Using Moodle to Comment on Students’ Papers

   I regularly teach writing-intensive courses, such as Introduction to the Humanities Through the Fine Arts (HUMA 100) and Introduction to Literary Studies (ENGL 150), and so I require students to hand in one revision of each paper except the final one; they have the option of submitting one or two further revisions of each paper (except the final one), as well.  They do not get written feedback on a first draft; instead, I meet with each of them in a half-hour conference, during which they take notes about what to do.  Before COVID forced us to make adjustments, I would ask students to turn in printed versions of each piece of writing.  When they gave me a revision, I would evaluate it by physically juxtaposing it with the previous draft(s) and comment on the various changes they’d made.  During the spring of 2020, when the pandemic ended in-person instruction, students would e-mail me their work, and I would then write comments on it, scan it, and forward each scanned document to them – a time-consuming process.

    In the fall of 2020, when I was teaching in-person again but needed to go paperless, I thought I would try a different approach that I hoped would be less cumbersome:  I had the students submit each piece of writing as a Google Doc, and I would type comments on it.  Since I don’t like my handwriting and can type fairly quickly, I enjoyed this approach for a while.  The problem I kept running into, however, was that when a student would turn in a new version of a paper, the previous draft would get replaced with it.  Although Google Docs would tell me what changes the student had made, I could not often see the full context.  And besides, Google would not report the changes in the order in which they appeared in the paper.  Instead, it took a chronological approach: changes made first, then changes that came next, etc.  If a student hopped around, Google’s sequence was hard to line up with her or his previous draft, which I had to do my best to reconstruct, using notes I’d made and relying on my memory.  Needless to say, I ended up spending way more time commenting on students’ writing than in the previous semester.

    I heard from several friends that Word would allow me to “track changes,” so during the break between semesters, I started learning how to use it.  When Susan Ashley, who has always been extraordinarily helpful and patient with me, told me that many students were unfamiliar with it, she encouraged me to apply to be a Digital Fellow, since I would be helping them learn a new skill.  But once the semester started and I told Susan more about my needs, I came to the conclusion that Word would not quite work for me.  So she and Taylor Jadin suggested that I use Moodle to accept students’ work and comment on it. 

    I was very happy to discover that I could set up assignments, including revisions, in separate “portals,” so I could easily go back and forth between different drafts, without finding that a student had changed parts of one by editing it.  All my comments remained intact, so I could review what I’d asked for and assess how completely a change had been made.  It has been a great relief to have found a digital approach that was comparable to juxtaposing printed documents.

    Moodle also enabled me to do something that I’d experimented with several decades ago but discontinued:  writing comments in different colors, depending on the issue being addressed.  Since I typically provide a lot of feedback, I have always worried that a student could get overwhelmed by seeing a number of comments on each page, all in a pencil’s gray; but using blue and red pens made me more anxious, since I couldn’t erase and since it never occurred to me to seek out colored pencils.  Moodle offers six colors for highlighting part of a text or marking it, as well as for creating speech bubbles that include comments.  I used blue for matters of explanation and structure, buff for wording, and green for mechanics (I deliberately avoided the stereotypical red).  I liked this approach a lot.  Typing was more satisfying than writing by hand, the speech bubbles meant that a page didn’t have phrases and sentences sprinkled across it, and the different colors created variety.  What I was also gratified to discover was that with only a few exceptions, students who handed in extra revisions had addressed all of my comments, instead of skipping a number of them (as would happen more than occasionally in the old days).  So although I never conducted a poll about my feedback, the results suggested that the new system helped students pay attention more effectively and therefore put themselves in a better position to improve their writing.

     My use of Moodle also developed over the course of the semester.  Initially I would just highlight words or sentences that I wanted to comment on – including whole blocks of text.  But after a while I thought I would experiment and use something called “Pen,” which enabled me to draw lines with my mouse.  At first I would either put a vertical line next to a sentence or sentences or cross out a word or phrase, and then add a speech bubble.  Sometimes my lines would get skewed, but I still liked the result: the page was less blanketed with color.  I eventually went farther, even though I didn’t know if my hand would be sure enough, and started drawing brackets, arrows, and squiggly lines (both vertical and horizontal) and occasionally circling a place needing different punctuation.  I haven’t always been happy with my artistry, but drawing on a document has been freeing and playful.  It’s been fun to engage my right hand and forearm in a greater variety of movements.

     I am grateful to Susan Ashley, Taylor Jadin, and two students:  Caleb Ashley and Cassie Nooyen; they all patiently taught me how to use different features of Moodle.  For years I had been skeptical about commenting on students’ work digitally, so I was surprised to find that plunging into this new approach, at least via Moodle (rather than Google Docs), turned out to be enjoyable.  I can’t say that I’ve saved time; it takes me about as long to type and draw with my mouse as it did to write with a pencil, and creating the speech bubbles before typing comments adds several seconds again and again and again, seconds that add up.  But as I mentioned earlier, students who did extra revisions have been more thorough and, I hope, have made more progress as writers than when I provided feedback in a more old-fashioned way.  I am satisfied with Moodle and look forward to using it in the future.


As I mentioned, I started off highlighting different parts of a student’s paper and then putting comments in speech bubbles.  Here is a sample:

I found all this highlighting a bit time-consuming, so I started using the Pen function to put vertical lines next to the sentence(s) in question.  There were times when the vertical line was more of a diagonal, but it was still better than covering the paper with a lot of color.  Eventually, I had fun experimenting with the Pen function and drawing brackets, squiggly lines, and circles.  I don’t have the steadiest hand – sometimes my circle would obliterate what I was trying to mark – but I still enjoyed creating curves.  Here is an example:

At the top of the above illustration is the tool bar for working with a student’s paper.  The fifth and sixth icons from the left have to do with commenting.  Clicking on the buff rectangle provides a choice of colors for the background of the comment (which itself is always in black), and clicking on the icon next to it – the one that looks like a page of text – makes it possible to create a speech bubble and then write a comment inside it.  The diagonal arrow a little farther to the right can move the enclosed comment to a different, more appropriate location.

Immediately to the right of the diagonal arrow is the Pen function (the icon with the two loops).  Clicking on it enables a person to use the mouse to draw all kinds of lines.  The icon at the very end (a red drop in the illustration) provides a choice of colors for each line.  So in the above illustration, I looped a green circle around a problematic comma and put a squiggly blue line under a description that needed to be more accurate.

There were times when I would click on the Pen function and draw something but then would forget to click on the Comment function.  So instead of creating a speech bubble, I would inadvertently add another line to the student’s paper.  It was possible to erase at least some of these unintentional lines, but sometimes I would keep using the Pen function to extend the line into an arrow and then create the speech bubble.  In the example below, the first arrow was the result of a mistake, whereas the second one was deliberate.  It was fun to move the cursor more extensively than usual, almost as if making a swoosh with it.

Here is one last illustration, showing a bracket and an arrow that changes direction, along with features I used more routinely:

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