Automated Essay Grading: Blessing or Curse?

By Iris Doubleday

With the future of higher education leaning in the direction of massive open online courses (MOOCs), the concept of automated essay grading is becoming increasingly practical. As technology and the media find new ways to make classes available to a larger public who can participate free of cost through the internet, it follows that a new grading system must also be advanced in order to accompany the changing face of education. Within the traditional sphere of liberal arts, however, in which the focus remains on thoughtful feedback and on the relationship between professors and students, these advancements in automated grading can seem more like a curse than a blessing.

In April 2013, the New York Times published an article titled “Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break which prompted an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of automated grading. The article was written in response to EdX’s release of automated software which grades student essays and short answers. This nonprofit enterprise was founded by Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the software was released as a free download on their website. The title of the Times’ article was a direct response to EdX’s claim that “the software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.” According to EdX’s overview of their software, automated grading provides benefits when considering the increasingly large class sizes that make it “impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on written assignments.” 

While in the traditional classroom system students must often wait days or weeks for grades, automated grading software offers them the advantages of immediate feedback. The argument in favor of this automated grading technology stresses the importance of this instant feedback as it allows students not only to see their grade immediately but also permits them to then rewrite in order to improve that grade. This idea makes sense in terms of MOOCs and the larger courses at universities, as one professor can only provide so much meaningful feedback to a large number of students. At smaller liberal arts institutions, however, there is much less need for this assisting technology, and many professors have argued that automated grading removes the elements of creativity and human intuition which enter into a professor’s grading process. 

In a blog post for Inside Higher Ed, for example, John Warner, a published author and teacher of creative writing at College of Charleston, offers “22 Thoughts on Automated Grading of Student Writing.” Warner argues that the concept of offering professors a “break” is exactly the problem with automated grading, as a professor’s top priority should be his relationship with his students. Similarly, Les Perelman’s critique of a study by Shermis and Hammer disputes their claim that automated essay scoring is as accurate as scoring by human readers. While Shermis argues that individuals tend to make more grading errors than machines, Perelman questions the study’s data and methodology and argues that computers can be fooled by impressive-sounding words which may actually be meaningless.

Ultimately, these arguments against automated grading point to the same idea: something in the grading process will inevitably be lost by transferring this human job to a computer program. Many professors of humanities view the relationship between teacher and student as an essential part of education which will lose its precedence if essay grading is turned over to the instant feedback of machines. While this loss is enough to give professors oriented to a traditional classroom environment pause, the development of this new software is undeniably useful in the setting of modern educational systems such as MOOCs. In the end, it is not the nature of automated grading itself but the nature of the setting in which it is used which determines whether this software is a setback or a welcome advancement.

Iris Doubleday is a senior at Wheaton College majoring in English. Wheaton College is home to the Kappa of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.