I am about to teach a class with about 100 students. The class has weekly take-home exams, and multiple in-class exams. I have TA's, but still the task of collecting and returning the students' write-up is non-trivial, and if not done well can take significant time away from the class (including because of people not always coming to class, reportedly missing write-ups, etc).

What system (electronic or not) is better for collection, grading, and return of take-home homework and in-class exams?

Specific starter points: I heard some people use Blackboard for electronic submission, grading, and return of homework. Is it good? I also heard of Watson. Is anyone using these?

What about in-class exams? Is there anyone who scans them and returns them electronically?

What about paper-based systems? Do you have a submission box? Do you leave write-ups for the students to pick at each class?

  • 6
    Many universities now have a central online system for this, e.g. Moodle, Blackboard, etc. Check what your colleagues use, and stick to it - it will be much easier for you and your students. Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 11:39
  • From personal experience, I strongly recommend avoiding your university's central online system like the plague and using Gradescope instead.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 23:24
  • 1
    @JeffE A potential problem with that is that most students will be familiar with the institution's LMS, and perhaps not with Gradescope. (In my own institution, Brightspace is required; I wouldn't be allowed to use Gradescope.)
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 1:11
  • @JeffE It would be very helpful if you explain your workflow with Gradescope. Such as: students do exam in class, TA scans them (?), Gradescope automatically splits the scan in multiple documents corresponding to the students (??), ...
    – Manu
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 11:30
  • @EmanueleViola So far I've only used Gradescope for homework, which students submit electronically (except some students submit scans of hand-written paper). Everything is done online with simple interfaces, especially for setting/changing rubrics and for regrade requests. Gradescope does some support bulk-scanning paper exams, but I haven't tried it yet, primarily because exams have to be associated with students manually. I'm thinking of trying it this semester; ask me again in a few months.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 11, 2017 at 16:49

3 Answers 3


To my mind, the biggest problem, after actually grading so much work, is the possibility of a student claiming that work was turned in but later lost by you or the TA. You allude to this in your question.

You don't say where you are, but it is likely your university has a "learning management system," such as Blackboard, Brightspace, or Moodle,that can be used to collect take-home work. For multiple-choice assessments, the learning management system can probably grade them, too. The huge advantage of this is that there's no possibility of "lost" work; either the student submits the work or not.

For in-class exams, have a letter tray similar to the "inbox" one might have on a desk. Require each student to deposit his own exam into the letter tray and, at the end of class, put a binder clip on the stack. (For 100 students, you'll probably need four stacks of 25.) Grade the exams on a completely clear desk and there's no possibility of lost work there, either. If a Scantron machine is available and multiple-choice exams will work for you, use that for grading. I have smaller classes, and I take each paper directly from the student's hand and mark the student's name on the class list. Students observe me to do this, and I don't get complaints that I "lost" their work.

Work graded through the learning management system is returned electronically. If you use Scantron forms for in-class testing, it may be possible to get the results electronically and return them via the LMS. Your testing center can probably tell whether that's possible. I have returned in-class paper tests through the LMS by scanning and uploading them. We have a copier that can serve as a scanner, and that work can be performed by a TA or student assistant. If you must return paper exams in class, have them sorted alphabetically and return them at the end of class so that students may leave when they've picked up their graded work.

  • As a student, I couldn't agree more. My college currently uses Canvas, previously Blackboard. Neither work particularly well, but that is more a function of Administration forcing all departments to work on a centralized server than anything else. Have had the pleasure of submitting an assignment, having it recorded as being submitted, having a record of files uploaded on the schools servers......but having the server somehow delete my files on it's own without user input. The only drawback to physically handing in work, is when the exam is writing a program, hard to compile paper. Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 5:49
  • @NZKshatriya Hmmm... I made the assumption that the LMS server was administered competently. If that's not the case, it is not only not useful, it's a detriment to teaching and learning. (The major LMSs all seem to work more-or-less like the documentation says, so lost files are quite likely a problem of incompetent administration.)
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 12:34

I'll address the "Blackboard" part of your question, since this is what my university uses. And I must say, I'm quite happy with it!

