Automating Feedback on Students' Writing

Posted on December 5th, 2014 by Anthony Petrosky

Trying to Fix an Outdated System

LightSide, an Ed tech company that sells an Automated Revision Assistant (ARA), sold recently to Turnitin.com. Word on the street is that they'll aggressively push ARA to schools in the coming year.

ARA, "a tool for giving feedback and support to students as they write," "highlights both strong and weak aspects" of students' writing to give them "a place to start when revising."

A teacher who used it says it "helps students become more independent as writers by giving them the same feedback and comments that I as a teacher would give." ARA is billed as providing "more guidance and access to feedback to students" to "free teachers to do their most important job—teaching."

The first time another teacher used it, because he couldn't "thoroughly digest his students' papers" to "give them critical, well-thought out comments," he said he could respond quickly to students as "their hands shot up in the air." As students asked if they were "done," he was able to respond by asking, "have you fixed the highlighted sentences?"

ARA provides "a discussion point and scaffold" so teachers can "immediately identify areas of the paper to review," so that they can "then confidently offer additional advice."

Automated feedback systems such as this one are designed to fix an outdated system in which teachers don't have time to closely read and comment on students' writing.

The Outdated System

Jump to the 2014 results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) released in June by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The report, as Linda Darling-Hammond puts it, offers "a stunning picture" of "American teachers today" working "harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world." They have less time to collaborate to improve their work, less meaningful professional development, and less useful feedback on their actual teaching.

Here's Darling-Hammond saying it best.

U.S. teachers must cope with larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24). They also spend more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children each week (27 versus the TALIS average of 19). And they work more hours in total each week than their global counterparts (45 versus the TALIS average of 38), with much less time in their schedules for planning, collaboration, and professional development.

Darling-Hammond attributes U.S. teachers' workloads and lack of time in their days and weeks for their students and their peers to "a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s" that "makes it harder for our teachers to find time to work with colleagues on creating great curriculum and learning new methods, to mark papers, to work individually with students, and to reach out to parents."

It's common place (and true) to say that our education system promotes rote learning and direct instruction with teachers giving out information to rows of students or asking questions one-after-another and either getting answers from the same handful of students or answering their own questions. I see this all the time when I go into classes of even the best-intentioned teachers.

This factory model pushes automation to free teachers from creating, closely reading, and responding to students' writings. And much of what students are asked to write takes its cue from assignments that can best and most generously be described as inauthentic exercises.

It's no secret that over the past decades, we've reduced students' writing to formulas, templates, and algorithms designed to make writing essays more like filling in the blank than composing in response to compelling readings, ideas, or studies. Automated feedback is simply the next step in treating students' writing as formulaic essays where the focus is on the presence of features rather than the quality of the reasoning or the depth of knowledge.

Writers Need Readers

When we turn feedback to students over to computers with minimal engagement from teachers, or with teachers' engagements keyed to the computer's highlighted sentences and passages, we turn teachers' attention away from the one big window that they have into students' thinking—their writings.

Students in U.S. schools rarely engage in student-to-student talk about their readings and ideas, so writing is the one window still open that allows us as teachers to see our students' thinking. If we aren't reading their writing closely, and responding to it, then we aren't engaged with our students' understanding, their ideas, their reasoning, or their use of language. We're skimming. We're not practicing the close reading that we say we so value in their reading and writing.

How can teachers possibly create authentic, meaningful, and purposefully focused lessons on the content and logic of students' thinking, if they aren't closely reading and thinking about their students' writings and what that writing tells them that their students need next in their development?

Teaching writing is teaching thinking. It is teaching the logic and grammar of ideas and expressions of those ideas. Writing is teaching students to say something meaningful to others, and to struggle always—as worthwhile writing is almost always a struggle. Teaching writing is putting examples of various kinds of writing before students—both professional and the students' own—to read closely as a class for the purposes of talking about the ways ideas and the sentences that carry them are inextricably intertwined. One of our most important jobs as writing teachers is to give students opportunities to try out repertoires of ways of writing and to talk about their experiences with them as novice writers.

Writing is much more than individual performances. It's a social act, even though we most frequently compose alone.

Student writers, like the pros, constantly come under the influences of their readings; their discussions with others; the language around them that they hear, appropriate, and transform; and the responses of others to what they have to say in their essays, stories or poems. Student writers, like pros, always need readers who respond to their ideas, to the emotions and states of mind carried in their sentences and paragraphs, and to the nuances of their words. They benefit enormously from social environments such as those encouraged by the National Writing Project (NWP) where their work is discussed openly with peers and teachers and constantly under revision.

Sharing writing with others allows student writers to learn writerly habits of mind and the powers of collaboration. These habits sustain students and carry them into the future. For learning, they are worth more than grades or scores or automated feedback.

Making students' writing a priority, treating it as the window that it is into their thinking and development, means that we look over their shoulders, ask questions, make suggestions, and push and prod them to imagine revisions, other perspectives, and other directions. It means we allow them to experiment with repertoires of styles and forms, and to be journalists, investigators, researchers, and poets who borrow what they need from all of these for their own work. Such a course is a place where students practice writing and teachers and peers practice close reading of those writings.