Header text

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.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Discussing: "The Death of Math" by Gary Rubenstein

Rubenstein bemoans testing culture's effect on Math education and suggests a better way forward. I feel his pain but think he's only half-right.

Gary Rubenstein in his "The Death of math" blog post is spot-on about the short-sighted nature of de-prioritizing away from vital skills like geometric proofs as a result of standardized testing pressures. Proofs are geometry and are by far the most valuable aspect of it. And it ain't about the math, it's about the way of thinking that geometry proofs cultivate (yes, I'm an English teacher that has come to love "ain't"--deal with it!).

But Rubenstein is a bit behind the times in the Khan Academy era. Sal Khan, my former boss and co-worker (a fact that I will brag about until the end of eternity), has worked out a better solution to a lot of the issues that Rubenstein tries to solve.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

K-5 Common Core standards in-progress!

EssayTagger's free Common Core Rubric Creation Tool has been very well received by teachers. But I initially only adapted the 6-12 standards. I'm finally gearing up for K-5!

Our free Common Core Rubric Creation Tool is quite popular. It's been used to create over 7,500 Common Core-aligned rubrics in just its first year! And easily half of our customer support emails are from people who want us to incorporate the K-5 standards.

Well, I hear you and I am working on it!! Check out the work-in-progress.

Want to help? 
I'd love some collaborators! This is difficult! Use the support widget on the website, respond in the comments below, or find me on Twitter (@KeithMukai) if you want to contribute!

Some background
For those of you that don't know, the innovative aspect of the tool is that it breaks down each standard into its assessable sub-components:

This solves the problem that teachers face when they look at the standards; the dang things are just too vague, cover too much ground, or just aren't assessable.

It was also a crap-ton of work for me! Those assessable sub-components aren't part of the official CCSS specification; I had to stare at each standard and find a concise way to translate the standard into its assessable sub-components. That's not easy. And I'm not necessarily going to get everything right.

So I also made the tool flexible so that if you don't like my terminology or the way I've done it, you can edit the labels or even add totally new subcomponents as you see fit.

You then end up with a rubric grid that you can further customize, add additional CCSS-aligned rubric elements, add non-CCSS-aligned rubric elements (e.g. "Class Citizenship" or anything else not captured by the CCSS). You can also add performance descriptors (the traditional rubric text we're used to seeing) in each grid cell. You can share your rubric online (post a link, Twitter, email, etc), print it, or download it as an Excel CSV file.

And, of course, since this tool is part of EssayTagger, you can apply your rubric to an EssayTagger assignment and produce Common Core-aligned results data as you grade!

The Common Core Rubric Creation Tool is free for anyone to try and there's no registration or sign in required.

That being said, I certainly would not be disappointed if you decided to go deeper into the EssayTagger world and create a free trial account in order to see what life is like when you grade essays in our system. And as I always have to point out: EssayTagger is NOT an auto-grader. You make all the evaluations, you provide all the feedback. We just make it easier and more efficient for you to do so!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Summer Project: DIY Gymnastics Mushroom

In addition to running EssayTagger I'm also a high school gymnastics coach. This is totally off-topic for EssayTagger, but I didn't have anywhere else to post it!

My flares aren't perfect but they are fun!
A mushroom is an indispensable tool for developing pommel horse circles. It takes a ton of time just to get a basic circle but once you're there you can start working spindles, russians, flares, moores, back moores, spindle flares, swiss hops. Add some obstacles and you can also work loops and back loops.

The best part is that you can train all this on your own, in the offseason. You can easily get circles in 9 months. It's a lot harder to do it during our 10-week season.

Unfortunately mushrooms are expensive. The type in the picture on the left with a steel base costs about $950. Even the cheapo-looking plastic mushrooms are over $300. Ouch!

$300+ for this?!

So I wanted to engineer my own mushroom that would be strong enough to support my 157lbs, it had to be simple enough for my more handy high school gymnasts to build at home, and the raw materials had to be reasonably affordable.

I'm pretty happy with the results:

Tools needed
7/16" drill bit
1" flat bit
Mitre saw (or do the cuts at a hardware store)
Light duty staple gun
Box cutter
Measuring tape

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How to configure an assignment for "Evaluation-only" mode

With today's release of "Evaluation-only" mode support, instructors can now evaluate end-of-unit and final essays without providing feedback comments. Here's how to get started.

