My experience teaching a paperless writing course

Lecturing Fellow Sandra Cooke, Thompson Writing Program, was one of seven Duke faculty who participated in a CIT Fellowship program in Fall 2011 focusing on Sustainability in Teaching Practice. This post summarizes some of Cooke’s teaching experiences during the Fellowship. Cooke and the other CIT Sustainability Fellows are part of the larger group of Trillium Fellows, faculty who are committed to incorporating sustainability content into their Duke courses in alignment with Duke’s 2009 campus Climate Action Plan. For more about the Trillium Fellows, contact Charlotte Clark.

In the Fall 2011 semester I taught three sections of my first year writing seminar course “Ocean Acidification.”  As I reflected on the sustainability of my teaching practices during my six semesters at Duke, I realized that writing courses consume A LOT of paper – and I say this as someone who from the beginning has been paperless when it comes to submitting work, giving feedback, and grading.  But the handouts, readings, and especially drafts for class workshops resulted in my use of nearly 100 sheets of paper per student (24-36 students per semester), according to my rough estimate, even with double-sided printing.  Although I felt I had made some progress in gradually reducing this number each semester, my primary objective this semester was to eliminate ALL paper usage in order to improve the sustainability of my course delivery.  While this would involve substantially more in-class laptop usage, I figured that the energy and time saved by reduced printing and photocopying would be worth it.  A secondary objective was to be more mindful of and reduce energy usage in the classroom by turning off lights, projectors, and computers when not needed.

Two of the key paperless methods I had used in the past were (1) e-mail submission of papers and returning of grades (which would probably be too tedious for a larger class, in which case Blackboard or Sakai could be used); and (2) the “insert comment” function in Microsoft Word to give feedback, as well as typing a note to the student at the head of the paper.  I understand that some instructors may not be accustomed to these methods and would find the transition to these practices to be difficult.  As an early-career instructor, I think these practices were easy for me to adopt because I had not yet established my methods for teaching writing when I came to Duke a few years ago.  But I soon discovered additional advantages to these methods that serve as great time-savers for those of us who assign (and therefore respond to) a lot of writing!  For example, I frequently use the “compare documents” function in Word so that I can compare a student’s previous draft to the revised version and quickly see the changes they have made.  This has proved quite useful in conversations with students regarding how substantive their revisions are!  I also use the “find” feature:  for example, if a student discusses a new term or source near the end of their paper and I can’t remember if they properly introduced it earlier, I can use “find” to quickly search for that reference or key word.  Grading a Word document instead of a paper version is also nice for quickly assessing things like word count, paragraph count, and spelling or grammatical errors.

So, by using these previous paperless methods and increasing laptop usage, I succeeded in nearly eliminated all paper usage (I could not resist distributing hard copies of the syllabus on the first day and a half-page sized student information sheet).  My main concern was that using laptops instead of hard copies of student writing during seminar workshops (when the entire class reviews and discusses one piece of writing) might distract the students from the task at hand.  But distraction was apparently not a problem, as student participation during the workshops was as high as for paper workshops.  A second concern I had was that the students would find a paperless course inconvenient and would print most of the readings and other course materials so that they could highlight or annotate their hard copies.  I did not ask students to avoid printing course materials, and I did notice that some students printed a few things, but overall it appeared that students used most of the course materials electronically.

After our Trillium Sustainability Fellows meeting in December, I was inspired to play around with as a fun, informal way to assess my students’ perspectives on whether the course was taught in a sustainable manner.  I framed questions about paper usage and energy usage in terms of how these compared to the students’ other classes.  93% of the students perceived that paper usage in this course was less than paper usage in their other courses.  When asked if they thought this course used less energy than their other classes, 32% replied “yes,” 25% “no,” and 43% were “not sure.”  This semester I’ll think more carefully about strategies to reduce energy usage or at least get the students (and myself!) thinking more deliberately about energy usage in the classroom.

Overall, things worked well enough that I plan to go paperless in future semesters.  I was pleased with some unanticipated benefits of paperless teaching, including reduced prep time (no fussing with the photocopier) and improved organization (no piles of papers spread around my office at the end of the semester!).  I’d certainly welcome any questions or suggestions from other professors and instructors!

1 Comment for “My experience teaching a paperless writing course”


I also tried paperless grading and I found it worked pretty well. I worked best for papers in which the students had different topics. I tend to still like to compare papers when students are writing about the same thing, and I find it clumsy to go back and forth to look at things online. So I have mixed feelings about going totally paperless. I do like the fact that it reduces the clutter in my home and at my office!

On the topic of energy use, I tried to conserve energy in the classroom and found it interesting that we (the students and I) couldn’t seem to completely turn the lights off! I wondered if this was some sort of glitch or was it an intentional safety feature. The class was in LSRC. I called it into maintenance but nothing was done about it. I often find that some classrooms at Duke seem to have the heat spewing out no matter how one might try to control the heat with the thermostat.

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