A short (non-exhaustive) overview of its features with respect to homework and exams:

  • Basic assignment features: starting date, deadline, description of the assignment, attaching extra documents...

  • Different "shown" deadline and "actual" deadline. When making an electronic assignment or test, you can choose 2 dates: the deadline as shown to students, and the deadline where it becomes impossible to hand in the assignment/test.

    This second deadline allows students to hand in their work late, which you may want to allow - if not, just make both deadlines the same. Note that this second deadline is invisible to students.

  • There is a grade center providing a spreadsheet overview of all students and their assignments, tests, grades, etc. It allows you to grade assignments, to weigh the grades, but also to send mails by selecting students on this spreadsheet.

    If students had handed in homework past the deadline, there will be a notification saying "too late" next to the relevant assignments.

  • In case of the assignment being a recognised document (e.g. pdf), you can make annotations on the document itself and, if desired, add these to the feedback the student receives.

  • Students have a my grades menu where they can read their grades, together with any comments and annotations you have added.

  • TurnItIn integration: this automatically compares uploaded documents to other documents found online; with the goal of detecting plagiarism.

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    And I must say, I'm quite happy with it! — Huh. This is literally the first time I have heard anybody say that they actually like Blackboard.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 23:25
  • 2
    @JeffE To be honest, I have the same experience. Nearly all of my colleagues dislike it. My main annoyance is that, when making a new course in Blackboard, there are a bazillion of unnecessary things enabled (wiki, achievements, ...) while many of the extremely useful tools are quite hidden and hence rarely ever used! I'll admit, it can take a lot of time and effort to make a good course on blackboard that is useful to both teacher and student - but it's definitely possible!
    – sTertooy
    Commented Jan 3, 2017 at 23:36

Re: Blackboard: Yes, it works perfectly fine this purpose. I use it for weekly multiple-choice quizzes in all my classes and find that it benefits my class management a lot. It's automatically and instantaneously graded, provides immediate feedback to students, a 24/7 grade center that students can check on at any time, and copious statistical reporting on the back end which I use to drive future updates in all of my classes. There are lots of options now that you may want to investigate. A few pointers:

One: How you make Blackboard tests in the first place is a bit of a question; I find the web interface a bit slow and inelegant. Personally, I find it more efficient to make my quizzes locally in Pearson TestGen, and then export them to Blackboard as a separate step. TestGen looks like this:

Pearson TestGen

Two: While the most familiar use-case is for multiple-choice questions, Blackboard has many other formats of questions you can use. Just one example: For quantitative questions, you can require numerical input that gets scored as correct if it matches a certain number within a certain tolerance ("Calculated Numeric"). You can even include variable questions, so different students have different questions, with a formula under the hood that determines the correct answer ("Calculated Formula"). Limitation: The answer must be a decimal-notation number; fractions and algebraic expressions cannot be constructed/graded automatically in this way. (Also, my Pearson TestGen process doesn't work for more than simple multiple-choice items.) List from the Blackboard interface:

Blackboard Question Types

Three: The back-end statistics are so fascinating that I find some amount of risk in being a bit personally addicted to checking them on a daily basis. You can also export all of the individual responses to an item and run statistical tests (in, say, a spreadsheet or SPSS) looking for what important factors correlate with entry diagnostics, final exam scores, etc. Here are some samples of reports from within Blackboard:

Blackboard column statistics Blackboard test statistics Blackboard item analysis

Finally, if you don't want automatic grading of tests, then that's supported as well (e.g., for essay, coding, or other subjective questions); tests come in and then the instructor gives grades and feedback via the interface later. Also there are "assignments" in which students can upload documents and then the instructor grades them likewise (including possibly use of a "rubric" which allows grading by selecting from among several radio-button options).

  • Wow, so that's what the instructor sees in Blackboard. How thick is the manual? Commented Jan 4, 2017 at 5:52

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