We're super-excited that we were able to launch our new "Evaluation-only" mode in time for most schools' final exams. Finals are the strongest case for when to use "Evaluation-only" mode; it's too late to provide helpful feedback and the kids won't get much out of it anyway with their minds already on summer.

Enabling "Evaluation-only" mode
Create or edit an assignment as you normally would. You'll notice a new option: "assessment mode":

Click the droplist and select "Evaluation-only" mode:

Latest update: "Evaluation-only" mode - just in time for finals!

EssayTagger is all about helping teachers provide targeted feedback that will promote student growth. But mid-stream fast formative assessments or end-of-unit summative assessments don't always require extensive feedback. Now EssayTagger supports both "Evaluation + Feedback" and "Evaluation-only" assessment modes to support those situations.

First, the lingo
It's taken me a while to wrap my brain around the following two terms, so let's review them just to be sure we're all on the same page:

Formative Assessment is a kind of check in with your students in the middle of a unit to see where they're at, see where they're struggling. The goal is to then use this information to make on-the-fly adjustments to your plans and instruction to help the students reach the goals you've set out for them. Formative assessments should be fast, simple, and low-stakes or zero-stakes (i.e. not for points). And they have to come early enough so that there's still time left to adjust course as needed. If you just want to quickly "take the pulse" of the room, there's no need for extensive feedback comments.

Summative Assessment is the end measurement point. Did they reach the goal? How many of the target skills can they actually demonstrate now that the unit is complete? Because summative assessments come at the end of the learning process, providing feedback or further coaching at this point is somewhat pointless. When students hand in a final essay at the end of the school year are they really going to absorb your extensive comments as they start their summer vacation? Shyeah, right!

EssayTagger's default mode: "Evaluation + Feedback"
Our primary emphasis on feedback comments places us outside of the world of fast formative assessment and summative assessment. In this mode instructors select a feedback comment from the appropriate quality column or add new reusable comments as needed:

Extensive feedback makes sense when a further draft is expected and students have a chance to incorporate or address your comments. Ideally all writing assignments would have a write-review-rewrite cycle built into the schedule.

The new "Evaluation-only" mode
With today's new release, instructors can opt to configure an assignment to focus solely on evaluation.

Drag-and-drop the rubric element like you normally would. In this example, we are dragging the "Thesis" button to identify the essay's thesis:

But now when the "Thesis" evaluation options pop up, we see that there is only a single choice for each quality level:

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Adapting traditional rubrics for EssayTagger: Nevada Opinion Writing Rubric (5th grade)

EssayTagger represents an evolution of the concept of a rubric. Here's a specific look at how I adapted an existing rubric to take advantage of the EssayTagger world.

If you're new to the EssayTagger world, here's a primer on how EssayTagger rubrics are different from traditional rubrics.

Tearra Bobula, a teacher at Mark Twain Elementary in Carson City, NV, asked me to adapt the Nevada Opinion Writing rubric. It initially presents a bit of a challenge. It consists of five main sections that each contain a subset of 2-4 additional elements:

(click for larger view)

Let's take a closer look at the first section:

(click for larger view)

Each row of this section pertains to the Statement of Purpose/Focus, but assesses slightly different aspects of that overall area. I would break these four sub-elements down to something like:
  • Statement of Opinion
  • Focus
  • Maintain Purpose/Focus
  • Provides Context
So when I adapted this rubric I treated each sub-element as its own rubric element:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Latest Update: Administrator Report emails

A simple new convenience feature driven by teacher feedback from my friends at El Camino Real Charter High School out in sunny southern California.

El Camino is embarking on an ambitious effort to coordinate classroom expectations across all teachers. Such an effort requires a bit of a culture shift--your classroom is no longer an isolated private island--as well as some technology support to ease the logistics of so much collaboration and sharing.

Specifically, they needed to be able to share their graded essays with their administrators and other teachers in the school. The interim solution was to print hard copies (ack, no!!!) or manually copy-and-paste the hyperlink to each student's graded work.

In order to support their efforts (which are perfectly aligned with my own philosophy of enhancing school-wide collaboration through data unification), we added a simple Administrator Report feature which emails a list of each student's results and provides a link to their graded essay:

Administrator Report email (fake test data for demonstration purposes)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Latest update: Support for iPad Pages documents!

