Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

3 Sep

Here is the skeleton in every writing teacher’s closet: grading essays is soul sucking, mind-breaking work. After fifteen years of dedicating obscene chunks of personal time to the task, I wish I could reveal some cure-all that makes grading fast and euphoric. I can’t. Of course, I find many moments of joy, but the bone-weary reality of the life of an English teacher is that it takes considerable time and significant effort to create meaningful feedback. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to write comments on an essay in less than fifteen minutes. Realistically, it often takes more time. I have experimented with many methods of feedback, but when I need to leave a healthy dose of ink, I use a hybrid approach of handwritten feedback and computer editing tools known as macros. This method doesn’t help me grade more quickly, but it does ensure that I maximize my time. Here’s my basic structure for working through a stack of essays: 

  • Students turn in two copies of an essay, one printed and one electronic copy via Google Docs.
  • I write more quickly on a piece of paper than I can highlight on a computer screen (I have timed each activity), so I go “old school” and leave marks on the page. The two to five minutes I save on each essay quickly add up. I also use a set of symbols to speed this marking process along.
  • I type longer comments that I later print and attach to the essay. I use macros (more on this step below) for common comments, but I also individualize feedback. I always limit myself to one page of typed comments per essay.
  • When finished, I photocopy the completed scoring rubric (which I will use during the revision process), print the one page of typed comments, and then staple the typed comments, the marked essay, and the scoring guide into one packet.
  • I give students at least one week to revise based on my feedback. I require a revision of every major essay, and I use the electronic copy in Google Docs to track the changes. The revision history in Google Docs feature shows me when and where changes were made. Because I made a photocopy of the scoring guide before handing back the essays, I simply look through the revision history on the computer and make changes to the photocopied scoring guide (another time-saver). I do NOT write any additional comments, as the students will not revise this draft, and I am not a glutton for punishment (even though this post may make you think that!)

Explanation of Macros

Using Macros in Microsoft Word I create a database of comments I seem to write over and over again. Creating these macros is straightforward. On a Mac, highlight the text and pull down the “Tools” menu. Select “Auto Correct.” Then choose the “Auto Text” tab. Add your personalized code in the Auto Text Entry field (making sure it’s a sequence of key strokes not likely to occur in your everyday typing) and then click on “Add.”

How to create Auto Text entires using a PC

Admittedly, creating this master list of comments takes more time on the “front end,” as I do have to think carefully about my phrasing and add each macro to the computer. In other words, when I get a new computer, I go through the process of adding all these comments to the Auto Text memory. Yet, I save so much time on the “back end” with this method. Over the course of the school year (and my teaching career), this system saves me more time the more I use the macro comments. Also, I have amassed my own comments over the years, and I make slight changes all the time. I didn’t make all of these at once. You will inevitably make your own set of comments that fits your needs. Yet, my list is a good place for you to start. Feel free to use it as your base. Of course, any method for giving student feedback has its own pros and cons, but I always come back to this method because my students consistently tell me it works. Each year I poll them, hoping they will tell me to cut back on my comments, but they never do. Extensive written feedback is one of my most effective tools for helping my students improve as writers.


PROS and CONS of the “Old School”/Macro Feedback System: Pros:

  • If a student sees the exact same comment about the misuse of the semi-colon over and over, she is more likely to notice a pattern of errors from essay to essay.
  • My comments are much more legible.
  • I give the same level of feedback to each student. As I get tired, I am not giving a less complete explanation to those students who just happen to have an essay toward the bottom of the stack.
  • I am able to offer much more feedback within 20 minutes than if I am just writing comments in the margin.
  • My feedback is more specific and clear.
  • In the end, I save my time.


  • If a student loses the marked hardcopy, she has lost my feedback.
  • If a student does not look at the symbol legend, she will be confused as to what my marks mean and the feedback could be meaningless. (To avoid this, I always build in class time where they review my comments with the legends at hand.)
  • Comments can be too specific. I want to create proactive writers that see me as a guide, not a crutch. I must be careful, then, to be clear and specific while not doing the “heavy lifting” for the students. It’s a balancing act. Also, I don’t create these extensive comments for every writing assignment.

19 Responses to “Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time”

  1. Peter Evans July 14, 2013 at 1:10 am #


    I have been reading your blog post titled “Grading essays how to: use macros to save time” and wondered if you would be willing to accept a guest blog post or review the eMarking Assistant Microsoft Word addin I have created to help me grade assignments electronically. I would be happy to provide you or your readers with 10 free one year licenses ($40 value each) for the Marking Assistant grading software.

    The following link provides several short video demonstrations of eMarking Assistant.

