I'm a TA in several modules and one thing I couldn't find yet is a system to help me manage student lab submissions. Most online collaborative tools I've seen do not allow me to, or make it quite complex to receive files from students and download all of them at once.

Note that in my university, there is not such a strict discipline, in the sense that late submissions are often tolerated; if students forget to send their files, I'd like to gently remind them to do so; etc.

So far, I use e-mail for managing student submissions, but there are several limitations:

  • Students forget to send the e-mail, or send it to an incorrect address, or simply quit the course, but since I do not know in which case they are, I have to manually e-mail students from which no submission has been received;
  • Students have no guarantee I actually received the email, so I have to ACK them;
  • Students sometimes send an e-mail but forget the attachment, so I have to check each of them and notify the student;
  • Students sometimes send multiple versions, and if there is a deadline between them, it might change the grading criteria;

So far, I have to manually open each email, download the files to a separate folder, and ACK the student. This is quite boring. Something that would help me save some time and automate things (like sending reminders, one-click download of all files, etc) would be of great help.

So far I've seen Moodle and Piazza, but none of them seem to actually help much with student file management, or I missed something. Any indications of tools for the job?

  • You might want to have a look at TurnItIn
    – user102
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 9:59
  • 1
    Did you check that your university has not already implemented such a tool? I have experience with Moodle and ILIAS (popular among German-speaking universities) which would solve most of these issues.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 17:43
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    Wait... You want something that you don't have to install on your own servers, that also does not rely on any third party servers? I think that's called paper.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 16:53

10 Answers 10


One thing to consider is do you really need student assignments to be downloaded. I say this because I used to but I recently started using TurnItIn. However, I only use this for plagiarism detection, I do not use it for marking (university policy is that I MUST mark the paper copy...yes I know the dangers there, but that's for another day).

Since you didn't mention the larger issue you are trying to solve, I'll continue just with your direct question about how to download many student assignments without a million clicks.

What I did is simply setup an email account for students to email to (not my main email account). I instruct the students to use specific filenames (StudentID_StudentName_AssignmentName.docx) and they email me. I use a standalone email client (not webmail) so it all downloads to my computer. My client has a preview pane so I simply drag-drop to my assignment folder, move to the next message, drag-drop, repeat. I do this for 200-500 students per assignment per semester and find it does not lend itself to much more automation than this.

In all, it takes me 2 clicks per student (literally) and I end up with all student assignments in one folder. It handles ACK'ing the student on the server (auto-responder) but I could also use read-receipts but those don't usually work with webmail.

If you want to email students who did not submit, that's more complicated. I handle it during the marking process (let's see the file...ooops, they forgot...time to email them...or fail them for not submitting properly). TurnItIn will tell you which students did not submit.

As for students submitting multiple versions, as long as they submit with the proper naming convention, you will overwrite the older with the newer. I'm not sure if that is what you want or not but I would assume so.


I am assuming that the OP has checked and found that their university does not have any learning management system, like Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, or Sakai. All universities I am familiar with in the US do have these systems, just in case you are visiting from Google and are not the OP. This is why there are few practical answers, and why I can only suggest likely options.

If you are an instructor without an LMS, how can you track student uploads? The equivalent I am familiar with is middle school and high school teachers who want to collect student assignments. The most common tools these teachers use are Google Drive using scripts, and Edmodo. Here is the little info I know on these tools:

Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Drive, and scripts/addons like:

  • Doctopus, which creates folders for students on Google Drive
  • Autocrat, which makes mail-merge from Sheets and Gmail
  • Goobric for automated grading

I've never used Edmodo, but it is free, allows you to create groups for students to join, and allows students to upload assignments. I'm guessing it has some sort of messaging function for your emailing needs as well. Here are some vaguely current posts on Edmodo's functionality:

  • Very useful answer. Just to remark: it is neither hard nor expensive to install e.g. Moodle for instruction management, even if it is not done by the university.
    – Greg
    Commented Aug 12, 2014 at 3:16

Well, moodle CAN do it (you can define a task "file upload" which has a due date). Give it a try and if you like it you are fine.

I did not like it and wrote my own solution... (but I heard moodle improved the functionality so this might be sufficient).

  • This link: docs.moodle.org/23/en/Using_Assignment#File_submissions summarizes the file submission feature of the moodle. You need "assignment" module for this. All the submitted file for a given assignment are available in one folder on the server, and a zip can be downloaded from the moodle web interface by the teacher. Neat! Commented Jun 17, 2014 at 12:58

You did not mention your field of study, but this works pretty well at least in computer science. Most institutions grant their students disk space for a personal university homepage, usually available via address like http://institution.edu/~username/. Now, all you need to do is to ask the students to provide each of their weekly/monthly/whatever answers in a zip-file at their personal homepage in a specific format, e.g.