Getting any file off of an iPad and out into the world can be a challenge, but Pages makes life more difficult because it uses a unique document format that is not very compatible with other programs. We've been able to overcome both obstacles. Here's how.

Apple's Pages word processor iPad app does make it easy to create some really nice-looking documents. But my praise for Pages stops there because it's such a pain to deal with Pages documents. What good is a beautiful word processor if you can't do anything with the resulting documents?!

Thanks to our just-released Google apps and Google Drive account integration, we can now get Pages documents off of students' iPads and submit them directly to EssayTagger.

Step-by-step instructions
First you'll need to enable Google integration for your course. Instructions can be found here. Your students will also need Pages (obviously) and the Google Drive app.

The Google Drive app works with Pages to export your document into a Word DOC file and then upload it to your Drive account. This conversion and upload to Drive is the key to this process.

Here's the test essay I'll be working with:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Where we're headed: school-wide data unification

EssayTagger was initially developed as a tool to help individual teachers. Now we're taking aim at unifying all writing assessment data across an entire school or district. Here's why this is valuable and here's how we'll do it.

The problem: Disparate writing assessments
In a typical school there's a wide array of teachers who assess writing throughout the year. And with the increasing emphasis on "reading and writing across the curriculum," those numbers are growing. English and Social Studies teachers are busy as ever grading essays, but now there are Math teachers who are assigning reflection paragraphs. PE teachers are assigning sportsmanship essays.

Unfortunately writing assessments are almost always isolated within the confines of each individual classroom. The History teacher knows that his students are struggling with using evidence in their writing, but he has no idea that his students' English teacher is frustrated with the same problem. There simply aren't any lines of communication across departments to share this information and collaborate on a solution.

But the worst offenders are the district writing assessments. Many schools will do a school-wide writing assessment that is scored on a standardized rubric which is then coded into a database so that administrators can pore over the results. These district writing assessments exist outside of the normal curriculum (e.g. in the middle of the Huck Finn unit the sophomores will be asked to write about texting while driving). Worse, the students rarely ever see the results and almost never receive any feedback. They're writing into a black hole. And, oddly enough, teachers often don't even see the results. They might see some bullet points on an institute day slideshow or get the data second-hand from their department head.

Disparate writing assessments are pure silliness.

Writing--and assessing--across the curriculum
We've bought into the value of writing across the curriculum and now it's time to unify assessment data across the curriculum.

Every writing assessment tells us more about each student and our school's overall trends. Assessment data shouldn't be cloistered within the walls of each classroom, but rather should be contributing to a rich web of highly interconnected data. This is the "web-ification" of the school structure; teachers need to think of themselves as part of a network instead of individual sovereign islands.

When Bobby's English teacher grades his essay, his History teacher should be able to see the results down to each individual skill being assessed. The district writing assessments should add to this pool of information and provide more insight to all of Bobby's teachers. The Culinary Arts teacher should know what strengths and weaknesses to expect when she assigns a research paper on launching your own restaurant. The school's writing center or peer tutors could benefit from a detailed skills profile for  each student that comes for help.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

How to enable Google integration in EssayTagger

Student sign-in via Google apps accounts and Google Drive integration were released today as "beta" features that are ready for broader, real-world testing. If you'd like to try it out with your students, follow these simple instructions.

Google integration has passed all of our internal testing, but there's nothing like hordes of actual students to find the flaws or weak points in any new feature.

We'd love your help to test it out. I'd suggest trying it out on a small, mostly inconsequential assignment. Something like a one-paragraph journal entry or a short reflection on the day's reading would be ideal. That way if any students do run into problems signing in or linking their Drive accounts, it's not the end of the world.

Enabling Google integration
Google integration is configured at the course level. Log in to your EssayTagger account and scroll to the bottom of the Instructor Home screen to see your list of courses. Click on the "edit" link next to the desired course.

Latest update: Google apps and Drive integration is here!!

Today's major new release enables student sign-in via Google apps accounts and integration with Google Drive!

Just about every school I talk to has jumped onto the Google apps bandwagon. It's really a no-brainer. It is the best platform on the planet and it's free for schools. Insane.

I'm super-excited to announce that as of today students will be able to sign in to EssayTagger using their Google apps accounts.

