Those who speak and write against automated essay scoring (AES) often create a false dichotomy that the scoring must be all human or all AES. Perhaps critics feel if they admit any usefulness for machine scoring they are opening a door they cannot close. My view is that there is a clear middle ground where AES can provide useful support for teachers and others who have the task of scoring student writing. In a previous post I discussed how AES might be used in scoring summative writing tasks. In this post I will explore the obvious value of AES in the instruction of writing.
With the arrival the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) writing has a new primacy of place in instruction that it did not have in the NCLB world. One important role of writing (and speaking) is the explication of what texts actually say. A second important role of writing is the evaluation of claims and evidence in text: restating an author’s arguments and supporting details and then determining the effectiveness of those arguments and evidence. In doing this sort of writing, the student is actually doing the work of making meaning from text. The writer is doing more than simply putting words on paper or keyboarding onto a screen to download the meaning that has already been constructed in the mind. The very act of composing text or stating in words what has been read is a meaning making activity in itself. A colleague of mine who taught AP Literature, counseled her students that if they just began their AP essays by explicating the text that insight would come to them as they wrote. She called this “writing to revelation.” In acknowledgement of the fact that writing is a way to clarify and even know exactly what the writer thinks, writing is often called a sense making activity.
It is the claim of the CCSS authors that these critical reading skills combined with “sense making” are critical components of career and college readiness. It is these two critical aspects of writing that should be the focus of teacher feedback to student writers. It is the teacher who can best determine if the explication of text is fair to the writer, and it is the teacher who can best judge whether the student writer has successfully analyzed and evaluated the claims and evidence in a text. In an instructional setting, this sort of formative feedback will be more critical for students than feedback on grammar and punctuation or sentence length or word repetition or organization or evenness of support.
Perhaps in an ideal world, the teacher could provide the content feedback about student writing as well as the other types of feedback listed in the previous paragraph. But in the real world that is a huge ask. Another colleague of mine recently began teaching community college basic composition. She taught one section in the evening and said she spent around a half hour with each paper submitted by her students. Her mentor, a veteran teacher with multiple sections of the course, set a timer for five minutes per paper. She counseled my colleague that a half hour per paper was not a sustainable model.
Using AES, students can submit multiple drafts to be parsed by the engine and can revise and edit based on the feedback given. The AES can provide that patient feedback loop that is so necessary for good formative practice. Additionally, the students have to take some responsibility for their own learning by determining the value of the feedback and by deciding how to respond to it. This student centric approach is another hallmark of good formative practice. Occasionally, as with the spell check and grammar check feedback in Word, the AES may find errors that are not really errors. If students can identify these instances and understand the misidentification, they will be moving toward becoming good editors of their own work. The teacher can assign certain AES criteria that must be met before they will look at the essay. By the time the teacher receives the essay, perhaps five minutes will be enough to provide feedback on the critical aspects of content and accuracy. In this model of writing in which the student owns a response to feedback, the teacher can focus on what the student has to say and thus be a more authentic audience for the student.
Photo credit to Woodley Wonderworks.