Posts Tagged Writing Vs. Communication

Quality Over Quantity–Computer Assisted Grading Revisited

A Reuter’s report describes recent efforts to create computer software that could scan and grade common errors in student essays.  Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.

Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills.  He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.

Steve Graham, a Professor at Vanderbilt who has conducted research on essay grading techniques, argues, in contrast, that the replacement of writing teachers by grading software is not only “inevitable” but also desirable as “the reality is humans aren’t very good at doing this.”

As the writer of the Reuter’s article notes, talk about paper grading software is not new.  It began in the 1960s.  Now, however, technology has reached a level where such grading is not only possible but also probable.  But the question still remains:  Is it a good idea?

Leaving aside for a moment the question of faculty employment, machine grading sidesteps a more important question than how to get students to write more and grade that writing effectively.  Namely–what is writing and who is responsible for teaching it.

In too many schools writing is viewed as the “problem” of the English department.  Students are sent to writing classes to learn essay structure, research techniques, and grammar.  Only the last of these is universal.  The other two skill sets are discipline specific.  I guess that explains why to my students everything they read is a novel and every paper a literary analysis.  They’ve been taught after all that writing equals English.

If we really want students to learn not just writing but effective communication, parents, teachers, and administrators need to spread the responsibility for this instruction across the curriculum.  Some schools already do this but most are content to leave communication training to literary scholars.  Machines won’t change this.  They will be programmed to evaluate whatever curriculum is currently in place.  Until the curriculum is changed, the machine will not only replicate the error but multiply it.

Moving on to the issue of employment, part of my unease with a machine that grades papers is it would most likely put me out of a job.  I have 48 student essays in need of grading that are staring at me right now as I pen this post.  Of course, the curricular changes I suggest would more than likely have the same effect, with or without machine assistance.  The way to counter this, however, is to lower class sizes.

This is the other aspect of the issue that is completely ignored by most research.  If class sizes are lessened, not only will more teachers have employment but writing will become a less onerous task to teach and evaluate.  It could also then be meaningfully integrated into the entire curriculum and not remain the purview of the English Department.

Would such changes cost a lot of money?  Yes.  But it is a good investment.  Far better than the money we’ve wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even larger sums of money we spend incarcerating drug offenders.  It’s even better, dare I say, than the cost of a certain software currently being designed to solve all my problems.




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“Thank God I’m Done with English.”

When you teach at one school for any length of time, you inevitably run into students wherever you go.  This past Friday I was on my way to Greektown for a gyro and encountered a former student from my First Year writing course two semesters ago.

I don’t know about you but I always find these situations a little awkward at first.  Most of these students I don’t see after they take my freshmen level courses.  They go on to their various fields of study and I don’t have the opportunity to see them again.  Consequently, I’m never really sure what to talk about.

In this case, I gravitated towards the predictable.  “So what classes are you taking this semester?  Are they going well?”  As this student answered my utterly banal questions, she eventually blurted out “Thank God I’m done with English.  Now I can get on to what I want to study.”

Being a long time teacher of the core curriculum at this school, which is universally required and almost as univerally reviled by students, I’m used to comments like these.  I just laugh them off.  What made me sad, however, was the grain of truth in what she was saying.  My course would more than likely be the last “English” (i.e. writing) course that she would take in her college career.  Admittedly she will have classes that require her to write, but never again will writing be a deliberate part of her instruction.

Perhaps this is just the English teacher in me speaking out, but I find this reality disgusting.  Without any meaningful iteration, First Year writing courses are indeed what students claim–a waste of time.  They jump through the hoop to make those in power happy and then go on their merry way.  This attitude will not change until writing or more appropriately COMMUNICATION  at ALL LEVELS of the curriculum and in ALL DISCIPLINES becomes a subject worthy of sustained attention.  When we write, we communicate our ideas with others.  If we can’t do this effectively, our ideas may as well not exist.  If we can’t do this effectively, it is not the English teachers that have failed our students but those who feel that effective communication is the problem of a selected few.

Let’s hope that sometime in the future, students like that young lady mentioned above will see the global value of good communication and not cringe in fear of the “English” class.

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