Google sign-in simplifies the process for both students and teachers while increasing reliability and security. This is already a huge win, but there's more!

Google account sign-in opens the door to integrating with Google Drive. Now students can link their Drive account and pull their assignments directly out of Drive:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Check out grmr.me and stop endlessly re-teaching grammar!

EssayTagger is all about helping teachers give efficient, targeted feedback to their students. However, the feedback you give and the remediation methods you employ are still all up to you.

So I was thrilled to discover grmr.me via a blog post by Mark Isero.

Grmr.me is a series of well-crafted, targeted lessons by tech-savvy English teacher Kevin Brookhouser that address the most common grammar errors students make--comma splices, pronoun disagreement, there/their/they're, etc.

So rather than re-teaching each of these aggravating grammar issues, just direct students to Kevin's lessons and mini-quizzes. This is essentially a stripped-down version of Khan Academy for grammar remediation.

Using grmr.me
Each lesson has a super-short URL to make it easy to reference when needed.

If there's an issue with, say, passive voice, just write grmr.me/psv in the margin and the student can type that into a browser address bar and immediately watch a remediation lesson on passive voice.

Very cool.

Yep, we really are global!

I have a handful of friends who speak Arabic so we'll see what they have to say about this blog post. But, needless to say, I find it pretty dang cool!

Something I created was noticed on the other side of the world!

Link: http://go4learning.blogspot.com/2012/01/blog-post.html

Friday, February 1, 2013

Using EssayTagger to coordinate PLT assessments, pt2

Part 1: PLTs must have common assignments and common assessments
Part 2: How to coordinate PLTs with EssayTagger
Part 3: Analyzing the data reports (coming soon)

In part two we show you a simple way to increase PLT coordination while maintaining each teacher's individual voice and personal flair.

Let's assume you're onboard with the idea that PLTs need to have a few common assignments that have common assessments in order to gauge the PLT's progress and effectiveness (if not, check out part 1).

Now how do we do this? I closed part 1 by sharing how much I hate common assessments because they are never in my voice and seem like an alien or foreign presence in my classroom. Education reformers would be wise to note that jarring students out of the environment they're used to isn't the best way to assess the effectiveness of that environment!

Producing uniform PLT assessment data seems incompatible with preserving the unique flair and character of each teacher's classroom.

EssayTagger provides a way around that conundrum.

Shared rubrics
Rubrics are at the heart of how teachers assess written work in EssayTagger. And they are EssayTagger's secret weapon to solving the problem at hand.

Have your PLT agree upon a shared assignment. Let's say all of the Sophomore English teachers will be teaching "The Tempest". We can agree upon a few key goals for our Tempest unit and develop a summative essay assignment for the end of the unit.

Collaborate on the rubric
Now have one teacher log into her EssayTagger account (or jump to our free Common Core Rubric Creation Tool) while the PLT discusses what they'd like to see in the rubric for this shared assignment. Consider the PLT's goals for the unit and begin building the rubric in EssayTagger. Again, we only need one transcriber to create the rubric.

Using EssayTagger to coordinate PLT assessments, pt1

It's becoming more and more important to coordinate curriculum and assessment within PLT teacher teams. In part one we'll briefly discuss PLTs, motivate why coordination is so important, and discuss some of the challenges. Part two will discuss how to use EssayTagger to enhance that PLT coordination without stifling teachers' individual voices and strengths. Part three will look at how the resulting data can help each individual teacher and the PLT as a whole.

Part 1: PLTs must have common assignments and common assessments
Part 3: Analyzing the data reports (coming soon)

PLTs are in
Most schools seem to be moving toward the PLT--Professional Learning Team--model where, for example, all of the Sophomore English teachers would meet regularly, plan team goals, share resources and exercises, and hopefully develop a few common assignments and assessments.

However, I've been in schools that still operated with each teacher as his or her own island. In this sort of environment the PLT concept will likely be met with significant resistance. There will always be the I've-been-doing-it-my-way-for-35-years holdouts but even the most progressive-thinking teachers will worry about the constricting nature of making their classes more uniform and perhaps less unique.

On the flip side, I've been in schools that had weak or ineffective PLTs, despite significant administrator emphasis on them. Simply meeting every other week is not enough. We would talk about what each of us were doing, but there'd be no central focus or plan. It has to be more than just check-in-and-share time.

