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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

New Feature Proposal: Grammar marks

Teachers have requested that EssayTagger add support for marking grammar errors. Here's how I'm thinking of doing it.

Update 1/7/13:
The Error Mark feature has been built and is now released! Read about it here!

Teachers would like a streamlined way to note missing commas, spelling errors, and a wide array of other grammar errors. Most of us envision this as an "SP" icon for spelling, perhaps a "~" for a split infinitive, and so on.

Sounds easy, but...
There are a couple of challenges with this. First, there doesn't seem to be a standardized set of symbols or abbreviations for each possible error. Teachers tend to develop their own system and give students a decoder key at the beginning of the semester. It's not really practical for us to support any arbitrary collection of teacher-generated symbols. The flip side isn't any better; I don't want to create my own set of symbols and force all EssayTagger users to adopt them.

The other problem is that the list of possible errors is really long. It would be very difficult to organize and present all those symbols in a user-friendly manner. It wouldn't save you any time if you had to sift through a confusing list of 40+ symbols. Maybe we could help you pare down the list to just the errors that you care about most, but there are still complexities and tradeoffs.

Is it worth it?
But my biggest misgiving is that I question how valuable it is in the first place. How much are we really helping our students when we mark up and correct every grammar error on their papers? Do the students really look at those edits? Do they internalize them or learn from them in any way? Do we hold them accountable to learning from them?

A better way
Some of my colleagues simply note problematic passages with something like an underline or a checkmark; it's then up to the student to identify the error and submit corrections. I like this. Instead of handing the student a grammar fix that s/he might only barely glance at, it's now the student's job to look back at the sentence and figure out what went wrong--or seek help if they can't suss it out themselves. The student owns his or her own corrections and learning.

The proposal
So given all this, what I'd like to add is a way for teachers to identify problematic passages without specifying the exact error present. The site could even pull out each of those flagged sentences and list them all to the student in a separate section of her graded feedback. Something like:
Sentences marked with a grammar error:
"There reasoning was totally silly."
"Her's explanation made a lot of sense."
"If he went there it wouldn't be right."
That would make it really easy for students to take that list and submit corrections as a follow-up assignment.

The site could also report the number of errors marked in each essay and compile an average number of errors for each class on each assignment.

What would it look like?
I think this new error marking could piggy-back on the existing Free Comment system. Let's review how the Free Comments work. To create a Free Comment you select any piece of text:

And then when you release the mouse button the Free Comment text box pops up:

You can then type whatever you need to and the comment will be applied to the highlighted text. They're called "Free" comments because they are not linked to the rubric and do not include a quality level evaluation. It's really just a way to make a one-on-one note to a particular student about a specific piece of text.

Selector switch?
I could add a selector switch of sorts to the Free Comment box to swap between "Free Comment" mode and "Error Marking" mode. Select problematic text, release the mouse button, and then when the Free Comment box appears, flip the switch to "Error Marking" mode. At that point you just hit "save" and the highlighted portion will be identified as having an error, but with no other specification from you about what's wrong with it.

Optionally, you could also type a note into the text box before hitting save. The grading app will record the highlighted sentence has having an error and will display your comment about it to the student. The comment could be a personal note ("Jimmy, we're seeing way too much of this") or could describe the actual problem (e.g. "subject-verb agreement"). Obviously I'm not a fan of explaining the error for the student, but this option keeps that possibility open for those teachers who feel differently.

The Free Comment box would remain in "Error Marking" mode for the next passage until you flip the switch back to "Free Comment" mode.

Or maybe just two "save" buttons?
This might be simpler. Just have a "Save Free Comment" button AND a "Mark as Error" button on the popup text box. Whichever you click determines how the grading app should treat the highlighted text. I think I like this better.

An important note
I know some of you will ask if the grading app could automatically identify grammar errors. Language processing is extremely difficult and is way beyond the practical reach of what we have the resources or expertise to deliver. More importantly, I've never been a fan of this sort of automation; Microsoft Word's green squiggly line grammar errors have always been annoyingly flawed.

Our emphasis is on enhancing what the teacher already does but without attempting to replace the teacher. You already have the necessary expertise to identify grammar errors and you'll be a lot more accurate and effective than any automated monstrosity.

Your thoughts?
I'm hoping to implement this over winter break. That means you have two weeks to provide feedback and suggestions for this new feature. Post your thoughts below, tweet @KeithMukai, post a comment on our facebook page, or use the "comments/feedback" button at the top left of every screen on EssayTagger.com.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you!