Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

All in a Word: Complete electronic assignments with Microsoft Word

Ashley M. Aitken
School of Computing
Curtin University of Technology
Distributing, collecting, annotating, marking, and returning a large number of different documents of all shapes and sizes adds an unnecessary burden to student assignments. I have developed an assignment processing system which is completely electronic and uses nothing more than Microsoft Word (and the Internet for retrieval and submission). In this session I will demonstrate (by walking through the process) my complete "solution" to this problem.

The assignment document includes: 1) a form for student details, 2) an assignment check-list for the students 3) a section for problem specification, 4) a form for a student declaration, 5) an embedded document for the student's assignment material (with may include a skeleton solution), and 6) a detailed semi-automatic marking sheet. Further, it makes full use of Microsoft Word's macros, forms, document locking, fields, hidden text, and embedded documents.

This assignment document has been used for a number of semesters for units I present. Whilst the system is being demonstrated I will discuss some of its advantages and disadvantages. Further, some interesting anecdotal comments received from students and staff will be discussed. Those interested in further investigating this approach may retrieve a sample assignment sheet from a World Wide Web site specified during the demonstration.

1.0 Introduction

This paper reports on the construction of a complete electronic assignment sheet using only Microsoft Word. The Assignment Sheet has been used for a number of semesters in two units I teach at Curtin University of Technology. This paper will also report on the trials and tribulations of its use.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Assignment Details Section (Grey areas are form fields
some of which are filled in by the student)

In section 2 I will discuss the separate sections of the Assignment Sheet. In section 3 I will run through the steps taken by the teacher, student and marker in using the Assignment Sheet. Finally, in section 4 I will report on some feedback and observations regarding the use of the Assignment Sheet from teachers, students and markers.

2.0 Sections of the Assignment Sheet

This section describes the general structure of a sample Assignment Sheet. Of course, it is possible to vary the structure and content of the Assignment Sheet for different assignments and disciplines. What is presented here is the functionality which is available within a MS Word electronic assignment sheet.

2.1 Assignment Details

The assignment sheet commences with a listing of general assignment details and a form for the student to fill in their details (See Figure 1). With this section completed, the Assignment Sheet can replicate the information throughout the rest of the document.

2.2 Assignment Check-List

The assignment check-list contains a list of items and check-boxes which reminds the students of items they must do or conform to (See Figure 2). It is suggested that students check off each item when it has been completed.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Assignment Check-List Section

2.3 Assignment Statement and Requirements

The next two sections contain information about the subject matter of the assignment. The first presents a complete statement of the problem, and the second a complete statement of the requirements for this assignment (i.e. what is required of the student).

2.4 Assignment Material

The assignment material that the student produces is placed within an embedded Word document (See Figures 3 and 4). This enables the student to have complete control over the format of the material. This section contains some instructions and an icon for the embedded Word document. Double clicking on the icon opens up the embedded document. Closing the opened embedded document saves its contents within the Assignment Sheet.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Assignment Material Section containing a closed embedded Word
document for the student's Assignment Material

Figure 4

Figure 4: The embedded document is opened revealing instructions for students
to assist in preparation of their assignment material

2.5 Assignment Declaration

The next section provides a place for a student declaration relating to plagiarism and collusion, for example (See Figure 5). All the student needs to do is click the acknowledgement box. There is also an area for a signature if a hardcopy document is required. Finally, this section allows the student to provide any further information relevant to the situation.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Assignment Declaration Section

2.6 Assignment Submission

The method for electronic (or physical) submission of the Assignment Sheet can vary widely. This section details the assignment submission procedures (in a step by step fashion) to the students. The submission and retrieval of the assignment sheet (originally and after marking) is not the focus of this paper.

2.7 Assignment Marking

The assignment marking section contain a break-down of the allocation of marks for the assignment material (See Figures 6 and 7). The maximum for each component is specified and a form field allocated so the marker can enter the mark. The section also provides an indication of the raw total and final marks (calculated as the raw total less the deductions). This calculation is performed by a macro which is run by double-clicking on the labelled icon. Finally, this section contains check-boxes for the marker to give an overall grade to the assignment, to give their name and the marking date, and any further comments to the lecturer (for example, regarding any difficulties marking the assignment). There is also a section which is "for office use only" containing check-boxes relating to the marking, checking and recording of results.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Assignment Marking Section shows input fields for marks and deductions,
the calculation icon, and the raw and final marks.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Marker Information Section

2.8 Online Help

As well as the standard information mentioned above, the Assignment Sheet includes an extensive amount of 'on-line' help including a step by step guide to assist the students in using the Assignment Sheet. This is included as MS Word hidden text (i.e. text which is not displayed unless required). A prominent note at the beginning of the Assignment Sheet makes access to hidden help information clear to the novice user.

