Help! My grading burden is crushing me!

Authored by Rich Kingsford, Software Development Manager and Adjunct Instructor

“Every semester, it seems like I have more and more tedious assignments and essays to grade. If I have to write one more red circle, I’m going to strangle someone.”
I hear you… Grading is a time suck. Let’s explore a few ways to reduce your grading burden.

Switch to self-grading

The quickest way to lessen your grading burden is to identify those assignments which are most painful to create, and then replacing them.  

For those areas and concepts that require memorization, Atomic Assessments has dozens of question types that can easily grade themselves.  How does zero maintenance sound? 

For those concepts that need to be applied to real-life scenarios in order to be mastered, you might consider replacing large essay assignments with a series of smaller ones.  Written discussions might be even more effective than one person essays.  After all, it’s much harder for one person to break out of their own mindset or identify blind spots or gaps in their thinking.

Modern discussion tools such as Slack, Trello, Microsoft Teams, and Atomic Discussions make discussion template management so easy, you can do it in your sleep (or on your phone while your kids are at the splash pad).

Templates and hotstrings

Grading templates and rubrics are pretty common, but are yours so flexible that you can grade a two-page essay in less than 30 seconds?  One way I do this is to list out the more common mistakes I see in a given essay and then list out the feedback in a template.  Then, I paste the template into the grading system for the student and manually check and erase any irrelevant feedback items.  Easy.  I can manually grade 20 students’ essays with high quality, personalized feedback (well… semi-personalized) in 15 minutes.  

If you enjoy dabbling in programming, you might try hotstrings. A hot string is when you press one key or the beginnings of a phrase and then press spacebar and it replaces your text (string) with the defined value. For example, I might type “readabilityIssue” (no spaces) and then press spacebar and my hotstring would replace it with “I caught one or more readability issues in your argument.  Please see Writing Clearly, especially chapter 5.”  

“Yeah… But then you have to remember 100 hotstrings”

  • The fastest hotstring tools (I like Autohotkey) list out your hot strings in an instant and let you press just a single letter.  Pretty cool, huh? If you want to explore using hotstrings, I even created a blog post to walk you through how to use Autohotkey to reduce your grading burden

How do you reduce your grading burden in your classes?

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I am so sick of grading papers… Automating part of your grading burden with hotstrings

Authored by Rich Kingsford, Software Development Manager and Adjunct Instructor


I was first asked to adjunct a class in 2012 – I was very excited.  For about 5 minutes…until I discovered adjuncting involved mountains of grading.  Especially essay grading (blech!).  But the non-whiny part of me really wants to build my students’ writing and logic skills…  

Sound familiar?  Today is your lucky day – I’m going to share some hotstrings with you.  I’ll even throw in some other simple macros.  After we’re done, you’re going to wish you could buy me a meal through DoorDash.

Intro to hotstrings

A hotstring is when you type in a short string (series of letters – or a word) and the string gets replaced with whatever other string you’d like.  

Here’s my ‘mycell’ one:

I love to set up hotstrings (and other macros) for grading statements.  Here are some grading hotstrings I recently used for a Finance class in my MBA program:

  • Q1.  Must mention EBIT volatility
  • Q3.  K-wacc = 9.41%
  • Q4.  NPV: $7.99.  PI: 1.7.  IRR: 22.6%

You could make hotstrings like “q1, q2, or q3” and then the hotstring would erase your one string and replace it with another string.  Hint: a string is just a series of letters, like ‘asdf’ or ‘dog.’ 

To use hotstrings, you first need to create a macro and then run your macro.  A macro is a set of instructions that tell your computer to run a process (e.g. replace ‘this string’ with ‘that string’).  My favorite hotstring or macro tool for Windows is Autohotkey.  For Macs, see how to setup hotstrings on a Mac.

Your first hotstring (using Autohotkey)

If you’d like to make your first Autohotkey script, here are some instructions:

  1. Install Autohotkey

2. Copy the two lines below

::Vaguee::Some arguments are a little too general.  It’s good for the arguments to be brief, but they should be specific, insightful, and well defended.
::Unclearr::Some readability problems here.  Please reference the guidelines on this clear writing resource:

3. Open Notepad

4. Paste the two lines and save the file as whateverYouWant.ahk

5. Double-click the Autohotkey file to make it run

6. Type ‘vaguee’ (did it replace the word with your grading statement?)

Cool huh?

