Author Archives: Todd Sodano

Keyboard Shortcuts for Grading Writing Assignments

We’ve made it to the end of the semester! Before you take a deep breath in anticipation of the onslaught of student essays you will receive over the next few days, I’d like to share with you a few tips and tricks for streamlining the grading process. Earlier in the year, I described how you could use podcasts to communicate with your students. In this entry, I will show you how just a few keyboard shortcuts can save you time and give your students more useful feedback on their writing assignments.

Within the last two years I have required students to electronically submit their writing. I had traditionally graded and annotated student papers in ink. However, in trying to minimize printing, I began requiring students to submit (via Blackboard) their essays. In so doing, invention became the mother of necessity. Students now can upload their documents in a .doc or .docx format, and I can grade them directly in Microsoft Word using keyboard shortcuts, which allow me to perform tasks without having to use the mouse and navigate menus and submenus. (The instructor can also grade directly in Blackboard, providing even more convenience. If you’ve experimented with that technique, please share your insights below!)

First, create an official assignment on the course’s Blackboard page: click Assessments (in a content tab from the far left menu) followed by Assignment (see below).

Creating Assignment on Blackboard

Students can upload their writing assignments to that location, where you can download all of them at once and eventually upload your subsequent graded and annotated document too. After you’ve downloaded your students’ essays, change the name of the document (click File -> Save As) so that you acknowledge that this is the one that contains your comments and corrections; e.g., change “Pat Smith COMM 264 Research Essay.doc” to “Pat Smith COMM 264 Research Essay GRADED.doc.”

After you have downloaded the student’s file and renamed it, click Tools -> Track Changes -> Highlight Changes

Highlight Changes

and activate all four options; by clicking “Track Changes While Editing,” Microsoft Word will keep track of all the edits and comments you make for the student to see. Once you have activated Track Changes, you are ready to grade and annotate the student’s essay.

I primarily use three shortcuts: highlight, strikethrough, and new comment, through which I can emphasize student errors, cross out superfluous words or phrases, and comment directly, quickly, and legibly on what the student has written.

To create these keyboard shortcuts, which fortunately you do not have to recreate every time you open up Word, click on Tools -> Customize Keyboard. Once that window opens up, scroll all the way down in the Categories section and click All Commands. In the Commands section of this window, find the word Highlight and assign a keyboard shortcut to it.


You may want to use “Control” and “H” (for highlight), so that every time you want to highlight student’s text, you can use the cursor to select the passage in question and press Control and H simultaneously. Of course, you may wish to use a different combination of keys or even change the color of the highlighted text (my default color is yellow), which you can do by using the pull-down menu in the toolbar next to the italic and underline tools (see below).

Changing Highlighting Color

You can then create more keyboard shortcuts, such as Strikethrough. Again click Tools -> Customize Keyboard, select Categories -> All Commands, locate the Strikethrough option, and assign Control + S for Strikethrough.


Do the same to Insert New Comment (I use Control + C), where you can write marginal comments for your students to read.

New Comment.

If you type faster than you write, this offers a great opportunity to provide useful feedback. Furthermore, this is a wonderful solution for those of us who have poor penmanship, so that students don’t waste time deciphering what we have scribbled on their pages.

Because you created an official assignment through Blackboard, you can avoid having to email each student his or her graded assignment. You simply click on Grade Center -> Full Grade Center -> Assignments and upload the “GRADED” file where you enter the student’s grade.
NOTE: Students probably cannot read your marginal comments in the Word document on their smartphones. You might wish to advise your students to download the graded document to a computer, where they can read what you have written.

Grading papers often feels like a challenging, neverending task. Keyboard shortcuts can help you to save time and offer more constructive criticism to your students. Do you grade essays electronically? If so, do you have any tips or tricks or shortcuts that you’d like to share? Have you used Blackboard’s new features that allow you to grade student essays directly in that program?

Video Killed the … Traditional Paper?

By Todd M. Sodano

Some of today’s better-equipped college graduates exhibit the triple threat of being able to effectively write, speak, and present visually. If you’re struggling to find an assignment for your students to hone such skills, consider the video essay. If you’re studying film, television, or digital media, consider the video essay. (Here is a popular site that offers sophisticated analyses of films, TV shows, music, etc. –

Each semester in my intro to video production course, in which they learn how to tell original stories through shooting, directing, and editing digital video that they produce, my students also critically analyze films. This type of analysis advances the traditional critical essay students have written. After writing a brief essay that answers questions I have posed for them in advance of them viewing the film, students record podcasts in which they orally deliver their analyses.

They don’t stop there. The students then edit their audio to remove vocal fillers (“uhhs” and “umms”) and mistakes as well as to include any music or sound effects. Upon completion of the audio recording, they add video clips from the actual film or television program, which enhance the claims they have made. Students with a fundamental understanding of nonlinear editing (e.g., Final Cut Pro, Avid, Adobe Premiere, iMovie) can easily incorporate elements from the original text to produce their video essay, which enhances the basic, voice-only criticisms that Prof. Sarachan’s students have used.

