Robo-readers are better than humans at helping students improve their writing, argues Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report. “The computer functions not as a grader but as a proofreader and basic writing tutor, providing feedback on drafts, which students then use to revise their papers before handing them in to a human,” she writes.
At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which has used E-Rater since 2009, students are far more willing to revise their essays if they get feedback from a computer rather than a human teacher. They write more and improve more.
Rewriting seems like a game, a way to get a higher score, said Andrew Klobucar, a humanities professor.
Instructors’ criticism is seen by students as “corrective, even punitive,” he said. When E-Rater suggests a rewrite, students don’t take it personally.
In a study at Alexandria University, students learning to teach English as a foreign language received feedback on two essay drafts from a robo-reader program called Criterion.
As in New Jersey, students liked the immediate response, saw writing a new draft as a game and preferred non-human feedback.
Comments and criticism from a human instructor actually had a negative effect on students’ attitudes about revision and on their willingness to write, the researchers note. By contrast, interactions with the computer produced overwhelmingly positive feelings, as well as an actual change in behavior — from “virtually never” revising, to revising and resubmitting at a rate of 100 percent.
. . . the students’ writing improved; they repeated words less often, used shorter, simpler sentences, and corrected their grammar and spelling. . . . Follow-up interviews with the study’s participants suggested that the computer feedback actually stimulated reflectiveness in the students — which, notably, feedback from instructors had not done.
Robo-graders are a bad idea, concludes Paul. But robo-writing coaches may be a very good idea.
When critics like Les Perelman of MIT claim that robo-graders can’t be as good as human graders, it’s because robo-graders lack human insight, human nuance, human judgment. But it’s the very non-humanness of a computer that may encourage students to experiment, to explore, to share a messy rough draft without self-consciousness or embarrassment.
Automated software would let teachers assign more writing without creating an impossible burden for themselves.
The only way to learn to write is to write and rewrite.