iPad Annotation App for Proofreading / Grading

I post this as a short review.

In this time of distance / on-line learning, the need to proof-read and grade electronic documents efficiently has expanded. The iPad makes a perfect platform for a breakthrough. I have been searching for an iPad app that will allow me to do markups focused solely on proofreading and grading. I have a few requirements to make my job efficient and effective.

  • Must allow me to put down markup “stamps” or “icons”, not just text and highlighting. For example, I will put stamps such as incorrect, inadequate, improper, sloppy, or good job! as quick feedback to students. Alternatively, I will put stamps such as rephrase, expand, or restructure as quick feedback to collaborative publications.
  • Must allow me to review the annotations side-by-side with the document. For example, I will count up the tags “incorrect” and deduct points appropriately to that level of mistake. Sometimes when I review later, I also need to be reminded again why I put a tag in a certain place on the document.
  • Must allow the annotation tools to be placed on the left side of the iPad during markup. I work with my iPad in the same way that I play my guitar … WITH TWO HANDS. I select the chord (the markup tool) with my left hand and enter the notes (the markup) with my right.
  • Should allow me to set my own tool sets. I have no real need for images or stickers or star shapes or the plethora of other types of annotations that often crowd the mark-up toolbars.
  • Should work well with Google Docs (our university-sanctified cloud service).
  • Should not flatten the annotations.

At this point, I have eliminated iAnnotate, Flexcil, and Zoom-Notes by direct testing. The first two fail the two-handed input. Flexcil only does pen or highlighting (and does not record pen inputs as in its annotation list). Zoom-Notes does not allow side-by-side review of annotations and flattens annotations on export. I have also eliminated GoodNotes, Notability, and PDFPen based on their App Store views that show they will not meet my need for two-handed workflow.

I have tested MarginNote as well. It would fulfill many requirements, especially because it allows TAGGED annotations (a rare and exceptionally useful feature in its own right). Unfortunately, the annotations from MarginNote are not exported, it is limited to iCloud sync (and still does poorly at this sync method), and its annotating approach is not always the most fluid experience (by comparison to iAnnotate, Flexcil, Zoom-Notes, or PDFExpert for example).

So, I am down to PDFExpert. It does all that I MUST have and all that I SHOULD have. It does all of this very well.

My only gripes are with the way that the toolbar can be customized and with the size of the “stamps” I would prefer to have a row of stamps to select and/or a toolbar dedicated just to stamps. I would also prefer to be able to insert smaller stamps than PDFExpert currently adds. Finally, one cannot delete or edit stamps on the iPad version of PDFExpert, nor can one sync those stamps to the desktop and back.

I hope this provides insights for others who are in the same position. I would also be glad to hear of any other options that I may have missed.



I still like iAnnotate for that purpose. Sometimes you don’t get 100% of what you want in an app. iAnnotate has great organization and management features. :man_shrugging:

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I don’t see Highlights on your list. Admittedly it isn’t a perfect fit with your requirements, and it’s still missing a few key features for me (namely an invert view for reading in the dark and a Table of Contents menu). Still, it is built for academic PDF highlighting. Might be worth checking out. As soon as it has those it’ll beat out PDF Expert and PDF Viewer for me.


Highlights does not support stamps – I suppose emoji in comments might substitute. Highlights does not swap left/right positioning of document and annotations.

I think the OP was looking for the closest match for their requirements, perhaps.

Yeah, that’s why I said it wasn’t a perfect fit. Some of the other features might make up for those requirements and it’s worth including in a discussion about PDF annotation apps.

Highlights sets the input on the left. That approach is a welcomed plus. I could use annotation colors for sorting. But that approach means that I have to add the meaning to those colors each time I mark up a document. Or be prepared for the inevitable questions again asking whether orange means improper or inadequate or sloppy. Doing this for 80+ submissions within a day or two turn-around window is not going to work. The same thing can be said about trying to use emoji in annotation comments.

The advantage of having predefined tags for grading (and proofreading) markup is tremendous. Now that I’ve used them (in PDFExpert and MarginNote), I cannot not use them.