Because the “amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole” is minimal and the students are not affecting the “potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work,” the Fair Use doctrine would apply to this assignment. Moreover, there would be no need to secure permission for using the original text. The challenge is to make sure the film or TV program is in an “editable” format (e.g., a .MOV file) that allows the student to manipulate it. For instance, since DVDs are encrypted, copy-protected works, consider (if you have a Mac) using such free programs as HandBrake or Mac the Ripper to descramble the work and MPEG Streamclip to export the ripped file to that editable format. According to the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, this also is permissible. See § 201.40 – Exemption to prohibition against circumvention (page 19).

The video essay allow students to grow more versatile with digital media while upholding the traditional principles and techniques of good writing. And, at the very least, it allows us to save on printing costs.

Podcasting at SJFC by Todd Sodano

“Exaudio, Comperio, Conloquor”[1]

By the time students graduate from St. John Fisher College, most of them will have strong competencies in comprehending, writing, and presenting. Live presentations in front of the class that tether students to note cards and PowerPoint slides can grow incredibly mundane. Consequently, I look for fresh ways to have them deliver content and demonstrate their mastery of concepts. Developing podcasts offers the instructor a new mode to distribute content and the students a much-needed injection of creativity for demonstrating how well—or how poorly—they have grasped material.

Recently, I’ve begun to create podcasts of my own for students to watch. Podcasts are multimedia digital files that can include elements of video (film clips, slides, photos), audio (voice, sound effects, music), or both. They can be downloaded to a computer, streamed on a tablet, and played through a smartphone. If you’re headed out of town for a conference, your students can listen to your lecture or feedback on their papers while they’re running on the treadmill, eating lunch between classes, or sitting in traffic.

There are numerous free and simple programs to create podcasts, including Echo360 (contact OIT for a short training seminar), GarageBand (available on all Macs), and Audacity (Mac and PC). Often the best way to find the best/simplest/worst programs is to ask the students directly. For instance, one of my students had no idea how to create a podcast, and so she used her cell phone to record her voice and produced one of the class’s best presentations. As Professor Jeremy Sarachan in the Communication/Journalism department has explored, students can record videos directly to YouTube of themselves responding to course readings (our Macs have built-in cameras, or you can either borrow a camera from a videoconferencing kit from OIT or purchase an inexpensive web camera).

As Dr. Charlene Smith of the Wegmans School of Nursing and I discovered in our recent research collaboration[1], students lack confidence in delivering oral presentations but are more likely to apply what they learned from their ability to review their recorded presentations. They can observe their verbal and nonverbal communication and hone their delivery techniques. Furthermore, by offering podcasts as an alternative for (or a flat-out substitute to) the live oral presentation, I noticed that some of the more reserved students embraced the opportunity to show some personality and creativity in their podcasts.

Here is a podcast created by Brett Vergara ’14 for our COMM 264 – History of TV and Radio class in the Fall 2011 semester. (You may wish to right-click the file below and save it to your desktop to listen.)

Brett Vergara’s COMM 264 Podcast

As a Mac user, I find GarageBand to be the easiest and most user-friendly program to produce my “Toddcasts,” which I have used to develop tutorials for video production students, edit interviews with remote guest speakers, and record instructions for out-of-class assignments. GarageBand allows the user to record his or her voice and add stock music and sound effects.[2] For instance, let’s say a student is creating a podcast that examines how sport culture has evolved in recent years. In addition to recording her voice (see screengrab below), she might also want to include a sound effect of fans cheering as well as a cinematic score to heighten the emotions of her claims.


In this GarageBand sequence, three audio tracks appear in the top middle of the screen: the speaker’s voice, the selected sound effect, and the musical score. The genres and categories are in the top right corner, and the individual selections can be chosen from the bottom right corner.
The Mac computers on our campus have built-in microphones. However, if you would prefer a higher quality recording with minimal to no external noise, you can attach via a USB connection a podcasting headset (see below) to make your recording.

A USB podcasting headset with built-in microphone.

In short, making podcasts allows faculty and students to communicate and archive their work more easily. Students can record and review their presentations, and instructors can produce their own lectures and deliver—in their own voice and tone—thorough feedback on student assignments.

Todd Sodano – FisherGeeks – Podcasting Oct. 2012
Right-click this file to save and listen to a podcast of this blog entry.

[1] This Latin phrase, which translates “To listen, to learn, to speak,” comes from an episode of writer Aaron Sorkin’s first television series, Sports Night (ABC, 1998-2000).

[2] Smith, C. & Sodano, T. (Nov. 2011): “Integrating Lecture Capture as a Teaching Strategy to Improve Student Presentation Skills Through Self-Assessment” in Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(3).

[3] Both of which are available through GarageBand and thus permissible for use. However, you may not sell those musical loops (songs, sound effects, etc.).