After the deadline for returning the answers has passed, you just run a simple shell script like this

for STUDENT in ($cat ./students.txt)
    mkdir $STUDENT
    wget http://institution.edu/~$STUDENT/course/week1.zip
    mv week1.zip ./$STUDENT/week1.zip
    unzip ./$STUDENT/week1.zip
    echo $STUDENT >> returned.txt

where the file students.txt has one username on a line, e.g.


and you will have the files neatly organized, and a text file "returned.txt" having the names of the students who returned an answer, which can be emailed to the course mailing list.


You can create a dropbox account for assignments and use a tool which allows anyone with a link to submit files without accessing your dropbox account. It will be a browser window where the student uploads the file. Ensure that you communicate to students a 'file naming' format like: StudentName_AssignmentName.doc

Some ways to upload to dropbox without access: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-ways-send-files-dropbox-dropbox/

  • 4
    The idea is good, but depending on your data protection and copyright protection policies you might run into problems since you don't have control over the dropbox-server. If you take it very strict, you would not be allowed to do it this way in Germany (which I think is ridiculous, but that's a different point).
    – OBu
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 10:24
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    I would stay away from Dropbox for any kind of serious work, mostly because the security protocol is unknown and you have no control over the data flow and storage.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jan 28, 2014 at 17:47
  • 1
    Strange! the way people have misconceptions on 'security'. We are surely not building some advanced weaponry for national security in these assignments. If we are, don't use dropbox! Well if you are super rich, go ahead buy a server to host an application to receive student assignments. OR buy an expensive application on the web.
    – Tejaswi R
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 1:07
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    Storing student records on Dropbox is specifically forbidden at my university.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 15, 2014 at 22:40
  • There are free alternatives that you can run on your own servers. Owncloud is one of them, I think.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Jun 21, 2014 at 22:25

We use an online tool at my school called Blackboard. I think they host it in house on their servers. There's a teacher - student relationship where the teacher adds students based on their login id to the course they are teaching, and students login to view content. Teachers administer content and can control everything in the course.

It supports (but is not limited to) quizzes and tests (timed, untimed, multiple attempts), storing downloadable files for students, message boards, wikis, and a gradebook that has all previous scores, etc. There's many more options, I've just included some of the important features.


I found http://dropitto.me is a beautiful app to you with Dropbox account (free 2G). There are also http://submitittome.com with many features that you can config as file name, file type allow, deadline of submission, and limit students that can submit for each task. You can try both and choose one.


Can you not set up a rule in your email inbox that takes all emails with a specific term in the subject and puts them in a separate folder? then you only need to download each of them manually, but that takes 10 seconds per email. You can also set up a rule that sends an automatic reply if the student's email adheres to the correct format and has an attachment, and only if received before the deadline.

This takes care of points 2 and 3.

I do not see why point 1 is a problem - if you receive no submission, then you have nothing to do? If the student has dropped the course, nothing happens. If they are still registered, they get the default failing grade with no extra work required from you. Which of the two it is, you can probably see when you have to enter all grades in the online intranet template if your university uses that; or you send an email to the examinations office saying "all grades are attached, if a student is missing, they did not submit".

To take care of point 4: Why would you consider a submission after the deadline? Using the below rules, you do not acknowledge emails received after the deadline (that is what the deadline is for; if you want to be on the safe or kind side, maybe set the cutoff date to 5 minutes after the deadline)

In sum, the only things not covered by this are

  • that you only take into account the last submission when a student submits multiple versions
  • that you still have to manually download and save the attachments.

But the still-required manual work is minimal, and the cleanliness of the mailbox and reliability of process is fully established, which is very valuable.

Example of the rules in Outlook:

enter image description here


Piazza is a nice tool for this. It's similar to blackboard but without the need to host in on school servers. The interface is also very good. It has built in emailing options and discussion forums. You can have students submit homework from the page you make for the course on the website.

  • 1
    The original poster explicitly mentioned Piazza was missing important features.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jun 15, 2014 at 19:28

You could look at simply setting up an FTP sever (File Transfer Protocol) with separate accounts for each student and administrator accounts for faculty, they can use FileZilla (free ftp software with server version too), which is how we upload files in my university... IT professors should have little problem in setting it up and taking care of security issues, and even less in writing a program or script that gathers up all the files with a specific format in the file name.. There probably is someone in the faculty who can take care of this. In the database with the accounts you will also have the e-mail addresses of the students, it's fairly simple to gather every single e-mail in a file, then copy paste them all to the receiver box and send them the same e-mail. I have not looked much into networks, but from my fair programming experience, it's nothing hard to do.

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