Use AutoHotkey, Microsoft Word, and doPDF to Grade Papers Electronically

Attendee lists by quinn.anyaA few weeks back I detailed the many benefits of using Autohotkey (AHK) to create custom hotkeys and automate keystrokes. As a follow-up, I wanted to spell out the method I use for marking up student papers electronically using a combination of AHK, Microsoft Word, and doPDF. For those of you who dislike Microsoft products or simply don’t own a copy of Word, any full-featured word processor should do. You’ll just want to make sure that it offers you the ability to add comments to existing text. Similarly, you can use your preferred PDF creation software. There are many that do exactly what doPDF does.

Unlike many aspects of life, grading papers is faster with a pencil than with a computer. It seems as if the added time required to grade papers electronically represents a significant obstacle to the adoption of a largely paperless classroom. When grading a paper, you need to be able to read and mark quickly, often leaving just a single word, phrase, or editor’s mark above a word or sentence. I find, often enough, that a simple question mark best illustrates my profound confusion with what’s being said in a paper. These marks are quick and easy to make with a pencil. Unfortunately, inserting comments and typing such notes into a word processor isn’t nearly as convenient. The number of keystrokes and mouse clicks required slows the process and keeps you computing when you need to be grading.

For business users and others doing collaborative work, the Track Changes feature in Word and other word processors offers a very powerful tool for marking up someone else’s work. However, this feature isn’t really appropriate for the student-teacher (or TA) relationship. You don’t want the student to simply “accept all changes” you’ve made. You want them to read your comments and markups and make the revisions on their own.

At our university, the SAKAI based course management system (CMS) allows the instructor or TA to input comments using brackets within the student’s text. But that feature only applies if the students compose and submit their work directly through the system. For papers longer than a page, you’d want an actual word processor file to allow for proper formatting and footnotes. At some colleges and universities where the CMS includes the paper management and plagiarism checking system Turnitin, the GradeMark add-on to that system provides an option for electronic grading. Natalie Houston over at ProfHacker wrote a post about grading with that system last month.

Marking Up Papers

First off, you’ll need to collect the assignment from the students electronically. With our CMS, students can upload files for assignment directly into the system. Because so many of their courses use this system, they typically take to the process fairly quickly. Each quarter there are only a few students who offer upload related excuses for not turning in work. Usually this is no greater a percentage of the class than would normally deliver printer or personal computer related excuses for missing a deadline. For your convenience, it’s best to encourage submission of file formats compatible with your word processor. The CMS makes it very easy for the instructor or TA to download all of the files in bulk. If your institution’s CMS doesn’t allow file submission or bulk download, email is another option for collecting papers but that option is fraught with a variety of pitfalls.

Once you’ve downloaded the files, the next step is marking up individual papers. I rely primarily upon two features in Microsoft Word: the comment feature and the text box tool. The comment feature allows the user to add a comment to the side of the page pointing to a particular piece of text. Here’s an example:

Sample Comment

Click on the image to see the full-size screenshot.

Without AHK, you could simply use Word’s keyboard shortcuts (or, gasp, the mouse) to create new comments and text boxes for your markup. But with the addition of custom keyboard shortcuts and text expansion fromAHK, you can save piles of time. The ability of AHK to string together a series of keyboard inputs allows you to create separate keyboard shortcuts for all of your most common comments and markup notations.

Here’s an example of a line of code from my AHK script:

^!+p::Send ^!mTry to use active language.{Escape}

This line of code tells my PC that every time I hit the hotkey combination Ctrl+Alt+Shift+P, it should send a series of inputs. First it types Ctrl+Alt+M. In Word, that keyboard shortcut creates a new comment pointing to the place where the cursor currently rests or to whatever text is currently selected. Next it types “Try to use active language.” in that comment box. Finally, AHK types the Escape key. Without this last entry, the cursor would remain active in the comment box. By pressing Escape, you move the cursor back over to the body of the paper. In the screenshot below you can see the result of this hotkey.

Passive Voice Comment

In this case, I identified a sentence with a passive verb construction, highlighted the relevant area with my mouse and then pressed Ctrl+Alt+Shift+P. AHK and Word did the rest.

By creating keyboard shortcuts for my most common comments, I’m able to read through the paper and mark it up at a pace much closer what I can achieve when grading a printed page with a pencil.

Making a Text Box for Summary Comments

Once I’ve reached the end of the paper and I want to make final, summary comments for the student, I prefer to create a text box so that these comments stand apart from the student’s work. Unfortunately, Word lacks a keyboard shortcut which creates a text box. But with AHK, you can automate the combination of keystrokes which will result in the text box tool being activated.

In Word, any item in the menus that you usually navigate with your mouse is also accessible with the keyboard. In older version of Word, those before Office 2007, a simple press of the Alt key highlights the “File” menu by default. From there a user can use the arrow keys to locate any menu item. This can also be accomplished by holding down the Alt key and pressing certain letters. Each menu header, command, or function in an older Word menu has one letter underlined. Pressing Alt and that letter will activate that item. In order to start a text box from the keyboard for example, you need to press Alt+I to open the insert menu and then press X to activate the text box tool.