“Why did you spell ‘Vaguee’ and ‘Unclearr’ like that?”

  • So it wouldn’t mess me up when I type normally. 
  • Remember Jim’s prank on Dwight in The Office?  If not, here’s a youtube video on the topic.  Go ahead and watch it… I’ll wait.

So… you actually use these?

I do!  Especially when grading essays.

Except I often use another method, that’s far easier to setup.  I just copy/paste whatever grading statements I want for the assignment and then just erase the irrelevant ones.  So if a paper was perfect, I’d erase all of them.  When I’m feeling especially motivated, I’d copy/paste the student’s statement right before my feedback. 

A quick example: 

“Here’s a dumb sentence a student write.”   Some grammar/sentence structure issues throughout. Suggest using GMAT practice exams to study up on proper grammar.

I use this method for my finance papers.  I’ll paste my statements again here:

  • Q1.  Must mention EBIT volatility
  • Q3.  K-wacc = 9.41%
  • Q4.  NPV: $7.99.  PI: 1.7.  IRR: 22.6%

For essays, I used these grading statements (I used my second macro 👆 to navigate these): 

The response contains too many details describing abstract concepts.  Be brief in describing concepts and do so only when explaining your response to the prompt question.

Slightly breaches the length limit.  Specificity, thoroughness, clarity, and insightfulness are good, but should be done within the limit.

A few too many facts from the case without original thought.  The focus should be on original insights in the context of case facts.  Case facts can also be used to illustrate or explain your thinking.

Argument fails to adequately address the question

Insufficient detail on some responses.  Arguments should be specific, insightful, and well defended.

Some grammar/sentence structure issues throughout. Suggest using GMAT practice exams to study up on proper grammar.

Please include the questions as topic headers in future assignments

Very good arguments.  Well articulated.  I had a hard time finding flaws in this essay.

Use topic headers.  These help give the reader context and make it so he or she can interpret the content as fast and effortlessly as possible.

Some arguments are a little too general.  It’s good for the arguments to be brief, but they should be specific, insightful, and well defended.

Some readability problems here.  Please reference the guidelines on this clear writing resource:


I joked around in my intro, but I truly believe the best teachers preserve their energy and apply it to the highest priority activities.  Rarely is grading papers my highest priority activity… I’ll admit to some laziness and desire to minimize the time I spend grading papers, but I also care about my students and want, very deeply, to strengthen their logic and writing muscles.  Macros and hotstrings are fun and help me with all of this.

Atomic Assessments: The Gridded Question Type

Authored by Tawny Hoskin

We love building quiz questions that are 1) self-graded, 2) interesting, and 3) are phone-friendly! Let me introduce you to the Gridded Question type – one of the 64 different item types in Atomic Assessments.

The Gridded Question type has been developed based on the STAAR science assessments standards (Griddable Questions For Science), which use a type of open-ended question known as a griddable item.

In this question type, students are presented with a grid of columns containing bubbles, with the numbers 0 to 9 in a vertical list underneath.

The answer grids can include a fixed decimal point, or floating decimal points where the top bubble in each column contains the decimal point.

Students enter their answer in the top input field by clicking (or “shading”) a numeral / decimal / plus / minus bubble underneath, or they can type directly inside the input field and the question will automatically “shade” the corresponding bubble in the column underneath.

When to use it?

The purpose of griddable items is to provide students with the opportunity to derive answers independently without being influenced by answer choices provided with the questions.

This question type is not only ideal if you want to truly test student knowledge, but this question type is also graded automatically; no tedious, manual, grading required!

How to use it?

First, make sure Atomic Assessments is installed in your Canvas instance. If it is not, you can schedule a demo and get a free 30 day trial for this Canvas plugin. The Gridded Question can be found when you add a new item and navigate to the “Other” tab.

