Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Going Paperless in the Classroom – 11 Tips for Managing Electronic Submissions

photo-1428591345840-8f3d75d06246-2.jpegHistorians seem to something of an unofficial motto: Death to Trees! Obviously most historians don’t actually have a death wish for trees, but many don’t see how it’s possible to avoid using so much paper. Thankfully, there is a solution: going paperless. The benefits to going paperless are endless, but while there is a great deal of advice on how to do this when it comes to research materials or in elementary and high schools, there just isn’t a lot of material on how to go paperless in a university classroom. In this first post in a series on going paperless in the classroom, I will be addressing one of the biggest paper producers: student assignments. With some preparation and good organization, every professor can make the switch to electronic assignment submissions. Here are some of my suggestions on making this work.

1) Don’t Fly By the Seat of Your Pants

As busy as most professors are, it’s tempting to just tell yourself that you’ll figure it all out when the time comes. Resist! The key to being successful when it comes to handling electronic submissions is to be prepared. So have a plan before you set foot in the classroom.

2) Organize Your Inbox

When it comes to electronic submissions, email can be your greatest friend or your greatest foe. Your email address will be the gateway for all of your student’s submissions. So make sure you have a system in place to handle this influx of email. This is especially the case if you are dealing with multiple courses and/or sections. Everyone organizes differently, but here is how I do it: Each course section receives it’s own master folder, labelled with the course number, section, semester, and year (this keeps everything straight when you teach the same course frequently). Within each master folder, I create one folder for each expected assignment. Once a student submits, I put the email into the master folder. This is my holding folder. Anything in here is considered as “in progress” and needs to be marked. When I’m ready to mark, I will open this email, download the file, and mark the assignment. Once I’ve done that, the email goes into the appropriate assignment folder to signify that it has been graded. Whichever system you use, make sure you are consistent, or you will have lots of troubling findings things afterwards.

3) Organize Your Computer

I have been guilty of dumping student files on my desktop with mental notes to “deal with it later.” Don’t be old me. Instead, put a system in place at the beginning of the semester to make it easy for you to store and find all of your documents. I usually just replicate the same structure that exists in my email, since that way I only have to remember one system, not two.

4) Labels Are Your Friends

Once I’ve downloaded a student’s assignment, I immediately save and rename the file. The file is saved into the corresponding assignment folder I’ve already established on my computer. I label each document according to the student and the assignment. So for example, let’s say Jane Doe has submitted a Primary Source Analysis. Here’s how I would title her submission: “Doe.JanePS.docx.” This makes searching later on much easier. You can find all of your student’s assignments at one time, and you can differentiate between them quickly. And again, be consistent, so you can find things afterwards!

5) Communicate Your Expectations

Don’t spring electronic submissions on your students when it comes time to hand in their first assignment. I discuss how to submit assignments on the first day of class (though admittedly I end up having to explain this several times, since the first day of class is eons ago in student time). Two issues should especially be made very clear: a deadline for submissions and a required format (if any).

6) Pick Deadline Dates and Times

In classes where hard copies are required, most assignments are due on a specific day before the end of class. Anything handed it after this period is automatically late. But when you accept electronic submission of assignments, while you can set a date, unless you set a time, you leave yourself open to getting emails right up until midnight. I personally think this is unfair to students who actually submit their assignments during class hours. So my rule of thumb is that all electronic assignments must be in my inbox before the start of class. Anything I get after that point is considered late.

7) File Formats: Pages, Word, Word Perfect, Oh My!

As someone who is a devoted Mac follower (just take my money!), I know all about file incompatibility. Add in the various word processing programs and versions of each, and you have a potential mess when it comes to file formats. So I recommend selecting one required format for submissions. Some professors like to use PDFs, since they tend to preserve the document formatting well. I prefer to use Word documents. Word is the industry standard in North America at the moment, and all students have access to the software either on their home computers or at school. The program is also compatible across multiple versions, even between .doc and .docx files (both can be read no matter which version of Word you are using).

Expert Tip: More and more students are not buying Word and using services like Onenote or Google Drive for word processing. If this is the case with your students, it might be worth using the .rtf file format. It’s compatible with nearly all computers and can be opened with Word. One caution though: most .rtf readers don’t come with a track changes function, so your students may or may not be able to read your comments.

I also prefer Word because of the” track changes” function. This makes correcting assignments, particularly research papers, really easy. You can edit the document in a way that students can see the corrections you are making. You can also easily add comment boxes wherever you’d like. And best of all, this can be done in whatever colour you’d like! I always use aqua, since it’s my favourite.

8) Pre-empt “Did You Get This?” Emails

Want to avoid getting a million emails from students checking to make sure you got their assignment? Try this: reply to each submission with a short email that just says “Received. – Andrea” Sometimes I do this as soon as I get the email, but I mostly do it in batches after the deadline has passed. Then I can just copy-paste rather than retyping the same email over and over again. Saves my poor fingers.

9) Handle One Submission at a Time

What do I mean? I usually avoid downloading all of my students’ files at the same time, and instead work with just one email at a time. Why? Because many students will title their file as “research paper,” and not all of them include a title page with their submission. Good luck figuring out what belongs to whom if this is the case. Plus, you will likely just clutter up your “Downloads” folder and end up re-downloading the same assignment multiple times.

10) Return Everything at the Same Time

When you are marking electronically, you will need to decide if you want to return your assignments as you mark them or all at the same time. Personally, I think that it’s only fair that all students receive their assignments back at the same time. So I wait and do them all at the same time, usually after the end of the class. I attach the document with corrections, comments, and grades, and send an email that says “Paper and comments attached. – Andrea.” I’ve used my initial in the past, but some students seemed to think that I had given them an A when I did this!

11) Stay Away from the Delete Button

Once an assignment has been graded, it’s tempting to delete the email. The same is true for the saved assignments on your computer after the semester is over. It’s a very visceral way of marking how done you are with a particular class. But this isn’t generally a good idea. In most universities, professors are required to store their students’ assignments for a period of time (usually at least a year). So take this advice for your electronic assignments as well. Why keep the emails? If you’ve used a computer for any length of time, you know that things go wrong all the time.

Expert tip: If you are really well organized and/or paranoid, you can also store these files on an external hard drive, flash drive, or a cloud server (like Dropbox). However, some universities don’t permit the use cloud servers due for legal reasons, so make sure you check with your institution!


So that is how I manage the electronic submission of assignments in my paperless classes. I think the two most important takeaway points are to have a good system in place and to be consistent. Doing this will prevent most major headaches. The same principles should apply to hard copies, but let’s face it who actually does that? 😉 Do you have any experience(s) with allowing electronic submission of assignments? Any recommendations? Questions? Leave a comment below!


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  1. Great article! People use way too much paper.

    I have to disagree with papers being due at the beginning of the class when they are being submitted electronically. Let’s be honest, you aren’t going to mark them right away. So why not make them due at midnight? That way you look like an amazing teacher by giving your students an extra couple hours and it takes a bit of stress off of them. It would also make it easier for you to tell if they were late. You don’t even have to look at the timestamp on the email, just the date.

    For email, I use filters. Of course this makes the assumption that the student will use consistent subjects, but you can set up filters to automatically move emails from your inbox to a specified folder.

    • Thanks Jessica! They do, but especially historians. The amount of photocopying is obscene….

      Anyways, the reason I have assignments due at the beginning of class is to encourage students to show up. If the assignment is due at midnight, they will use class time to write their papers rather than attending the lecture. And I want butts in the seats, so they can learn. But it is definitely something I’ve been contemplating. Maybe having them due at midnight the day before?

      Filters reply on students following instructions…

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