In newer versions of Word (those which use the “ribbon” of menus) the process is slightly different. When you press the Alt key in these versions, the active ribbon tab is highlighted and a series of letters and numbers appears above the other tabs as well as any items you have placed in the Quick Access Toolbar. A press of the appropriate character expands the corresponding tab of options and displays a new set of characters above the specific options on that menu. Just like the underlined letters in the older version’s menus, a press of the correct key activates the tool or action you are looking for. In newer version of Word, the N key is assigned to the insert tab instead of the I key. Also, after pressing X to activate the text box tool from the Insert menu, another submenu appears. From this menu, the D key represents “Draw Text Box.”

Alt hotkeys in Word

Using the Alt key in MS Word allows you to access menu items without using the mouse.

This piece of code from my AHK script reduces that three step process for the newer versions of Word into a single keyboard shortcut, Ctrl+Alt+Shift+B. Once this hotkey is entered, the cursor turns immediately into a plus sign, signifying that the program is ready and waiting for me to click and drag the mouse where I want to create a text box.

^!+b::Send !nxd

Typing Out Summary Comments

In this new text box you’ll enter your general comments for the paper. Of course, it’s best to give students very specific individual comments about what they did well and what they could improve upon. Even when I grade printed papers, I typically do so near one of my computers so that I can type these comments up. Yes, that means I have to print them out, cut out each comment, and staple them to the papers. But that effort is well worth the ability to provide as much feedback as I like without feeling like my hand is going to fall off after grading a stack of papers. Also, all that cutting and stapling is relatively mindless and can be done while winding down in front of the television. In my evaluations my students have often mentioned how much they appreciate the detailed comments I provide for their papers.

Typing these comments has three primary advantages over writing them out. The first and most obvious I mentioned above: preventing hand cramps. The second advantage is that the computer file you create for the comments serves as a convenient record of the student performance. If you type the grade at the end of your comments, you’ll automatically have a record of the grades you gave. Also, you end up with a qualitative record of student performance. This way if a student comes to you the following year looking for a letter of recommendation, you’ll have a record of the comments you provided so that you can have some sense of what they did well for your assignment.

The final benefit of typing up paper comments is that you get to take advantage of your ever-expanding AHK script in order to save even more time. I’ve got my script programmed with a set of phrases and sentences I use often when grading papers. Typically I type the student’s name and then begin my comments with the phrase, “You did a good job…” It’s always best to begin by highlighting the positive aspects of the student’s work. By programming in this phrase, I can be sure to address whatever aspect of the paper I thought worked best for the student.

Next I usually transition to the critical portion of the comments with the phrase “Your paper would have benefited from…” This allows me to discuss what didn’t quite work or what was lacking in the paper. And finally, my comments often end with the full sentence, “See the paper itself for notes on other issues of grammar and clarity in writing.” I add this because I want them to actually read the comments that I’ve added throughout the paper, and not simply this final paragraph. The code below shows the hotstrings I use to type out these and a few other pieces of common text for summary comments.

::Ypbf::Your paper would have benefited from
::spi::See the paper itself for notes on other issues of grammar and clarity in writing.
::yart::You are on the right track
::wq::Remember that a good thesis will answer some "why" question.

With these hotstrings the computer will type out the full phrase when it sees that I’ve typed the letter combination listed followed by the space bar, hard return, or other punctuation.

Returning the Paper as a PDF

Now that you’ve marked up and commented on the paper, you’ll need to return it to the student. For this step, I prefer to return PDF files. I bother with this extra step so that there are no compatibility issues for students who try to read my comments in word processing programs other than Word. Also, this relatively locked down nature of the PDF makes it more difficult for any nefarious student to alter my comments in their copy of the file. Therefore, when I’m done grading a paper, I save the paper as a PDF file.

With the latest versions of Word the ability to save a file as a PDF is integrated into the system. If you don’t see the option when you open the “save as” menu, you may need to download the add-in from Microsoft. Those of you working with earlier versions of Word or other word processors can utilize the print to PDF capabilities offered by free PDF creation programs. I’ve had a perfectly good experience using doPDF. This type of software adds a PDF printer to your print menu. When you want to save a student paper as a PDF you simply print it to that printer and it will prompt you with a file save dialog box. When naming the file, be sure to adhere to any naming convention your CMS requires if you plan to bulk upload the folder back up to the system.

Here’s an example of a paper that I marked up and commented on using Word and AHK and printed as a PDF. You can see that even though the comments take up the margins of the paper, the PDF printer shrank the entire file so that they remain visible, and even printable.

Full Sample PDF

Click on the image to see the full-size screenshot.

I hope this description of my electronic grading process proves helpful. If you’ve got your own secrets for electronic paper grading, I’d love to hear them. I’d be particularly interested to hear if any of you tablet computer or iPad users out there have put together grading systems that more closely resemble the old pencil and paper system. Please leave a comment below if you’ve got any thoughts on the subject.

3 responses to “Use AutoHotkey, Microsoft Word, and doPDF to Grade Papers Electronically

  1. Pingback: Use Your Point-and-Shoot Digital Camera as Document Scanner | DIY Ivory Tower

  2. You could use bullzip PDF Printer ( and OpenOffice (
    Bullzip allows you to ‘print’ a file to a PDF, and OpenOffice is an open-source word processor (sort of like word but you may need to do a lot of googling to figure out how to do stuff to what MS Word does).
    And AutoHotKey is also a free download for windows (
    Mac users can download OpenOffice, as for an AHK replacement (I’m not sure, I haven’t used them, but you might try something from here
    And for bullzip for Mac you could try (
    I’m not affiliated with the makers of any of this software. I just thought these tips might help someone.

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