ZipGrade: My New Favorite App

This semester I’m teaching two big classes, and for each, I’m giving two midterms and a final. All six of these exams are composed entirely of free response questions. Some questions require calculations, some require interpretations, and some require longer explanations. You wouldn’t think I’d have much use for an app like ZipGrade that’s designed to grade multiple choice quizzes, but you’d be dead wrong.

Standard assessments

Alongside my high-stakes exams, I also give a low-stakes multiple choice standard assessment of learning at the beginning and end of every semester. This is more common in other STEM disciplines, but I’m working with several colleagues to develop a suite of assessments (e.g., ESSA and AESA) that can be used in economics courses so that we too can have objective measures of student skills.

We’ve implemented these assessments as online Qualtrix surveys, but we usually give them in a classroom environment with bubble sheets where students have fewer distractions. To save us money and give us total control over the scanning process, we initially used the open source FormScanner software. We printed custom bubble sheets, scanned them to PDF’s, and processed them, but the process turned out to be quite sensitive to exactly how we printed and scanned. More often than not we ended up doing a fair bit of hand-tweaking.

ZipGrade is a bundled app and service that lets us print custom bubble sheets, scan answers using a phone (or tablet), and download the results. I was pretty skeptical that it would work well with large (100+) classes compared to something that used a sheet feeder, but it’s been fantastic.

Exam wrappers

At the beginning of every one of my exams, students answer a short set of questions about how they prepared for it. These “exam wrappers” include questions like “How many lectures did you attend?” “How many hours did you study specifically for this exam?” and “How many hours per week do you normally study for this exam?” The questions are all multiple choice, and up until now the data entry has been tedious. Automating the process over the past couple weeks has been a great low-stakes opportunity to try ZipGrade.

ZipGrade provides three “standard” bubble sheets with room for 20, 50, and 100 questions, but I created a custom bubble sheet in about two minutes through their online wizard. My custom sheet has room for 30 questions and asks students to bubble in their 7 digit Cornell Student ID. They also write their name on the sheet.

I’ve learned it’s well worth the effort to upload my student roster (with names and id’s) into ZipGrade before fielding an exam because it lets ZipGrade tell me when a scanned “quiz” does not match. This isn’t common, but some students bubble in their id incorrectly or just skip the bubbling all together.

The magic happens when my students start handing in their tests. I made the bubble sheet the top page so I didn’t have to turn any pages before scanning. I put the app in scanning mode and just hold it over an exam to start. As soon as the little green squares on the screen line up with the little black squares on the exam, the phone buzzes and shows the matching students name and id. And without my pressing a single button, it’s ready to scan the next exam. Scanning is literally moving exams from one pile to another with one hand while lining up squares. I can scan about 20 per minute, and if you have a few helpers (e.g., teaching assistants), you can all scan simultaneously.

Tracking who took a test and who didn’t

Before I used ZipGrade, I had another fairly time consuming process where my TA’s and I would alphabetize all the physical exams and manually match them to the roster to identify any students that didn’t hand in an exam. I would follow up with those missing students to make sure they were okay.

ZipGrade radically speeds up the accounting process by showing the scanned names of the students whose id’s didn’t match any students in the class roster. I can then manually associate the exam with the correct student by tapping on the student’s scanned name and choosing “Change Student” from the review menu. The final step is to simply look at the class Grade Book Report on the ZipGrade website to see which students didn’t hand in exams.

The bottom line

The scanning technology behind ZipGrade is amazing—Its accuracy and speed enable use scenarios I didn’t think were feasible with an app that runs on a phone. The service piece of the system is easy to overlook, but the UI is clean and the functionality is solid. To me, this system is worth FAR more than the crazy low $7/year that ZipGrade charges. I understand that this might be a reasonable price for the underfunded K-12 teacher market, but I also believe most folks in higher ed would be happy to pay substantially more. I know I would.