Essays Get the Electronic Red Pen

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Essays Get the Electronic Red Pen


Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Get ready, college students. That lovable robot R2-D2 may be grading your next term paper. Well, almost. A few kinks remain, but about 200 master's students at Florida State University may soon become the first in American higher education to have their writing graded by computer. Only last spring, two researchers announced development of the Intelligent Essay Assessor, Web-based software they said could first be trained to "understand" expert writing in various disciplines - then pass judgment on student essays. Thomas Landauer, a University of Colorado at Boulder psychology professor, and Peter Foltz, a psycholinguist at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, tested their creation first on their own students. To be fair, the students were given a choice of accepting the machine grade on essays, or having the professors grade them. Almost all preferred the machine. An interesting experiment? Surely. Yet efforts over the past decade to interest professors in such software hit a wall. This new approach, incorporating sophisticated ways of allowing a computer to put words into context, might also have remained a higher-ed footnote. But this time, overworked professors with large classes are signing up. Last fall's announcement generated a "big reaction," says Professor Foltz, including both ire and unusual interest from professors nationwide. Predictably, many deride the idea. "How much should you predicate {on} a semantic system that considers 'the cat ate the thumbtack' equivalent to 'the thumbtack ate the cat?' " wrote one Stanford professor via e-mail. But others saw promise and volunteered to use the software. "I'm VERY interested in reducing my 'Sisyphean' task of grading student essays," wrote a professor from the University of Wisconsin. In fact, five professors will implement the computerized essay assessor in classes this semester, Foltz says. Another 45 to 50 have written to say they are strongly interested in doing so. Colleges, software companies, and even Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service (some of its tests include essay questions) have been calling. One of those charging fearlessly into the future is Myke Gluck, an associate professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee who helps teach a first-year graduate course in Information Studies. Along with three faculty colleagues and three graduate assistants, Professor Gluck plans to use the computer program this semester to grade the final essay (several- thousand words) written by the class's 200-plus students. Besides reducing work loads, computer grading should also lend more consistency, which Gluck admits can vary among assistants. …

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