How grading software fails students

Professors can learn a lot about students when they have to put their thoughts on paper,  Jay Parini says.

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: Professors are not crazy about grading papers, but new software can do it for them
  • Parini says teachers learn a lot about students from grading papers
  • He says computers can't work with students one-on-one to correct writing habits, errors
  • Parini: Computers vs. teachers is, as Twain said, difference between lightning bugs, lightning

I've been teaching English in college for 40 years, and I've never met a single professor who likes grading. "Hate" is too strong a word for what they feel. But nobody likes it. The fun stuff is talking to students, holding classroom discussions, thinking about your subject in complex ways and trying to convey your enthusiasm for the subject. Education is about leading students in useful directions, helping them to discover their own critical intelligence, their own voices.

Now a company has come up with software that can grade our papers for us. EdX is a nonprofit company started by Harvard and MIT. It also creates online courses called MOOCs (for massive open online course). With this new software, students submitting their papers online can get immediate feedback: no more waiting until the lazy professor gets around to grading their work, probably leaving coffee rings and inky fingerprints on the pages.

Having a program grade papers would apparently free teachers to do other things, but I think it would be a mistake. Why? As a teacher, I may begin to understand students by their conversation or how they respond in class, but when they actually have to put their thoughts on paper, I can learn a huge amount in a relatively brief time. I can see how they think and feel in relation to the material before them, and if (and how) they have problems in making connections, marshaling arguments, drawing conclusions. Needless to say, I can also get a sense of where they are with the material at hand. Have they learned enough to progress to the next stage?

Jay Parini

The truth is, students rarely come to college -- any college -- knowing how to write well. This takes a lot of what one of my old profs used to call "correction." I remember sitting beside him in his office as he went over my papers. He would draw a red pencil through adjectives, suggesting that I find stronger nouns, not more bolstering words. Don't say it was a "long narrow street." Kill the adjectives. Call it an alley if it's an alley.

He also told me to get rid of those adverbs. Get a stronger verb and you won't need an adverb, he would tell me. So don't say: "He ran swiftly down the narrow street." Instead, try something like this: "He sped down the alley." I learned from this guy how to put my sentences into a more active voice, how to subordinate clauses, to embed them in a rolling syntax, making thoughts more subtle, arguments more persuasive.

Now that was teaching.

Real education lives in sitting side by side with a student, in the face-to-face exchange of ideas and feelings. But grading papers often represents the beginning of a good exchange.

    I think my best teaching moments have occurred off-stage, late at night. I would spot a problem in a student paper and respond at length, in writing, in the margins. This would lead to an affecting moment in my office, where the student would come back at me to discuss. The conversation would continue, often for a very long time. In some cases, for years.

    I don't think any software program is ever going to replace people in education. It may offer some help, but it's not the real thing. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it's the difference between lightning bugs and lighting. Sometimes, we need the flash itself, even the jolt, to push us in the right direction. I don't believe software, however sophisticated, will ever provide that kind of jolt.

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