Never Grade Papers Again!

In yesterday’s mail, the following, from Educause:

A professor at the University of Missouri has developed a computer application that grades papers and offers advice on writing. Ed Brent, professor of sociology, created the application, called Qualrus, using a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Qualrus evaluates papers based on the structure of sentences and paragraphs and on the flow of ideas. Instructors can specify which factors of an assignment are most important, and Qualrus incorporates that information into the scores it provides. Brent claims the application improves students’ papers and estimated that it saves him more than 200 hours of grading per semester. The tool has been approved for use across the university, but so far Brent is the only instructor using it. Brent is also looking for ways to distribute the tool to other universities and to businesses.
CNET, 7 April 2005

I don’t know how to respond to this at all. Sure, I’ve got fantasies of some super hi-tech invention that will get me out of the hundreds of hours I spend grading each semester, too. But the ironies in this particular version are only highlighted by the article immediately preceding this one in the Educause mailing:

Sandeep Krishnamurthy, associate professor of marketing and e-commerce at the University of Washington, is so incensed with the grammar checker in Microsoft Word that he has taken to posting examples of what he sees as the checker’s failings on his Web site. He has also called on Microsoft to improve the checker. Citing egregious grammar mistakes that the tool does not question, Krishnamurthy said that although it

might be helpful for above-average writers, it actually impedes below-average writers’ efforts to improve their writing skill. Krishnamurthy said Microsoft should modify the tool to allow users to select the level of help they need, from basic to advanced. For its part, Microsoft said in a statement that the tool is not intended to find or identify all errors. Instead, it is designed “to catch the kinds of errors that ordinary users make in normal writing situations.”
Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 April 2005 (sub. req’d)

So, in case you’re keeping score: grammar checkers are useless, but this new software is capable of “evaluat[ing] papers based on the structure of sentences and paragraphs and on the flow of ideas.” Because those are more machine-recognizable than all that complex grammar stuff, I guess.

2 thoughts on “Never Grade Papers Again!

  1. If this ever caught on, some dedicated hacker would build a program that generates papers designed to ace the grading program. That way, both teachers & students could wash their hands of that messy educating process…

  2. Ha, Jason’s comment puts it well.

    (But I don’t know, for someone with years of Freshman comp sections on the near horizon, the program’s almost appealing to me… is that bad? It’s not that I’m not enthusiastic about teaching, but…)

    At first I was surprised to read the bit about high schools in Indiana using a similar program to grade their standardized tests — but then thinking back to the rigidly-enforced 5 paragraph essay formula of my Maryland public school days, I realized such programs are really just the next logical step — (as if we didn’t feel like we were just being churned out of a machine there already)

    It seems unlikely to me that such a program will be fully institutionalized at the university level — but at the public high school or middle school level, it just very well could be. I’m even tempted to say “probably will be.” A little frightening–

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