Feedback That Leads to Fluency
We face some of the most challenging problems in human history: water shortages, energy, conflict, global warming. Today’s students are the ones who will be solving these problems, and they need to be creative about it, experimenting with a variety of solutions, bringing the confidence to fail and try again, to communicate their ideas, to build, measure, and learn from what they’ve attempted.
How can we prepare our students to deal boldly with these challenges? How do we help them practice this confidence, both in school and in their professional lives?
We say education is important — and it is, of course it is — but the real value of education isn’t a degree, it’s the ability to express yourself confidently in speech and in writing.
And we write all the time. Texts, emails, blogs, reports, essays. We write almost as much as we speak.
Why is it then that most of us speak fluently, but write nervously?
We learn to speak, repeating the sounds of our parents, sounds which we then divide into words. We know where to divide the sounds, because our parents give us feedback.
But this isn’t how we learn to write. We spend years learning to read, passively intaking the letters on the page, not actively, like learning to dance or paint or swim. Our learning to write by reading is like our learning to speak by listening to others as we sit in silence.
And when we speak we get immediate feedback, feedback that leads to fluency. Not so when we write.
You may ask, ‘What about education? Aren’t students learning to write in high school, in college?’
Most of us teaching college students expect them to already know how to write, and it is our job to help them refine their prose. But these students haven’t spent much time writing, and when they have written, they’ve done so to satisfy the parameters of a prompt, not to to articulate themselves or share their experiences.
Students are used to satisfying expectations. So when they come to college, they ask, what do you want? and when is it due? and how many pages does it have to be?
The problem is not with the instructors. They do the best they can, given their limited time and resources. The average university instructor teaches 120 students a week. This instructor has to read 120 essays for each assignment, totaling over 200K words, the length of Moby Dick.
These instructors respond in many areas, clarity, evidence, style, structure — all in around 20 comments. That’s like reading Moby Dick once a month and leaving 2400 comments in the margins. And that’s just one draft per student. It takes me about two weeks to get through all of these papers, by which point the paper has a grade on it, so my students feel no urge to address my remarks.
This is feedback at the end of the pipe, and it’s no surprise that few if any students apply this feedback to their next paper. I mean, why should they, as most of them are not invested in writing for a prompt, and they procrastinate, churning out a copy the night before or the morning that it’s due. They give me prose that’s not ready to be read, and by the time I give them anything in return, they no longer care.
Is it any surprise that writing is one of the least practiced skills in the world?
I’m sure you’ve heard of the 10K hour rule. It takes 10K hours of practice to master any field. Music, dance, sports…writing’s no different. When we write for an audience, we try to anticipate how our readers will react. When we’ve practiced enough to know how our readers will respond, we become more confident expressing ourselves. To write well, we need to practice until we have the same confidence in writing that we aim to have in speaking.
But students aren't practicing and they aren’t learning to express themselves. Instead, they're learning to write the same way, to adopt the ‘academic voice’ they read and hear everywhere around them. They write to avoid making mistakes, and their stories, their ways of telling stories, their observations and inferences, all this instinctive virtuosity with language they check at the door. For them writing means 1-inch margins, 1000 words, and stop when you get there. It’s limiting, it’s stifling, and you can imagine why they don’t want to do it. And when they do it, they don’t feel good about it.
We have this need for correctness in school, to mark everything with a green check or a red X. We subject writing to simplistic forms of measurement like right and wrong, correct and incorrect. There are millions of students in the US today and each has their own strengths, weaknesses, experiences, and expectations, and they’re being educated as though they don’t. They’re being forced to write to satisfy external requirements, so they can pass standardized tests, work through admissions committees, and land a spot in college.
Consider automated essay scoring, software that grades essays based on sentence length, spelling, and grammar, but not meaning. Many students affect pretentious language to score highly on standardized exams like the SAT. These students aren't learning how to write, they're learning how to game the test. A few years ago, Les Perelman showed that SAT essays get higher scores when they're longer and when they use more complex words.
Here’s what Perelman did: rather than merely criticizing AES systems, he created a babel generator to game it. BABEL generates sentences like "The pendulum is not the only thing a brain oscillates," and AES programs give such sentences high scores. When students learn to write this way, they learn how to write to get good scores, but they don't learn how to write well.
But what if we built something that helped students get more specific feedback on their writing? What if we focused on writing principles to help students make choices about their writing and develop a presence for themselves as writers? What would that software look like, and who could build it? What if we as teachers took technology far beyond detecting spelling errors or complex words? What if we put our years of teaching into training algorithms, tagging data to detect specific writing features? What if we trained the software to ask questions and give suggestions, rather than to generate a score? What if we could get students to work through multiple drafts of their writing before submitting it to an instructor?
For teachers, that would save so much time. When students submit a first draft that needs work at the level of the line, naturally we want to help. But often this means we run out of time to talk about things like argument and structure. We need a way to fill that gap. We need to give teachers more time, and we need to give students a way to write that encourages them to develop their natural abilities.
So that’s what we’ve done. It started as a small project, to see if it was possible to create a program that could respond thoughtfully to writing. This program is WriteLab.
It’s easy to doubt anyone who says a computer program can help people become better writers. Les Perelman is famous for showing that these systems don’t work. And when we presented at the annual meeting of the National Writing Project in November 2014, Les came with his Babel generator to trash WriteLab. But when Les ran Babel through WriteLab, he got suggestions that pointed out the babel as babel. Les has since joined our team, for two reasons: 1) WriteLab is developed by writing teachers, and 2) WriteLab does not give scores. Les has shown that AES systems can be gamed, and that the only way he could game WriteLab would be to write a clear, concise piece of prose.
Instead of focusing on correctness, WriteLab offers opportunities for students to improve in clarity, cohesion, logic, concision, emphasis, elegance, and coherence. WriteLab remembers choices writers make in these areas, adapts to their individual styles, and delivers customized feedback. With WriteLab, student writers start where they’re able, wherever that is. Students become self-sufficient as writers because they receive as much feedback as they need, and they receive it as quickly as they can write and revise. Students can practice writing on their own terms, and, confident in the writing they’ve done, they can give instructors drafts that are ready-to-be-read.