A recent study by University of Akron comparing the scoring of student essay writing by computer software programs versus that done by “trained human readers” has caused quite a controversy among college level English teachers.
The authors of the study, rightfully, point out that these findings should not be taken as an excuse to rush to replace English teachers, but rather as an indication that these software programs could be useful resources for student writers as a way to get additional feedback on their writing.
Coincidentally, the English faculty at the community college where I teach, just met to conduct our annual review of student performance across our writing program. One thing we do at these sessions is a blind cross-score of essays written by our students on the essay portion of the Proficiency Profile test from ETS. The essays are first scored using the eRater software program (this is one of the same programs evaluated in the Akron study); then we compare the scores of the teachers to those given by the e-Rater program. Our results, however, were the exact opposite of the larger study. For five years running, we have found scores given by teachers to be significantly different (almost always lower) than those given by the software.
Teachers of English, however, are not just “trained human readers” or warm-blooded scoring machines, and we have much more important things to do with our students’ writing than assign it a grade or score. Writing is first of all an exchange of ideas. Our students are sharing their thoughts with us, and before anything else, teachers should be respectful, thoughtful readers of those ideas. Like many of my colleagues, I respond to my students’ writing with questions and comments–about what they are saying (e.g., “What makes you say this? Could you tell me more about this point? Do you have more evidence or examples to support this particular point? What an effective and delightful analogy!”)
Our next responsibility is, as fellow writers, to help these budding younger writers develop in the craft of writing. We help them learn how to shape, clarify, and express their ideas for a variety of audiences and purposes. Part of that, of course, is teaching the conventions of formal usage. One way to accomplish both those goals is to expose them to a wide variety of great writers.
When I sit down next to each of my students or with a small group of them (physically or virtually) to share their most recent work; to reflect on how they have grown as writers since their last piece or since the start of the course; to give sincere, critical feedback on what would help make it better—I am doing what no software program can copy. It is through these very human interactions that I also show students that they have worth far beyond a number on a scale. I also learn some very real and fascinating things from my students’ writings. They have experiences, points of view, information, and writing techniques to share with me and the world. Learning and writing alongside my students is a wonderful place to be, and one that no software program can take from me… yet.