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Writing is recognized as a critical skill in business, education and many other layers of social engagement.
The software Wilson used is called PEGWriting (which stands for Project Essay Grade Writing), based on work by the late education researcher Ellis B.
Page and sold by Measurement Incorporated, which supports Wilson's research with indirect funding to the University.
Calculators and other electronic devices are routinely used by educators.
"Do math teachers rue the day students didn't do all computations on their own? Wilson heard mixed reviews about use of the software in the classroom when he met with teachers at Mote in early June.
Where it might take a human reader five minutes to attach a holistic score to a piece of writing, the automated system can process thousands at a time, producing a score within a matter of seconds, Wilson said.
"If it takes a couple weeks to get back to the student they don't care about it anymore," he said. The software vastly accelerates the feedback loop." But computers are illiterate. The scores they attach to writing are based on mathematical equations that assign or deduct value according to the programmer's instructions. They do not understand how far Johnny has come in his writing and they have no special patience for someone who is just learning English.
Could automated scoring and feedback produce benefits throughout the school year, shaping instruction and providing incentives and feedback for struggling writers, beyond simply delivering speedy scores?
"If we use the system throughout the year, can we start to improve the learning? "Can we change the trajectory of kids who would otherwise fail, drop out or give up?
"It was fun to see that." That same quick score produced discouragement for other students, though, teachers said, when they received low scores and could not figure out how to raise them no matter how hard they worked.
That demonstrates the importance of the teacher's role, Wilson said.