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Can A Computer Grade An Essay?

Can a computer grade an essay? EdX, the massive online education enterprise founded by Harvard and MIT, is about to make another big push in changing how we learn. (Joerg Sarbach/AP)

Can a computer grade an essay? EdX, the massive online education enterprise founded by Harvard and MIT, is about to make another big push in changing how we learn. (Joerg Sarbach/AP)

EdX, the massive online education enterprise founded by Harvard and MIT, is about to make another big push in changing how we learn.

It has to do with how instructors grade essays. You remember in high school, or college…you’d answer essay exam questions in a blue book, or by turning in a long, typed-out essay? Either way, you’d have to wait weeks for your grade.

Well, EdX has just introduced a system where students wait seconds. Not weeks… but seconds to get their grades. The group is using a newly developed automated software to grade essays. A computer scores the writing, and then allows students to re-write their essays immediately to try for a better grade.

But can computers adequately measure the nuances of good writing?


Les Perelman, former director of writing at MIT and President of the Consortium for the Research and Evaluation of Writing.

Mark Shermis, Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Akron.


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  • Call_Me_Missouri

    People take things too Absolutely.  The world is not Black and White and I think this is a GREAT IDEA.

    This notion that this will be the only grader is ridiculous for all the obvious reasons.

    BUT…  It would be a good double check on teachers who inflate grades for students EVERY DAY.  Else how could you explain students who graduate from high school and are functionally illiterate???  This would keep that student from graduating no matter what grade they got from their teacher.

    Additionally, for Science Teachers, Math Teachers who want to make sure that their students actually understand what they are being taught, could use this technology to do fundamental grammar checking that though it might not affect the student’s grade, would be useful in assessing the students ability to write.

    • Les Perelman

      Microsoft Word has a better grammar checker than any of these products and even that is flawed.  Try this experiment:
      1. Make sure your grammar checker is turned on to also check style
      2. Under “Settings” for style, make sure that the Passive Voice box is checked
      3. Write the following sentence:
                The car was parked by the side of the road
      4. Run the grammar and style checker and see what you get

  • Les Perelman

    My critique of Professor Shermis’ study is available at this link to The New York Times web site:

    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/science/Critique_of_Shermis.pdf It is being reviewed for publication in the Journal of Writing Assessment.  I am extremely familiar with the literature on the subject.  I am also providing a link to an essay of mine arguing against Automated Essay Scoringhttp://wac.colostate.edu/books/wrab2011/chapter7.pdf

    Les Perelman

  • JB Johnson

    If – and it’s a big IF – this company could show me with both qualitative and quantitative data that students’ education and skills development wouldn’t suffer, then perhaps I could get behind automated grading. But so far I don’t think their software or their or anyone else’s research can establish that this is the case. I’m certainly open to hearing more about this topic, though, including research and opinion from all sides of the debate.

    As it stands, grading (for me and pretty much everyone) is hard work. Rarely is it fun work. But it is MEANINGFUL work. It is one of the best avenues we, as educators, have for assessing our students’ skills, progress, creativity, challenge areas. And by being intimately familiar with students’ work, we’re in a better position to help address trouble areas, recognize and encourage creativity, and to develop more effective relationships with our students.

    There’s definitely a role for technology, however, I’m certainly not a luddite. I encourage my students to use (but not rely upon) the spelling and grammar checkers in Microsoft Word. Similarly, I was able to get rid of handwriting comments by moving to Word’s comments and “track changes” features, which were a welcome relief after years of writing comments long-hand. My latest and greatest upgrade took me away from the tedium and repetitious typing of comments by using something called GradeAssist from a company called pappasvolk. It seems to have hundreds of comments plus lets me add my own comments tailored to unique assignments, so I’m able to grade a paper much faster than if I was starting each time from scratch. But that’s key: I’m the one doing the grading, not some software engineer’s complex, limited, and secretive rubric logic. 

    The bottom line is that there are people out there, whether at Microsoft or PappasVOlk or wherever, who are doing innovative technological work to support educators, not replace them. I’d encourage the engineers and researchers at companies like EdX to focus on better understanding how educators teach and how students learn, and then design systems that support those groups, rather than trying to force technological processes and solutions into the educational arena before they’re ready. 

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