Figure 8

Figure 8: Online Help (via hidden text). Figure indicates hidden step by step
instructions and other helpful information.

3.0 The Assignment Sheet Process

In the preceding section I described the components of the Assignment Sheet. In this section, I will describe the Assignment Sheet process, i.e. the steps that are taken to produce the Assignment Sheet by the teacher, complete the Assignment Sheet by the student, mark the Assignment Sheet by the marker and finally how the students check their mark and any annotations and comments made by the marker.

Teacher's Steps

  1. Teacher - Enter Assignment Details, Problem Statement and Requirements
    The first step, of course, is the construction of the Assignment Sheet by the teacher. This involves entering the assignment details, the assignment problem statement and the requirements.

  2. Teacher - Include Further Instructions or a Skeleton Solution within the Embedded Document
    If the teacher wishes to include further instructions or a skeleton solution within the embedded document, it can be done now.

  3. Teacher - Enter Assignment Marking Scheme and Macros
    The next step involves configuring the Assignment Marking Scheme macros. As discussed below, this is by far the most difficult step of the Assignment Sheet preparation. It involves configuring the macros to determine the correct raw and final mark given the different categories and subcategories of marks.

  4. Teacher - Protect the Assignment Sheet as a Form
    The teacher then protects with a password the appropriate sections as MS Word forms. This allows the students and markers to enter details into the forms but not to change other content. The only section which is not protected is the section containing the embedded Word document.

Student's Steps - Completing the Assignment Sheet

  1. Student - Complete Assignment Details
    Students commence completion of the Assignment Sheet by filling in the assignment details section, i.e. their name, student number, tutor and tutorial time.

  2. Student - Open Embedded Word Document and Complete Solution
    Students then enter their assignment material (i.e. their solution) into the embedded Word document. Alternatively they may work in a separate Word document (or other compatible word processing environment) and insert their material at a later stage.

  3. Student - Protect the Solution for Annotation
    Once the student has completed their assignment material they protect (with a password) the embedded document for annotations. This enables the marker to annotate their student's material with comments but not to change the material.

  4. Student - Supply any Further Information and Complete Declaration
    Students are also required to check the declaration box (to declare that they have not copied the work of other students or colluded inappropriately with others). They are also able to provide any further information regarding their assignment material which will be read by the marker.

  5. Student - Complete the Check-List and Submit Assignment Sheet
    Finally the students should check that they have conformed to the items in the check-list section (and, of course, the requirements of the assignment). They may then submit the assignment for marking.

Marker's Steps

  1. Marker - Open Embedded Document and Annotate
    The marker's main task, of course, is to examine the student's assignment material and annotate it with comments, corrections and suggestions. This is done simply by opening the embedded Word document and inserting annotations at appropriate places in the document.

  2. Marker - Enter Student's Marks and Deductions and Calculate Final Mark
    As the marker is reading the students assignment material it is possible for them to have the assignment marks section open in a different window and to be concurrently entering the relevant marks (See Figure 9). Finally, the marker enters any deductions and calculates the final mark by double clicking on the calculation bar.

    Figure 9

    Figure 9: Annotating and Concurrently Entering Marks for a Student's Assignment Material

  3. Marker - Provide Further Comments and Complete Marking Details
    Generally, the marker is also required to enter his or her name, the date the assignment was marked, and any further comments regarding the assignment to the lecturer. The marker may also use the “for office use only” check boxes to indicate what has been completed for each assignment.

  4. Marker - Make Assignment Sheet Read-Only (Write-Reservation)
    Once this has all been completed the marker protects the entire document for write reservation. This is done by opening the "Options" menu in MS Word and the "Save" tab and entering a write reservation password (twice). This locks the document so that nothing can be changed within it.

  5. Marker - Return Assignment Sheet
    The marker can now return the assignment to the student (or to the lecturer who may then return the assignment to the student).

Student's Steps - Upon Receiving Marked Assignment

  1. Student - Open Assignment Sheet (Read-Only) and Check Grade
    When the student receives the Assignment Sheet back they can open the document (read-only) to view their final grade (up front on the assignment details section).