The same is true about being able to do side-by-side viewing of the PDF and the annotations,


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I must admit that, when iAnnotate would allow the toolbar on the left, it could be a close contender to my current choice of PDFExpert. But something else about it was also lacking that left me struggling. Oh, yes. I just looked again. The stamps are huge, I could not change the size of the stamp, and the document that I was editing went blurry in the background.

So, off it went from my iPad.


Ooh, thanks for the heads-up on Highlights. A quick look suggests that it wouldn’t work well for grading purposes, but would likely be fantastic for reading and taking notes on research articles.

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This is fantastic ! Thanks for a great review. I am a teacher as well and also really like PDF Expert. The wrinkle in my workflow is how to get these things back to the student, the LMS and storage in an easy way. Any suggestions? Do you mind sharing your workflow from submission by the student to return and storage ?

I don’t know how it works with your LMS, but we use Moodle at my University, and there is a somewhat clunky but efficient method. If I download all of the reponses from a given assignment with Moodle’s download all command, all the files will be downloaded with horrible Moodle-generated filenames. But if I don’t change them, I can Zip the entire group (usually with Readdle documents in the past, but I guess now possible within Files) and return the entire group of files to students by upoading the one Zip file. I can also upload a CSV file (also downloaded from Moodle) to input all of the grades at once. (Putting those grades into the spreadsheet also helps some with the horrific filenames.

I use PDF expert for almost all of my grading, except for using Word sometimes when students don’t convert their files.


The beauty of Highlights is using it in conjunction with DEVONthink on the desktop. The highlights, notes, comments, etc., can be quickly exported from Highlights back to DEVONthink and sit as a note file next to the source PDF. A lot of this has been overtaken by DEVONthink 3 annotation features, but I still like to use Highlights on macOS as a reading, note-taking environment for research.

Can also export the notes with Highlights on iOS/iPadOS of course.


Timely for sure. Here are some things that I do that

  • I use the Pro version because I can customize my toolbar (pen, highlight, box, strikethrough, eraser, and stamps). I keep the pen size at 2pt and change the color between red (ERROR) and orange (WARNING) notice.

  • I have set stamps in PDFExpert. For example: :bangbang:incorrect, :question:inadequate, :yellow_circle:improper, :large_orange_diamond:sloppy, :large_blue_diamond:improve, and :medal_sports:bonus.

  • I apply a stamp first. Then I put a short comment to explain the stamp. I avoid writing something that will not have a stamp to go with it. I also avoid writing long, drawn out, flowing, wordy, expressive, and substantive discourses on the nature of life, liberty, and the pursuit of a really good beer in reference to the document or mistake at hand as a way to keep my time spent on replying and grading each report to a minimum per document while keeping the feedback to the student focused on the key points that they can digest in one shot. whew! :slight_smile:

  • I review each document once over for the obvious common mistakes. I pick up on individual mistakes as well. Then I go back and review again for the mistakes that I may have missed.

  • I tally up the counts of my stamps, assign points to each stamp (e.g. incorrect is -40% for that part while improper is -10% for that part).

For the back-and-forth from their submissions to my returns (we use Canvas, but the method here should be the same):

  • I insist first that students use a standard file naming convention. By example, they are required to name their file: ch666s20-projectreport1-lastname.

  • I insist on PDF files only.

  • I download all their submissions to my local desktop (I could likely do this on the iPad but I don’t have the immediate time now to muck about with this just yet).

  • Canvas adds some junk on the file name, and regex in a better finder rename strips it.

  • I post the renamed submissions to a specific folder on my cloud (Goggle is our certified server).

  • I pull them into PDFExpert on my iPad and MOVE them to a local folder called > grading.

  • I do the work and tally the points.

  • I rename the files in PDFExpert to point the score at the end. By example, ch665s20-projectreport1-lastname-087 is an 87/100 score.

  • I upload the graded files back to my Goggle folder.

  • I post the graded files back to the students.

