It all started on Twitter, as these things do. I had covid and was stuck at home, so it was as good a time as any to do some marking. Then I came across Neil’s tweet.
I recommend you click through for the answers because quite there were a few suggestions and several people mentioned text expanders, which is useful for context, but the answer that caught my eye was this one:
I don’t use Linux, so I’m not entirely sure why I decided to try espanso out. Now I think about it, I’m pretty sure Neil tweeted an update on how well it was working out for him. Anyway, espanso works on Windows and Macs, although I use it on Windows most of the time.
I did need a little bit of help installing the program but I probably would’ve been able to do it myself if I’d put in a little effort. The point is, it’s pretty simple and quick. (To be fair, it was more complicated to install on a Mac.)
The idea of this post is to reflect a little on the past 6 months of using it and note down some pros and cons.
First of all, this is what it looks like in practice. Please ignore the huge gap between the top and the bottom comment; it’s my first attempt at a gif.
And it works everywhere. If I typed :main idea it would expand like in the gif regardless of whether I was commenting on a Word doc, typing in a Google doc, in the Moodle gradebook…
My initial reaction was – this is bliss! My days of spending ages on marking are over! All I need to do is add the comments which are already in my comment bank to espanso and I’m all set.
This is why in the end it wasn’t as easy as that.
I have a huge number of comments in my comment bank. I’ve written about the comment bank I have in Google Docs in this post and in Google Keep in this one. At first I thought it would only take a long time to transfer them all to espanso, but then I realized that I would have to come up with as many triggers as there are comments. (The trigger is the combination of : and the word or letter combination that gets expanded.)
It probably wouldn’t be that taxing to come up with a long list of triggers, but eventually I didn’t because it became obvious I couldn’t remember them all. In my comment banks the comments are categorized by unit and activity (in Google Docs) and by aspect of writing like punctuation or formality (in Google Keep). Categorization isn’t possible in any meaningful way in espanso, so you’re probably best off if you choose a trigger that will most easily remind you of the longer comment you wanted to add (or vice versa).
What tends to work best (for me) is if I add a whole word or word sequence, like “comma splice”. Great, I hear you say, so do that. But the longer the trigger is, the more likely you are to mistype something and then you need to delete what you’ve typed and start again (at least if you’re using Windows). Also, if you want to use “comma” as part of a trigger for anything other than comma splice comments, you can’t. Say you wanted to use “comma not needed” as a trigger. The nanosecond you type :comma, espanso expands it to your comma splice comment. You could use “unnecessary comma” as a trigger, but it’s not what I think of first when I see one – when I start typing, my brain has already categorized that as a comma-related error, and “comma” is the word that first comes to mind, not “unnecessary”. So if you’re old and forgetful, you’ll catch yourself going through the espanso bank, muttering “Why did I ever think I’d remember “unnecessary comma”?!” You get the idea. This is just an example, incidentally; I’m not that concerned about commas.
In order to really save time and reduce the potential for confusion, the triggers need to be short. Ideally, just a few letters. But the shorter they are, the easier they are to forget. Did I say old and forgetful? Add stressed out over a million things. Coming up with a trigger like “spe” for spelling sounds easy enough to remember… okay it is. That one is. But when I have a comment which is essentially just positive feedback on participating in a discussion in unit 4, that is quite tricky to reduce to a three-letter combo that I will remember longer than a day. Yes, you are right to wonder how I deal with PINs. 😛
What I tend to do now is work with up to 20 triggers. I always open up espanso before I start to remind myself of the triggers and attendant comments. Then I mark everyone’s work in the unit I am currently grading, where I won’t need that many different comments because the mistakes and the things done well tend to be quite similar. When I move on to the next unit, I prefer to work with the same triggers and update the expanded feedback in espanso. I won’t be needing the comments for the unit I’ve just marked until next semester anyway. Then the trigger for my positive feedback can always just be “yes” and for negative comments/suggestions for improvement it can be “no” – definitely easy to remember.
What I’ve also decided works for me is adding as much text as possible to one single trigger. In other words, instead of thinking up three different triggers for three variations of positive comments, I add all three to the same trigger, delete the unnecessary/non-applicable comments when the text expands (and then customize further if needed).
In short, the tool isn’t as ideal as I’d initially expected it to be, but it does speed up the feedback process considerably once you’ve figured out how it can best serve you. I still use the comment banks and, of course, a large number of comments are personalized and context specific anyway, so nothing really helps there.
What do you do to speed up the marking and feedback process? If you have any tips, either on how to use text expanders more efficiently or which other tools have been useful to you, I’d love to hear them!