Location of the Gridded Question Type

This question type can be used in summative and formative assessments by embedding it into a Canvas page or in quiz form, both options have a wide variety of configuration options available (unscored options, response specific feedback, multiple attempts, penalty points, etc.).

A gridded question type embedded into a Canvas page with 3 allowed attempts.

We hope you enjoy creating assessments with Atomic Assessments!

How do have you used or how do you plan to use the Gridded question type? Happy Gridding 🙂


Presented by Michael Hakkerinen

Thank you to Michael Hakkarinen, Harmonize Success Coach at Harmonize for sharing a product demonstration with our team here at Atomic Jolt!  Harmonize has many rich media features that make it fun and easy for students to engage with classmates and course content.  I was especially impressed by the variety of content types (audio recordings, video recordings, annotated images, annotated videos, emojis, text and more).  Below are some highlights.  Thanks again, Michael!


In case you’d like to jump to a highlight in the video above, here are some highlight timestamps.

  • 1:20: Executive summary of Harmonize
  • 3:10: Basic functionality
  • 5:21: Detailed engagement on a post
  • 8:46: How an instructor creates a topic
  • 13:30: Some advanced features
  • 21:10: Zoom integrations (and other integrations)
  • 25:45: Upcoming features

Purpose of Harmonize

Authored by Rich Kingsford, Software Development Manager and Adjunct Instructor

Harmonize boosts student engagement in the online or in-person classroom through asynchronous communication tools similar to popular social media platforms.  Harmonize integrates with popular Learning Management Systems (LMSs), including Blackboard, Brightspace, Canvas, and Moodle.  This integration makes Harmonize more accessible to students, teachers, and instructional designers (it can also decrease your set-up hassle too – Woohoo!).

The Essence of Harmonize

The essence of Harmonize, to me, was its peer-to-peer engagement tools.  I’ve seen a few tools that offer asynchronous discussion, but Harmonize’s tools seemed more intuitive, more attractive, and more accessible.  I loved the card concept, where instead of a standard text discussion they engage with a more visual card-style layout where there are images and reactions that are intuitive to students.  On the back of the card, there are more details and space for responses and comments. It’s designed to help students think of their own discussion questions and engage in their own way.

Interface view highlighting the assignment and card layout.

Rich Media

This part impressed me the most.  Harmonize includes all the popular text-editing capabilities (dynamic links, tags, embedded images, styling, and drag-and-drop attachments) plus the ability for students and teachers to record audio and or video!  Straight from your phone or pre-recorded.  What’s more, students can annotate images and video (timestamps) without needing to use a separate tool.  “A picture says 1,000 words,” indeed!

These images show the video and image annotation within Harmonize , allowing you to to drop time markers and add notes to help students.

More Features

A few additional features I could help but mention:

  • Native 1:1 and group chat, facilitating asynchronous & private conversation (student or teacher initiated). 
  • Student tagging, making it easier for students to get their team members’ attention.  
  • “Flag as question for the teacher” toggle on any post
  • Engagement analytics, including views, comments, responses – both on the positive and negative side, making it easier for the instructor to identify less-engaged students and possibly nudge them.
  • Online presence, making it easy to see who is online in the moment
  • Zoom integration, allowing you to create Zoom rooms without leaving the window and the ability to post recorded zoom sessions easily in the discussion to engage all members of the class (sidenote: I find it easier to just use a single, personal, web conferencing room the entire semester – I just bookmark and hotkey the room url).


Harmonize offers fantastic engagement capabilities for online, hybrid and face-to-face classes.  Even in my face-to-face courses, I’m using asynchronous discussion tools more often to engage students.  This  can help a shy or embarrassed student move out of their comfort zone and engage in richer conversations. Additionally, it can open the door to self-paced learning, allowing each student in the class to learn as much as they can as individuals. They facilitate organic mentorships – where one student helps another.  Harmonize is easy-to-use and accessible with a WCAG 2.1 Level A and AA rating. I’m especially impressed by their attention to detail on those small, often forgotten, challenges students and instructors face.

You can learn more about Harmonize by attending a webinar or exploring their Best Practice Guide, eBooks, or Product Reviews.