annotation tools

One class of tools are those which allow instructors to add their comments to an existing document. For this project, the investigative team tested a number of annotation tools across different platforms, listed below.

Overall, the group was very satisfied with iAnnotate for the iPad, SNote for Droid, and the Microsoft Word commenting tools, due to both the ease of use and the robust annotation tools.

Text expanders

Another class of tools tested were text expanders, which allow instructors to establish a set of codes that will automatically insert commonly used comments (e.g., “Needs better transition”) and symbols (e.g., “¶”) into the paper being reviewed. The team looked at Breevy (Windows) and TextExpander (Mac), which are both low-cost and allow users to share code libraries between the two software packages. TextExpander is also available for the iPhone, iPad, and Android, although these tools were not tested.

2. Who is using them?


Several commenters on digital education recommended iAnnotate as one way to promote paperless grading and guides are appearing on some higher education websites either as a recommended tool or a tool being piloted.


SNote is recommended by Tech Radar.

Microsoft Word

In addition, the Microsoft Word commenting and annotation tools are known to many instructors, including those at Penn State.

Text expanders

Text expanders, or text expansion tools, are being recognized as a productivity tool by a variety of educational technology advocates and other technology experts. TextExpander was also recommended by the Penn State Department of English.

3. How do they work?


The first step to annotating a document is to upload a PDF document into an iPad. The most universally accessible method is probably via an email attachment. After the email message is opened on an iPad, the instructor can hold down the link for the attachment and choose the iAnnotate application to open the PDF file. iAnnotate also works with cloud-based file storage accounts such as Box,, Google Drive, SkyDrive and others.

The iAnnotate tool supports annotation of other types of documents such as Word, PowerPoint, and image files. However, this function requires an instructor to establish a (free) file storage account with the vendor, Branchfire, to which files can be uploaded. The Branchfire software then converts all files to PDF for annotation.

Once the PDF is opened in the iAnnotate application, the instructor can use a variety of annotation tools including drawing tools, handwriting, text boxes, and “stamps” which can place commonly used messages or images at any place within the document. The interface is intuitive and adaptable for personal preferences. When the annotation is complete, the instructor can send a “flattened” version of the PDF to the student. The flattening process captures all the annotations within the PDF so they can be seen in other PDF viewers.

Page marked up with iAnnotate

Example of a page marked up in iAnnotate. The markup includes highlighting, additional text in multiple colors, a handwritten comment, and an A+ stamp.

iAnnotate tools

A sample of available iAnnotate tools including notes, lines, highlighting, underlining, strikeout, text comments, sound clips, bookmarks, and more

Other PDF annotation tools

The investigative team tested annotation tools outside the iPad including Skim and Preview (Macintosh) and tools in Adobe Acrobat Reader (Windows/Mac). SNote for Droid was also investigated. Reviews for these tools were generally favorable.

Text expanders

A text expander is software which allows instructors to create a set of codes used for standardized comments or symbols to be inserted into any text-based document. For instance, a code such as ;par could be created to insert the ¶ symbol. Other codes could be used to insert a longer comment tailored for a specific course. A writing assignment could include a code such as ;cite to indicate “You need to include a citation here to indicate the source of this information.” Similarly, a Spanish writing instructor could create a code ;nagr to indicate that “Adjectives must agree with nouns in number and gender.”

TextExpander screen with settings for a code

Screen shot of TextExpander and settings for code ;cit (Citation) which expands to “What is the source of this information? You need to include a citation here to indicate this.”

One of the benefits of text expanders is that they can interact with almost any software program including Microsoft Word, email, a course management system, and even other annotation tools. Code libraries can also be exported to other machines and exchanged between instructors, even those on different operating systems. Another good feature is that the output is text and can be accessible to those on a screen reader in contrast to some feedback in iAnnotate.

In addition to teaching benefits, text expanders can be useful for students with certain disabilities such as motion impairments (short codes can expand to longer words and phrases) and certain types of dyslexia.

4. Why is this significant?

Finding paperless grading workflows becomes more important as enrollments in online or hybrid learning environments expands and instructors no longer communicate with students solely face-to-face. In fact, a major barrier for placing some kinds of activities online has been the lack of a digital grading workflow that instructors can adopt. Outside the online environment, paperless grading is valuable as a way for instructors to quickly preserve their comments to students.

Another benefit of paperless grading is that it can reduce the need for students and instructors to actually print a document. At Penn State, the cost of maintaining paper and toner supplies for campus printers is significant and the use of paperless grading techniques could reduce the need of students to print out writing assignments that could be sent electronically to an instructor.

5. What are the downsides?

PDF annotators

While PDF annotation allows for a wide range of feedback types, it is often tied to a single document type. Either students must convert all their assignments to PDF or instructors must find a conversion process themselves. Instructors must also ensure that feedback is embedded in the PDF or a student opening up the document in another PDF viewer may not be able to see the comments. Finally, accessibility for those using a screen reader is a concern because PDF files and certain types of comments (shapes, images, handwriting) may not be usable on a screen reader.

Word annotation

Many Penn State instructors use and require Word documents, partly because the University has discounted licensing. However, not all students necessarily have access to Word or the desire to use it. As the population of online students becomes more diverse, this may be a larger issue. However the concept of text-based annotation can be applied across many document types such as those on Google Drive.

Text expanders

The main drawback of a text expander is that the code library is typically tied to a single machine. If an instructor works on multiple devices (e.g., office computer vs. home computer), that individual would ideally want to ensure that he or she can access a synched library. Some tools such as Breevy can be run from a Flash drive, thus allowing a portable library, but it is not true synching. Another quirk to consider is that codes must be carefully constructed to be an unusual set of characters. Otherwise, instructors may find themselves inserting comments in unwanted places, such as emails. Many suggested codes begin with a symbol like a semicolon or comma so that they are not mistaken for another word.

6. What are the implications for teaching and learning?

The use of annotation tools facilitates instructor grading, but can also be a valuable tool for the student and professional researcher. Both students and researchers may find annotation a good way to organize their digital materials and notes in one place that may be potentially accessed from multiple locations.

The use of text expanding tools can allow instructors to provide rich but consistent feedback to students. The ability of text expanders to insert a paragraph or more means that an instructor can quickly insert a detailed explanation for commonly found errors students may make. However, this feedback can be tailored as needed for individual students. Finally, a text expander can allow instructors to insert symbols or special characters without use of handwriting, which may or may not be legible to a particular student.

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