Sadly, teacher prep programs aren't taking a lead on this. I'm disappointed that my M.Ed. program didn't train us to collaborate with our peers. PLTs weren't even mentioned once during my two year program. We're supposed to be the new guard, the fresh blood bringing a modern approach to education. But too many Schools of Education are themselves stuck in old-guard or outdated modes of thinking and practices.

So I feel like I have a pretty strong grasp of many of the challenges and pitfalls when it comes to PLTs. And it's no surprise that transitioning to a team approach can often be a difficult process when a culture of collaboration or direct experience with PLTs is lacking. But as you'll see in part two, there is hope. Incremental change and increased coordination is possible and can be facilitated by some 21st-century technology.

Coordination is king
A PLT has to have a set of common goals for their class sections. If a PLT doesn't have a common vision for student outcomes, you don't really have a PLT; you just have a bunch of individual teachers sitting in the same room. Common goals matter. My Sophomore English students have to be just as prepared to enter their Junior English class as the students from any other Sophomore English section. And the Junior English teachers should have a reliable set of expectations for what they'll get from their incoming juniors each year.

But just setting common goals isn't enough. We need to know if those goals are being met. Did our sophomores really get to where we wanted to get them? And how did my specific crop of sophomores do vis-à-vis the rest of the PLT's students? Did my kids see particular gains or struggles versus their peers? This isn't about outing a bad teacher or competing against my teammates. It's about being able to identify what is and is not working in my class and across all of our classes.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Grading with EssayTagger on your iPad via Photon browser

Today we discovered that the EssayTagger grading app can run on an iPad with a little help! Here are your step-by-step instructions for accessing EssayTagger through the Photon browser.

Install Photon on your iPad
From your iPad, go to the app store and search for "Photon browser". Make sure you select the iPad version and not the cheaper iPhone version. When I installed it today it was a $4.99 purchase.

Launch Photon
Photon is a web browser and really isn't all that different from any other web browser. There is one big special function you'll need to know about to enable Flash support, but Photon already does a good job of explaining it. You'll see.

Go to EssayTagger.com and either launch the interactive demo from the "try the demo" tab or log in to your account and click "start grading" to launch the grading app for one of your assignments.

When the grading app window opens you'll see a Flash error message instead of the grading app. But Photon explains what to do:

Once you click the lightning bolt icon at the top right, the grading app will be able to load:

Yay! The grading app is running on the iPad!

Adjust Photon settings
Now click the gear icon at the top right to enter the settings options. Change the following two settings:

Bandwidth: 6 - to maximize responsiveness and text quality. Photon runs the grading app remotely on its own server and streams it to your iPad. That's how they're able to support Flash on the iPad--because it's actually running Flash somewhere else! If the bandwidth setting is too low, the essay text will look chunky due to the transmission compression.

Mode: Web - I found this produced the best looking text and further minimized compression chunkiness.

That's all we need to do here. Photon will remember these settings so you won't have to worry about these again.

Using the grading app
A couple tips to make your life easier. Photon's default interactive mode is not a great match for the grading app's drag-and-drop interface. Once the grading app loads, switch to the "grab" mode at the top right:

With this mode enabled, dragging and dropping works extremely well. You can also easily select text passages to mark for errors or enter a free comment.

I would also take advantage of the grading app's built in font size adjuster buttons on the left. Increasing the essay font size will make it easier to read and easier to select text. Here's a set of before and after screenshots:

Use a bluetooth keyboard
The iPad on-screen keyboard does not work well when using the grading app in Photon. It often ends up covering up the text box so you can't see what you're typing:

Add a new comment...

D'oh! Covered up the text box!

My bluetooth keyboard worked just fine. The only slight oddity was that I had to press the keyboard button at the top right of Photon to get it to start receiving my typing.

Other minor tips
Horizontal alignment: The grading app makes the best use of space if you launch it while the iPad is oriented horizontally.

Essay scrolling: Scrolling through an essay is a little difficult because the vertical scrollbar in the grading app is so narrow. It will click-and-drag just fine but you'll have to be a bit precise to "grab" it.

It might be easier to just tap the gray area above or below the scroll bar to move the essay.

Quick tips: It's also a little hard to access the "Quick tips" rollout help topics at the top of the grading app. Switch to the mouse pointer icon mode to make it easy to "hover" over the Quick tips help items:

That's it for now! Go grade and feel all super-high tech!

