Macros are one of those features that had been on my radar screen for years. I heard about them at some conference and, as an avid (Word) Track Changes user, macros seemed a compelling way to make that even a more efficient process. But they just lay fallow. I never quite got the momentum up to do anything with them. I put them on my summer list this past summer but, again, there they stayed.

So that first wave of papers came in and, as I often do, I found myself writing the same things over and over again: don’t use 1st or 2nd person; don’t use contractions; don’t list examples; be analytical rather than descriptive; etc. Maybe because I was grading the papers earlier than I usually do (don’t worry; they’re still not done); maybe I was looking for a new project (as I always seem to be); or maybe I just got sick of seeing them on my radar screen. Whatever reason, though, I just dove right in.

Just to be clear, a macro is a scripted / personalized keystroke command, i.e. you set a keystroke command (usually a complex one; more on that below), and that keystroke command does something that you program it to (and I don’t mean program in a code sense; again, more on that below).

The process is relatively simple. Begin in Word’s Tools menu. At the bottom is a Macros option. Choose from that Record New Macro. Give the macro a name and then click the ‘Keyboard’ button below in the ‘Assign macro to’ button-board. Then click ok. (If you don’t ‘Assign’ the macro (in the button-board) it will create the macro but doesn’t give you as many instructions. I’m guessing that it records the same as it would otherwise but I prefer to go through all of the steps.) And in the next step you’ll actually set the keystroke (and that’s all you’ll do, despite the preponderance of text boxes). Enter the keystroke you wan to use (usually a two step process with the first being the activator or trigger keystroke (in my case, shift-control-command-c) and the second being the individual key / macro). The ‘Currently assigned to:’ readout below the ‘Press new keyboard shortcut’ tells you if that combo has already been used. (You can replace existing shortcuts but might not want to.)

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 9.20.34 PM

What sold me on macros, when I really understood their potential, was when I set the set-up macro. When I open a student’s paper, I save it as a corrected version (usually just be appending Corr to the existing file name), I blow it up to 150%, and turn on Track Changes, itself a few-step process. Now, I simply hit shift-control-command-C and then K. That’s the keystroke I set to do all of these things (after saving). From five individual steps to one step I’m ready to grade the paper.

Similarly, I have one macro in Excel. For my assignments with a more structured grade, I like to use Excel for a grade sheet. I can input the number grade and include comments and Excel adds or averages the different grades to yield the final grade. The problem with Excel is that it is difficult (or at least I don’t know how) to duplicate a form in a page-by-page format (I know I can copy and paste but it’d be nice to have a form approach where it automatically makes something a new page; this is when I miss AppleWorks and FileMaker Pro, old school databases rather than spreadsheets). With this assignment, I started using separate sheets within a workbook for each student; this makes it better, but making a new sheet is a multi-step process. A macro, however, makes this a one step process. The macro copies the first sheet, pastes it into a new one, and erases the data from the old sheet. All I have to do now (where before I did a separate step for each of those things) is the macro and changing the name of the sheet.

Some downsides to macros. First and foremost, the keystrokes. Because Word already uses so many defaul keystrokes, you essentially have to be able to play finger Twister on the keyboard to activate the keystroke. (Shift-control-command-C itself takes some dexterity; I first discovered the need for such dexterity when I learned the screen shot keystrokes, especially the addition of option to the keystroke to copy the screenshot right to the clipboard. But it’s not quite as difficult as it sounds after some practice.)

Second, simply remembering them. I’ll admit it. I went a little crazy with recording macros and recorded probably a few (maybe more than a few) too many. But I do tend to remember the ones I use most commonly, and I suspect I will remember more as I use them more; I’ve only graded 10 or 15 papers with them.

Finally, input vs output or the efficiency factor. Many of my first macros were relatively short (awkward phrasing, unnecessary, etc.) but I realized quickly that typing these was pretty much as fast as activating the macro. My later macros took advantage of the macro to include information I might not type, especially repeatedly, as the paper progresses. Now with a single, albeit complex, keystroke I can include a full line or two comment detailing not only the issue but also an explanation of why it is less preferable.

Macros take some work on the front end to be sure. But especially with the onus of the sheer number of papers to be read / graded, they can help you move through that pile more quickly and, more important, potentially include more substantive information in your comments.

I’ve included the Evernote reference page I made to remember them (and, yes, I do toggle over to Evernote fairly frequently to check / confirm) so you can both see the kinds of comments I make and to make fun of how many macros I made (and how few I actually remember…).