  2. Student - Open Embedded Document and Find Annotations
    Next, the student can open the embedded Word document to browse through (or find) and read the annotations entered by the marker.

  3. Student - Check Details of Grade and Marker Comments
    Finally the student can check the complete breakdown of their grade and any comments from the marker in the assignment marks section.

4.0 Results

Generally, I am very happy with the success of the Assignment Sheet. After ironing out a few technical difficulties (some of which are mentioned below) it worked rather well. Whether or not it is the best "solution" for processing assignments is still unclear. Here, I will list briefly some advantages and disadvantages of the Assignment Sheet from the student and staff perspective.

4.1 Student Feedback

Generally, the anecdotal student feedback for the Assignment Sheet was very good. Most students saw it as innovative and beneficial. However, of course, there were some students who (perhaps rightfully so) saw it as extra work and extra hassle. I guess nothing can be simpler than typing out an essay (with minimal, if any, corrections) and handing it in.


  1. Assignment Sheet processing was possible from the home or place of work for many students. This was especially beneficial for part-time and working students.
  2. A purely electronic submission of the Assignment Sheet removes the need for the student to ever print out their document (this can be a saving of laser-printer costs etc.).
  3. Ability to provide detailed assistance in the form of hidden text help for the novice user (and brief assistance for the expert user).
  4. Exposes students to the capabilities of a full-featured word processor like MS Word (which can be useful for later assignments or in a future job).
  1. It may be unfairly disadvantaging students who do not have a PC or MS Word at home or work (although of the School has PC labs which are generally accessible 24 hours a day).
  2. A number of students found MS Word confusing, slow, and bloated. In particular the drawing program has an extremely poor design and user-interface.
  3. A number of students were irritated (and some amused) by my "Mr Gadget" tendencies, i.e. to use all the features of MS Word in one document.
  4. Some students (even third year students) were overwhelmed by the technology, e.g. forms, embedded documents, annotations, which they haven't seen or used before.

4.2 Staff Feedback

So far I have been the only staff member involved in trialing the Assignment Sheet. This may be due to the fact that most staff members (perhaps rightly so) perceive that marking hardcopy assignments (at home in a relaxing environment) is preferable to marking Word document at work on a small screen. Of course, there are many other criteria beside ease of marking (like quality of feedback) which should finally determine whether or not the Assignment Sheet will find mainstream use.


  1. All assignments look the same and have the same structure (which can speed up the marking and processing of the assignments and remove any bias for colourful laser-printed assignments).
  2. No need to handle hardcopy assignments, everything can be done via the computer and the Internet (i.e. submission by student, distribution for marking, marking, collection, return to student).
  3. Annotations can (generally) be more detailed and legible than hand-written comments, and they can be copied from a standard set of annotations and modified if necessary.
  4. If you have a fast enough and powerful enough laptop you can take your marking with you (but this is generally not the case).
  1. Inserting MS Word drawings inside MS Word documents without a picture frame can cause formatting discrepancies across platforms.
  2. Platform (i.e. Windows and Macintosh) inconsistencies with regards to versions, fonts, and general formatting can make documents appear different on different platforms.
  3. Some students don't read the information provided no matter how large or bold you make the text which can cause problems with submissions etc.
  4. Configuring the Assignment Marking section (using MS WordBasic macro language) is tedious and error-prone (and also incompatible with MS Word 97 which uses VisualBasic).
  5. Requires a large screen and a fast computer for efficient processing of Assignment Sheets (because MS Word is rather slow at opening and closing files and calculating the final marks).
  6. The marker is generally required to stay at work to mark the assignments and may not be as comfortable with reading from the screen.
  7. If students include large bitmaps from other programs rather than using MS Word's drawing tools the document size can become very large.

5.0 Summary

In summary, I have presented an electronic Assignment Sheet which presents a complete "solution" to the electronic specification of assignment problems, collection of assignment material, annotating and marking of assignment material. The Assignment Sheet comes in the form of a Microsoft Word template and uses many of the features of Word including forms, macros, protecting for annotation etc. Whether or not this is a "better" way of doing assignment than hand-marking hardcopy documents is still debatable. There are many advantages to this approach but also some disadvantages.

Appendix A

An example of an Assignment Sheet can be downloaded from the World-Wide-Web (WWW) at the following address:
Please cite as: Aitken, A. M. (1998). All in a Word: Complete electronic assignments with Microsoft Word. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 1-11. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/aitken.html

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