Yes!! EssayTagger on your iPad!

EssayTagger's patent pending interactive grading app is built in Flash and works great in any web browser. However, Steve Jobs decided years ago that Apple would not to support Flash on iOS devices (iPad, iPhone). I've experimented with a special version of our grading app that can work as an installed iPad app, but it's a long way from being ready to put in the iTunes app store. I figured iPad support would just have to wait.

But then Alaina Langdahl of Parkrose High School in Portland, OR suggested we take a look at a few iPad web browser apps that serve as an alternative browser to the built-in Safari browser and, most importantly, they support Flash!

I'm ecstatic to announce that the Photon browser does a surprisingly good job of bringing the EssayTagger grading app to life on an iPad!

Holy awesomeness!!!

Drag-and-drop interactive grading on a tablet! This is exactly how I imagined using EssayTagger when I first started this company!

All grading app features are fully supported when used through the Photon browser. There are some important settings that will vastly improve the experience. I'll update this post soon with step-by-step instructions.

The downside
Photon browser is a $4.99 app purchase. I know, that stinks.

We have no relationship with Photon and will be evaluating other Flash-enabled iPad browsers. Hopefully a free option will emerge that offers support for all of the features required to run the grading app. Ideally Apple would finally come around and support Flash, but that's not very likely (in fact, even Android is moving away from Flash with its latest Android Jelly Bean 4.2 OS).

Until we identify a viable free solution, it'll be up to you to decide if grading on your iPad is worth $4.99.

Step-by-step instructions for using EssayTagger with the Photon browser are now posted!

- Alaina is reporting that she's having success with the free Puffin iPad browser. My testing with Puffin was less successful but I'll take a closer look at it as soon as I can.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Latest update: Rubric descriptors now integrated into the grading app

We differentiate rubric "descriptors" that are designed to set performance expectations vs feedback comments that promote student growth. Long overdue, your rubric descriptors are now integrated into the feedback-driven grading app.

Rubrics serve two purposes
It's taken me a while to wrap my brain around this, but I finally had my "a-ha!" moment and clearly saw that rubrics serve (at least) two distinct purposes:
Purpose #1: Rubrics set performance expectations for students before they attempt the assignment. 
Purpose #2: Rubrics provide performance feedback after their work is assessed and scored.
A typical rubric grid cell for, say, Evidence will go something like, "Uses inadequate examples, evidence, or reasoning to support its position." This sort of vague language always frustrated me because I only cared about Purpose #2 (rubrics as feedback). In fact, this was a large part of the motivation for me to create EssayTagger in the first place. I wanted to be able to give students more specific feedback at a per-sentence level. I wanted to be able to coach them on every individual piece of evidence rather than offering a single generic statement.

And I tended to poo-poo Purpose #1 because I set expectations in class by doing a ton of group and peer review where everyone evaluated samples and compared notes against my evaluations. It was amazing to see how close the class peer review averages were to my own determinations on the essay samples. At that point it didn't seem necessary to re-establish those expectations in a formal rubric.

So I built EssayTagger with only Purpose #2 in mind.

Enter "descriptors"
But many teachers told me that they believe strongly in Purpose #1 (using a rubric to set expectations). I try my best to avoid letting my personal biases get in the way and prevent other teachers from being able to incorporate EssayTagger into their classrooms.

So I developed the "descriptor" feature in EssayTagger to support Purpose #1. Descriptors set expectations. Enter them into your rubric and share it or print it out for your students. They can review the rubric and the descriptor text before they write the assignment.

Here's an example:
click to view full size

As you can see, this EssayTagger rubric looks like a traditional rubric with high-level expectation-setting descriptors.

However, because descriptors usually make for horrible feedback comments (failing to serve Purpose #2), they were kept separate from the targeted feedback comments that are the real bread-and-butter of the EssayTagger system.

Because of this separation--Purpose #1 vs Purpose #2-- I did not even display the descriptors in the grading app. I wanted to include them but I wasn't sure how to do it without creating confusion between descriptors and feedback comments.

Descriptors now integrated into grading app
A recent email exchange with Stephanie Bester of Thurgood Marshall Middle School finally prompted my second "a-ha!" moment and I finally figured out how to display the descriptors in the grading app in a way that would minimize confusion.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Latest update: Six-level rubric support

Thanks to teacher feedback, EssayTagger rubrics can now have up to six possible quality levels.

