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Robo-readers grade students' essays

A professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia designed software to grade students' essays.
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Written by Amy Kraft, Weekend Editor on

Computers have been helping grade multiple choice tests such as the SATs and ACTs for decades. (No. 2 pencil, please.) But the task of reading through student essays has always gone to humans--until now.

Ed Brent, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia gives his students' essays to a computer to grade.

Brent designed software called a SAGrader to grade student papers in a matter of seconds. The program works by analyzing sentences and paragraphs for keywords and relationships between terms. Brent believes the program can be used as a tool to save time for teachers by zeroing in on the main points of an essay and allowing teachers to rate papers for the use of language and style.

"I don't think we want to replace humans," Brent says in an article in Wired. "But we want to do the fun stuff, the challenging stuff. And the computer can do the tedious but necessary stuff."

Using the software still requires work on the teacher's part, though. To prepare the program to grade papers, a teacher must enter all of the components they expect a paper to include. Teachers also have to consider the hundreds of ways a student might address the pieces of an essay.

But when other schools tested out the program, they found a few flaws.

Wired reports:

"When the University of California at Davis tried out such technology a couple years back, lecturer Andy Jones decided to try to trick e-Rater. Prompted to write on workplace injuries, Jones instead input a letter of recommendation, substituting "risk of personal injury" for the student's name.

"My thinking was, 'This is ridiculous, I'm sure it will get a zero,'" he said. He got a five out of six. A second time around, Jones scattered "chimpanzee" throughout the essay, guessing unusual words would yield him a higher score. He got a six."

A computer program to grade papers also raises questions about whether or not it will get in the way of a student's learning. If a student knows a computer will be grading the paper, will he or she try to be as creative as possible in outlining an argument, or will the assignment degrade into a test on how to outsmart the computer?

Or maybe this is just another instance where technology will help make human lives easier. Brent thinks so. He tells Wired: "Now we can focus more. Are they making a good argument? Do they seem to understand? Are they being creative?"

Computers Grade Students' Writing  [Wired]

Photo via SAGrader

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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