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Purdue's TLT Partners with Faculty to Accelerate Grading in Large Enrollment Courses

A Q&A with Debora Steffen and Edward Berger

A partnership at Purdue between the university's Teaching and Learning Technologies organization and faculty exploring Gradescope has grown into a campus-wide initiative that includes an enterprise license of the tool and TLT support. The use of Gradescope accelerates the grading process — especially in large enrollment courses — and the related strategies that faculty share help improve assessment generally.

It started in 2015 as a grass-roots effort by a small group of Purdue's mechanical engineering faculty seeking to speed up the grading process for their department's very large undergraduate courses. They experimented with a relatively new tool at the time called Gradescope. Based on faculty interest and their initial success using the tool, the institution's TLT organization partnered with these faculty on an initiative to license Gradescope on campus as an enterprise resource.

Today, the tool both steps up the grading process for large classes and offers new features that faculty can tap in their efforts to improve assessment. Here, Purdue Associate Professor Edward Berger and the TLT organization's Education Technologist Debora Steffen reflect on the partnership.

Mary Grush: How did Gradescope come to campus at Purdue?

Edward Berger: In 2015 a small group of us — faculty and instructors — began exploring the use of Gradescope. At that time, Gradescope was just becoming recognized nationally. It was a free tool, so we were experimenting with it.

In large, multi-section courses, faculty have good access to one another, and the ability to share our experiences — which we did. A small group of us who were experimenting with Gradescope became evangelists for the tool.

We were in a good position to do that, as we were in mechanical engineering — one of the top majors at Purdue in terms of total numbers of undergraduates. There is a very real issue of scale in terms of managing processes like grading, and we thought Gradescope could help change that.

So we began with a very receptive audience in mechanical engineering, and branched out to other faculty from there. It seemed to start slowly at first, but then it exploded at some point — we were on the right track, with a grass-roots movement taking off.

Debora Steffen: At our TLT group, we heard about mechanical engineering's use of Gradescope in the fall of 2016. At the time, Gradescope was using a very common model, where they would provide basic functionality for free, to a certain number of users.

Looking at the work Ed and other faculty were doing, I began to see the potential a tool like this could afford both in mechanical engineering and across campus, to scale up grading processes.

For a while, we kept this knowledge in our back pocket, and we continued to watch the tool and its potential for commercialization.

At TLT, any tool we would want to provide across campus, at scale, as an enterprise tool, needs to pass a number of markers that we have: security, accessibility, and integration with the LMS among them. We didn't feel Gradescope was ready to go campus-wide, based on those markers. And there were some key features that we didn't think were scaleable — how you manage the scanned documents was an important area that we thought was not quite ready. And on our own campus, the scanning process itself would need to be examined so that faculty and departments would be supported.

Then, in the spring of 2017, Gradescope announced that they were going to commercialize the product, and that part of an enterprise-wide license would include LMS integration.

At that point, looking at the work of Ed and his colleagues, we felt that the tool had a sufficient ground swell of interest on campus. Based on that, along with the tool's improved enterprise features, we decided to go with a full-scale pilot in the fall of 2017.

We had such a good response that we continued the pilot in the spring while we worked out our licensing strategy along with plans for support and training, and very importantly, a centralized scanning service. We obtained several high-level faculty endorsements of the tool in different departments. We began licensing the tool in the fall of 2018, as a campus-wide, enterprise resource.

Grush: So that was almost a year ago. What do faculty think about Gradescope now? How is it helpful to them?

Berger: The mainstream opinion among faculty that I talk with is that they really love the time savings. Once exams are scanned — and you are not dealing with paper any more — not only can you grade faster, the grades are also entered automatically into the grade book. This takes a lot of time off that "last mile" of the grading process. It's less error prone, too, but just on the basis of saving time alone, faculty really embrace it.

Then, if you go one or two layers down into the grading process, we find many more benefits to faculty. For example, it's possible to distribute the grading for very large courses (often with hundreds of students enrolled) among several instructors. To do this is easy with scanned exams, whereas it would be a logistical nightmare with paper. Further, such distributions may tend to boost the fidelity of grading over different sections of the course.

And as for me, I have noticed that Gradescope helps me be a better grader, and to be more helpful to students. For example, I write and apply rubrics to the grading. Then I use them to help explain my scoring to students — such as why I graded something a certain way. Several faculty are using rubrics in this way, to improve communication with their students.

Steffen: There is also a mainstream acknowledgement that grading consistency goes up significantly by using rubric-based grading in Gradescope. It also allows us to monitor how TAs and the instructional team are grading. We had one instructor who was grading exams for a 1,600-enrollment class. He was able to uncover inconsistencies in grading that he would never notice on paper. There's a general acknowledgement among faculty that I've talked to, that grading consistency goes way up with Gradescope.

Another thing we haven't mentioned yet, that is very important for many instructors, is that the grading goes back to the students through the Gradescope interface: FERPA-compliant return of graded work. They don't have to spend precious class time handing back papers.

Grush: Do the students usually get the results back more quickly with Gradescope?

Berger: It's definitely faster to get feedback to the students.

Steffen: It's interesting that an LMS could get students the digital grade back rather quickly, but they wouldn't get all the marks and feedback Gradescope provides electronically — just using an LMS, students would end up waiting for their graded paper exams.

Grush: What do you foresee for the next academic year for Gradescope?

Steffen: I'm interested to see how we grow into new departments. We have a dedicated consultant who schedules regular workshops and reaches out to different departments with training. So he's working pretty hard at getting the word out. And interestingly, we have TAs reaching out and asking to get their classes on board with Gradescope — they are often a driving force for adoption in their departments.

And as far as where the tool is going, I'm interested to see how far Gradescope's AI will expand. For example, one higher-level function of the tool is to sort based on optical character recognition. That means handwritten answers can be sorted into like groups, offering the potential for faculty to obtain phenomenal savings in grading time (because of having like answers grouped).

Berger: We've already used a limited subset of the AI features, including the grouping feature. Of course, we check to make sure the groupings are correct — and they usually are. Still, this feature can really speed up grading.

And in the fall we will be doing a pilot to determine the best uses of Gradescope for a few new courses in our first-year engineering curriculum.

Steffen: The use cases we have are expanding. For example, we are seeing increased instances of Gradescope for fully online courses. And many face-to-face courses have been transformed to incorporate more active learning — we are doing mini assessments of those with Gradescope. Another example of a new use case is that some instructors are going to have students turn in their lab reports with Gradescope.

So there are expanding use cases for sure, and I think that having the institution-wide availability of the tool really encourages and enables that.

Grush: It seems like there are more and more possibilities for Gradescope. What's at the heart of the success of Gradescope at Purdue?

Berger: I view this initiative as a partnership between the IT and academic sides of the house. You may have seen implementations where an institution's technology organization throws a tool over the wall, and faculty either use it or they don't. But Purdue's Gradescope initiative is clearly a very productive partnership where each side brings a useful perspective to the table — and as we've talked about here, this partnership was forged early on.

Steffen: It's true that in a lot of IT organizations, people may get into a kind of "IT bubble". But TLT at Purdue has, especially over this past year, made a well-concerted effort to get out and talk with faculty about what they really need.

I think we've been very successful in doing that. And in the case of the Gradescope implementation, we began by talking first with a smaller group of faculty who really understood the need — then it made a lot of sense to partner with them to work toward a successful implementation of Gradescope campus-wide.

[Editor's note: Images courtesy Purdue University]

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