I have yet to determine whether Canvas allows a bulk upload and automatic parse of graded files. In any case, I have to assign the scores in Canvas by hand, so I just also do the work to upload the attachment. To help on this step, I have a tag in the Finder called :yellow_circle: post that I set on all the graded submissions. I can find this in my Favorites tag set in the Finder when I search to upload the file. The file name gets me right to what I need to return, and the file name has the score that I need to apply.



Fantatisc @DrJJWMac! Thanks for all your help - and you too @dguinee… This is helpful. I use a lot of technology in my teaching, but this is the first time ive been entirely remote and teaching from home…

Now… How do I make Microarrays and gene expression easy to understand asynchronously :slight_smile:


This overlaps quite a lot with my own workflow. Some notes on divergences:

I tried this but soon realized that Blackboard will rename everything suitably if you download in bulk.

I’ve tried this in the past but find it simpler to use this Alfred workflow for the occasional Word document:

I’ve been doing the same but with tags. Renaming is probably less work though.

For the actual marking I’ve used Skim with color-coding of highlights, then exporting to standard PDF annotation but for short papers, I’m switching to using Highlights (together with lots of text snippets in Alfred). The advantage is that Highlights can produce a MD file with the highlighted passage and page number and my comments immediately below. I can then copy the contents of the file (using a Send File Contents to Clipboard Alfred file action, rather than reopening it, of course!) and paste that into the grading form in Blackboard, which eliminates the need for me to upload the annotated file.


I can add a bookend to the discussion. I just completed a round of grading for 50 project reports. Here are some other notes for the PDFExpert approach.

  • I found that scoring is best done on macOS not on my iPad. I uploaded the files that had been annotated on the iPad. On the macOS version of PDFExpert, I pulled in each file and displayed the annotations side panel. The search tool is “hidden” at first. You have to “scroll up” to get it to display. With that, I could type in “in” to see the “incorrect” and “inadequate” tags, “im” to see improper, and so on.

  • I had a companion worksheet opened in Numbers. The worksheet had the grading rubric and calculation fields set.

  • For each student, I counted the number of “incorrect” tags and enter that on the Numbers worksheet. I continued through all tags, counting them in the PDFExpert document and entering the count in the Numbers worksheet. The worksheet tallied up the final score.

  • After all submissions were entered in the Numbers sheet, I went back and manually renamed the files with the score as a suffix to the file name (e.g. 0955 is 95.5%).

  • For each student, I subsequently clicked on and copied the Numbers worksheet of their score tally. I pasted this directly using the pages view in PDFExpert, so that the tally sheet was posted at the end of the annotated sheets. This gave the students my annotations AND my worksheet of how their final grade was determined.

  • I captured all the file names, used regex in BBEdit to swap score and name, imported the list to a separate Numbers worksheet, and thereby created my total review sheet.

Someday I will consider whether and how to automate certain steps in this process. I am an old dog and, while I can learn new tricks, I also know enough by now that many of those tricks come with more penalties than rewards.

(ps after the fact: I discovered that Canvas will take the ZIP archive and automatically re-post the graded files as long as the file names are the same as the originals. This was easy to fix using a better finder rename. Viola … upload 50 graded files automatically rather than one-at-a-time.)

I can recommend a shorter process to grade “simple” assignments where you just deduct points from problems, for example on quizzes or exams. For that case, I still use PDFExpert on my iPad. I first mark all the exams with X for incorrect answers. Then I go back to each exam a) mark the points, b) tally the points, and c) add a suffix on the filename with the final scored. So, for these cases, the only reason I have my desktop is to download the files from my LMS and upload the graded submissions back to the LMS.

Finally, I will close with a notice about another app – MarginNote. I tested it last semester. I might say that it could really be the better app to mark up PDF documents for grading or proof-reading. Why? Because you can tag annotations, not just simply apply tags as annotations. Unfortunately, I ultimately found MarginNote cumbersome, unreliable, and uncooperative to use for grading or markup of documents and have since dropped it.

Hope this adds some further good ideas to the growing list of good ideas here!


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