I had previously limited rubrics to a max of five quality levels mostly due to practical constraints; there just wasn't enough left-to-right space in the grading app to comfortably accomodate six quality levels. But after a series of recent cosmetic updates, the grading app now has plenty of breathing room.

Then: Law of diminishing returns
But I was still skeptical. I knew that six-level rubrics were popular, but I never used six-level rubrics in my classroom. For me, anything beyond five levels started to get overwhelming. How could I possibly remain consistent in evaluating ever-finer levels of distinction?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Using EssayTagger for fast formative assessment, pt2

In part two we explore a method for fast, effective formative assessment by leveraging EssayTagger's strengths and incredible built-in data reporting.

Part two: Fast, effective formative assessment with EssayTagger

"If students receive feedback often and regularly, it enables better monitoring and self‐regulation of progress by students."
- Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick

At face value EssayTagger's core function--grading essays more efficiently--seems more well-suited to end-of-unit essay evaluation (summative assessments). But as you'll see we can easily leverage EssayTagger's strengths to hit all three formative assessment keys discussed in part one: speed, detailed diagnostics, and quality feedback.

Basic approach
Develop open-ended, journal-style written response questions aligned with unit goals and then evaluate students' work in EssayTagger, focusing on short, targeted feedback. Then review the evaluation results data to refine class-wide instruction and target individual reinforcement or remediation. Ideally you would repeat 2-3 times throughout the unit before the end-of-unit summative assessment.

A concrete example: The Tempest, Sophomore English
When studying Shakespeare with sophomores we need to work on the mechanical skill of processing the complex text and would like to see the students develop an engagement with the text at an emotional, human level. A final summative assessment might come in the form of an essay prompt like, "Do Prospero's ends justify his means?"which would require a detailed understanding of the text and characters along with an expectation of referencing appropriate textual evidence.

Using EssayTagger for fast formative assessment, pt1

In part one we'll quickly review what formative assessment is and some of its key characteristics. Then we'll learn how to use EssayTagger for fast, effective formative assessment.

"The giving of marks and the grading function are overemphasized, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are underemphasized."  
- Black, Paul, and Wiliam

Buzzword primer
I often get lost in the absurd world of edu-speak lingo. So before we even start, let's define our two key terms:

Formative assessment is an approach where the teacher "build[s] in many opportunities to assess how students are learning and then use[s] this information to make beneficial changes in instruction" (Boston). Formative assessments happen during a unit, within the flow of instruction. It's about quickly diagnosing problems and adjusting what you're doing tomorrow to produce better results before the unit ends.

Summative assessment "generally takes place after a period of instruction and requires making a judgment about the learning that has occurred (e.g., by grading or scoring a test or paper)" (Boston). You could also call this "Final assessment"--it's looking to measure the end result of instruction.

The two can be boiled down to: "where are we struggling?" (formative assessment) vs. "how did we do?" (summative assessment). Or, if you prefer a more colorful analogy: "what's the patient's temperature" vs "how many patients survived?"

Formative Assessment Key #1: Speed
If your goal is to modify instruction tomorrow, clearly your formative assessments need to be fast. It would be absurd for a nurse to take a patient's temperature and then have to wait a week for the results.

Formative Assessment Key #2: Detailed diagnostics
One of the key principles behind formative assessment is that it "provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape teaching" (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick). In this sense they are diagnostic, identifying the areas where students are struggling. The more detail it can provide--exactly who is struggling in which areas--the better, but this generally slams up against the need for speed. It's very difficult to do quick formative assessments that are highly detailed and still allow the teacher to have a life.

Formative Assessment Key #3: Quality feedback
While the first two keys were teacher-centric, this one is student-centric. Part of what powers formative assessment's effectiveness is the targeted feedback provided to each individual student. It's not enough to merely see where course corrections are needed; each student must be explicitly steered in that direction.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

System alert: Partial system outage - resolved

The last lingering effects of the Google App Engine server problems seem to have been cleared up and our own testing now shows full functionality restored.

