K-12

TEACHER VOICE: Does AI, as a tool, deliver student feedback more effectively than the ballpoint pen?

The possibilities — and limits — of artificial intelligence

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As the artificial intelligence revolution comes to education, teachers are rightly concerned that AI in schools will replace the human assessment of human learning.

However, if developers work in tandem with teachers on the ground, fields like assisted writing feedback can evolve to make instruction more effective, more personalized and more human.

I used to grade papers by hand, a black Bic my tool of choice, etching feedback in the margins, scrawling questions and circling errors. It took innumerable hours, and I accepted the drudge as inevitable to life as an English teacher.

It had its rewards, of course, as I saw students gaining skills, developing their voices and flashing brilliance. Less rewarding was grinding out the feedback on standard mechanics, figuring out who needed what remediation and wondering why my efforts weren’t more effective.

Over the years, I learned to prioritize positive comments in every student’s paper, in the margins and final notes, mindful of student affect and motivation. I stopped circling every flaw, and shifted to finding patterns to aid instruction. I focused comments and grades on the deeper content of student work, with less attention to surface-level issues in the writing.

I began teaching the skills of self-regulated learning and self-regulated writing. Occasionally, I had to catch, counsel and retrain the plagiarist, who sometimes changed every other word from an internet source. I could spend two hours tracking down the original text of one dishonest paper.

That was my life when I started teaching high school 20 years ago.

Today, with AI in schools, assisted writing feedback makes my job easier and more rewarding. Feedback platforms can help teachers do what they love doing: developing writers, engaging learners, and helping students meet their goals for college and careers.

Years ago, I took notes on which students made which errors, and photocopied remedial exercises to target instruction as best I could. Today, I open my Clever portal and click on Quill. My students are already loaded into the system, and I simply assign a diagnostic.

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Quill figures out what each student needs, and then individualizes lessons. I can assign a diagnostic by level, targeting English language learners or advanced native speakers. Quill improves student writing and frees me up for more advanced instruction and personalized learning.

I first began using Turnitin.com for plagiarism prevention and detection, and that service has saved me hundreds of hours in tracking down borrowed material. Today, I use it more for its feedback tools. I can attach custom rubrics to various assignments or choose pre-built ones aligned with Common Core standards.

I author my own feedback codes, and when students mouse-over them, they’ll get my explanation of how to repair an error or replicate success. I use the platform’s automated spelling and grammar checkers, but I massage the feedback to avoid spilling red ink all over students’ papers, dismissing or deleting some categories completely, according to each student’s needs.

I embed positive feedback in the margins, and type customized comments and questions more quickly than I could write by hand. For English language learners who need targeted feedback, I check the metrics and focus my corrections.

Today, my feedback is clearer and more accessible — and completely paperless. I can’t lose a graded paper anymore, and neither can my students. Feedback is more effective when it’s more accessible and immediate.

At the moment, assisted writing platforms are getting better at seeing what’s wrong with the surface of a student’s writing, but not what a student is doing well on that surface, or anything below. Students need teachers to see what strengths they bring, new insights they offer and the deep understandings they forge of complex texts. Students also need time to write without judgment, to tell their own stories and express their thoughts and feelings, with a focus on the whole student, not the surface of their texts.

For their academic work, however, students need more reliable and immediate feedback with clear paths from remedial skills to advanced work. As more teachers use assisted feedback, and take part in its development, platforms will get better at helping students write well and grow in self-confidence. Right now, such platforms are often telling students they misspelled their own names.

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One day soon, they might be picking up repetitious sentence structures or skillful rhythms in syntax. We might be crowd-sourcing positive reinforcements among teachers and sharing rubrics that push for excellence. Assisted feedback might communicate across platforms and automate the boilerplate instruction on standard grammar and mechanics. It could also make more transparent the biases embedded in standard English, for students and for teachers, while recognizing vernaculars and promoting both code-switching and code-meshing.

Artificial intelligence cannot replace good teaching, nor can it provide high-quality feedback on its own. AI can assist our work, streamline processes and connect our efforts at improving the craft. It can help teachers and researchers develop more effective writing instruction, through qualitative evaluation, and in robust studies with big data sets, randomized controls and rapid analysis.

With more researchers and educators of color involved in its development, AI can help us better serve marginalized populations through more culturally competent writing instruction, to help close opportunity gaps. Platforms can help coach students for self-regulated writing strategies, and help teachers explicitly teach them. Assisted writing feedback can become a new tool in the teacher’s hand, as we encourage students to express their genius and author their own futures.

This story about the use of artificial intelligence in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Robert Comeau teaches senior English at Another Course to College, a college-preparatory high school in the Boston Public Schools network.

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Robert Comeau

Robert Comeau teaches senior English at Another Course to College, Boston Public Schools. See Archive

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