    The main benefits of using eMarking Assistant are:

    * it integrates into any version of Microsoft Word for Windows to provide a floating toolbar so people do not need to learn a new piece of software
    * it allows the user to quickly build up a bank of reusable comments containing text, images, audio, tables etc
    * you can easily insert these comments into the margin or the body of the assignment
    * you can easily move the commend bank from one computer to another or share it with other teachers
    * you can record audio comments in Word and embed the recording into the assignment
    * you can quickly create detailed analytic rubrics containing your own criteria, performance standards, and weightings for these
    * the automated rubrics respond to function key presses by calculating the weighted mark for each criteria and then totalling these and converting them into a percentage, weighted total, and grade
    * other tools allow you to do a quick plagiarism search for a phrase within Word

    I hope to hear from you soon,
    Kind regards,
    Peter Evans

    Dr Peter Evans
    Skype: evans-pj

    • ed September 20, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Wish there was something like this for Google Docs…

  2. ed September 20, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

    Hey Robin, thanks for the info. I do pretty much the same thing but completely paperless. I just insert the comments where the error exists.


    The poem is a warning to the Saxons that the Vikings are coming to conquer England. The speaker comes from Viking descent [[[ <– awkward wording here; please reword this. ]]] they vikings [[[ <– awkward wording here; please reword this. ]]] have a brutal attitude there [[[ ← "there" refers to a place. "their" shows ownership, like "their cat." they're is a contraction for "they are." ]]] culture is more about fights. [[[ ← you need evidence from the text to back up what you are saying; you must prove what you say by quoting or referring to specific words in the work. ]]]

    So students have to erase my text as they fix theirs. It has dropped my grading time by 2/3 over making comments on paper. I also only put such comments on drafts of essays as students barely read anything that they don't have to fix and turn in again.

    What I'd like to see (and perhaps work on) is a script for Google Document that macros in text where I want to insert it but with a different color text and perhaps a different font. It would include a side bar menu with the errors/comment abbreviations, so I would merely place my cursor and click the button on the side bar to have the comment inserted. It's definitely possible. Holy grail stuff.

    Just thought I'd share.



    • ed September 20, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      Here’s a link to the shortcuts I’ve been using through Google Document Preferences:–IARd5vWY/edit?usp=sharing

      • rbneal September 21, 2013 at 6:51 am #

        Ed, thanks so much for your comments and for sharing the shortcuts via the Google Doc preferences. I’ve always wanted to transfer my macros to Google Docs, but I never knew how to do this. You method seems like an elegant solution….very cool!

      • ed September 21, 2013 at 8:42 am #

        Glad to help. Perhaps together we can figure out an approach that formats the text which gets inserted so that it stands out more in the student’s essay…

    • ed September 21, 2013 at 8:55 am #

      Hehe, forgot to mention that I insert the comments into students’ papers by creating shortcuts through Google Document Tools > Preferences. I knew I was leaving something out . . .

      • catherine February 12, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

        I found your list and added my comments in preferences under tools, but I still don’t see how to use the short cuts when I am commenting…I know this is an old post but hoping you reply….

    • catherine February 12, 2015 at 7:54 pm #

      My school uses and it has the side bar of comments you want, but the student’s paper becomes a pdf once uploaded so even though they can see my comments, it is hard for them to make the changes. Please let me know if you have found a way to do this in google doc – it would save me soooo much time!

      • rbneal March 14, 2015 at 2:09 am #

        Hi Catherine…excuse the late reply. I have been away from the blog for the month and have just now read your question. Have you sorted out your question? If not, here’s my advice (and let me know if this does not answer your question).

        If you are trying to add AutoText in Word, as part of its comment feature or just starting a new Word document where you write on the physical paper and then just give a numbered list of typed comments, you will need to add each comment individually. Make any changes to my comments so they work for you, then:
        1. Highlight the text.
        2. Choose Tools.
        3. Click on AutoCorrect.
        4. Click on AutoText tab (top right)
        5. Type in a shortcut code you will remember.
        6. Click on add.

        These directions will be a bit different if you’re using a PC (I use a Mac), but there’s a link to those steps in the blog.

      • rbneal March 14, 2015 at 2:10 am #

        Catherine, it’s also possible to “mass transfer” these shortcut codes from one machine to the next by transferring the Normal.dotm file. My tech department helped me with this step. I found this very helpful when switching to a new laptop.

  3. syedrehan0 October 10, 2015 at 7:22 am #

    My school uses and it has the side bar of comments you want, but the student’s paper becomes a pdf for more about free essay visit Assignment Writing


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    […] me why it is worth our time to make the extra effort to publish online. I have written before about how I use macros and AutoText to save time when giving feedback on writing. In a recent essay, one of my students was making a chronic comma error, one that I dub The Most […]

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  5. Audio Feedback on Student Writing | Robin Neal - December 13, 2014

    […] not applied this same common sense to my feedback on student writing. I have written before about using macros to increase the precision, consistency, and detail of my written feedback, and I have shared other feedback time saving techniques. Of course, I always give students oral […]

  6. “The Power of Feedback” Summary: Part One | Robin Neal - April 24, 2015

    […] have written in the past about how I use macros to standardize my written comments and save some time. In that post I shared this example of the typical feedback I give a paper, and while I am not […]

  7. The Power of Feedback: Part Two | Robin Neal - June 14, 2015

    […] last statement is much longer, but because I use macros to make such comments, I will not take more time to give better feedback. If I am using an audio feedback approach, I […]

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