This sort of downtime is frustrating, but it's still only the second Google App Engine outage since we launched EssayTagger 14 months ago. All sites suffer some downtime but we still believe in Google's reliability and ability to react and recover faster and more robustly than we could if we were managing our own server hardware.

UPDATE 1:23pm
Message from Google:
"We are still working to resolve the issue related to Google App Engine serving. At this point error error rates for affected applications should be declining. We will provide another status update by 11:30 AM PST."

EssayTagger is responding again, albeit slowly. Grading app is still severely impacted.

UPDATE 12:07pm
Google App Engine servers continue to see problems and it seems to have spread beyond the backend task queue. They've rescinded their earlier resolution note and are now only saying "We will update this message shortly when the incident has been resolved."

These server issues are now affecting the main EssayTagger site.

UPDATE 10:35am
Message from Google:
"This morning some Google App Engine applications reported elevated error rates and increased latency. This issue should be resolved as of 8:10 AM US/Pacific time. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience and continued support. Please rest assured that system reliability is a top priority at Google, and we are making continuous improvements to make our systems better."

There still seems to be some intermittent slowdowns for backend processes (uploading an essay, marking an essay as graded). Though Google says the issue is resolved, I still recommend caution.

ORIGINAL POST 1/15 10:28am
At approximately 9am CST Google's App Engine servers suffered a problem with their "task queue" service which EssayTagger uses for behind-the-scenes processing. The majority of the site has not been affected.

Specific interruptions occurred on the student upload page which relies on the task queue to process incoming essay files. The other major impact was that the grading app was unable to process essays when they were marked as graded. Normal grading activity (evaluating rubric elements, adding comments, etc) should not have been affected.

The task queue service is currently intermittent. Take care if using the grading app and keep an eye on the "synced" or "syncing..." message at the top right. If it remains on "syncing..." for more than a few seconds, pause before doing any more work. Your work is only guaranteed to be saved when you see the "synced" message.

Updates will be posted as new information arises.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Latest Update: Error marking!

Thanks to input from our users we now support a dedicated feature for marking spelling, grammar, or other errors. But this new feature is more than just a red underline. Read on to learn more!

EssayTagger is built to help teachers evaluate student work within the structure of a custom rubric and provide excellent, specific feedback to students. But instructors made it clear to us that we needed direct support to be able to mark errors--the dreaded red pen markups on a paper. It makes sense; marking a grammar error is different from evaluating a weak thesis.

Error Mark overview
The new feature makes it easy to mark problematic passages as having an error. Marked passages will have a red underline. You can enter an optional comment about the error. When a student receives her graded work, she'll see the red underlines sprinkled throughout her essay.

But here's the coolest part: all of the marked passages will be collected into a list at the end to make it easy for the student to do a follow-up correction exercise.

And just to be clear: These are errors that you determine. The grading app does not do any auto-evaluation whatsoever. EssayTagger is always driven by your brain, your expertise. We do not believe in auto-grading software!!

Let's see an example!
Error marking piggy backs on our existing "free comment" system to make it super quick and easy to mark an error.

Just select the problematic text:

And when you release the mouse button the new Mark Error/Free Comment popup box will appear:

Just click "mark as error" and the text will be underlined in red. That's it!

The student will now see this error mark in the final graded output. Here's what the student sees:

You can also enter an optional comment about the error. Comments appear in the list of marked passages at the end of the graded essay, prefaced with your initials:

Notice that the whole sentence is presented so that the underlined portion appears within its full sentence context.

Pretty damn cool, right?!

A word of advice
In most cases I recommend not entering a comment about the error. Instead hold the student responsible for reviewing her errors and thinking through them herself to figure out and learn from her own mistakes. She can seek out help if she needs it, but we shouldn't take on the responsibility of making corrections for the students when it really doesn't do them any good.

I'd much rather have students submit corrections to earn back some mechanics points rather than having me write endless "subject-verb agreement" or "you're/your" comments that the students won't even read.

Think of it as a chance to put those Active Learning vs Passive Learning PD workshops to use!

Available now!
As with all EssayTagger feature updates, this is available now to all EssayTagger users. Every time we upgrade the site, all users benefit!

Additional features coming soon
We will update the data reporting screens to include data about how many errors were marked in each essay along with aggregate data (e.g. average number of errors marked on the assignment) and individual vs aggregate performance outlier analysis (i.e. does a student have statistically significantly more errors than his peers?).