When Professors Get A's And Machines Get F's

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorCollege, Undergraduate August 2001

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It's time to put a stop to talk about new computer programs that can grade students' essays with less effort and more accuracy than any teacher could -- and do so more cheaply and quickly, to boot. Such programs are neither necessary nor desirable. I'm not worried that computers will replace teachers. Technology, used well, can enhance the human aspects of learning. But I am concerned that essay-grading programs may give both students and teachers a false picture of how readers evaluate what they read, and that in turn will lead to false ideas about how we should write.

According to its promoters, the Intelligent Essay Assessor, this year's entry in the grading-software sweepstakes, can scan essays and reliably identify what students have learned in seconds. Like older grading programs, it can measure the length of words and sentences and analyze punctuation. But it also does something its developers call "latent semantic analysis."

By searching for keywords and their synonyms, it can tell whether a student is on the right topic and how much information the essay contains compared to stored samples of essays on the topic. It can tell students what they've left out, and it can signal instructors that a student may have plagiarized. The program looks not just for single words, but for word patterns and phrases, so students can't fool it by parroting lists of concepts. And the program can learn what's good by being fed model essays, written by experts and professionals, on the topic in question.

Pitted against human graders, we are told, this software program gives grades that mirror those of real teachers. The program won't do away with teachers, but it will allow them to escape the drudgery of reading essays and to spend more time with students. The program also promises...