It’s All about the Affect: Robot Grading, the CSU Symposium on University Teaching, Student Motivation, Time and an Early Start

by Dawn on April 16, 2012

brain and neural networksBeware: my neural networks are firing on all sides today.

For one, just the other day I read an article in Inside Higher Education summarizing a large study that claims that the scores given by robot-raters who assess student writing are similar to those given by human-raters.  Writing is my discipline.  Imagine.

Some might believe that computerized scoring of student writing, which I should add is not a new concept, grants more time for instructors to judge student work solely on content.  For example, over the weekend I heard a History Professor mention that reading a 3-page student essay was a waste of his “intellectual energy” because the student writing was so wrought with error.  Given the financial attacks on higher education and the fact that there are plenty of instructors out there who teach 70, 100, 180+ students in courses deemed writing-intensive, perhaps it’s applause-worthy that higher ed. administrators want to support both teachers Advertisement for Correct English softwareand writing by purchasing licenses to software programs such as Criterion or Correct English in order to assist instructors in freeing up their intellectual energy so that they can respond more closely to students’ meaning making in relation to a writing project as opposed to the ways in which students (mis)use language to express that meaning making. (Note: studies have shown that robot-raters would flag that sentence as a run-on; I wouldn’t.)

 Yet, a mechanism for divorcing style from content (that is, a computer program that reads essays for errors of language so that teachers can read essays for errors of understanding) is to my mind hugely problematic.  In reality, style and content are happily partnered.  Essays are whole entities where content and style go hand-in hand down the aisle.  When the marriage is a good one, we smile and throw them rice, blow bubbles, whatever.  When the marriage is rocky from the beginning, it’s affect, that felt sense by human readers, that objects to the union because it’s simply not working.  In other words, style is affective in that it is directly related to the content and conventions of particular discourse communities and therefore varies based on purpose and audience.  

Picture of Cal Poly Pomona sign Stick with me here – I’m moving on.

I spent my Saturday attending presentations at the 15th Annual CSU Symposium on University Teaching down at the *other* Cal Poly.  Fascinating stuff.  But one leftover that I’m still chewing is connected to James Zull’s 2002 book The art of changing the brain: enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning.   Guess what folks?  Zull suggests that deep learning is life changing and thus brain changing.  Perhaps that doesn’t sound like neuro-science to you, but, as Zull also suggests, deep learning is more than cognition.  The affective domain is as important, if not more important, than the cognitive domain in relation to learning.  The affective domain is triggered by active learning of concepts and interaction with instructors and peers.  Students learn best when they can internalize how information about a particular subject connects with their ability to live as citizens of the world in connection with other concepts and other citizens.  As evident in either the choice to employ certain stylistic strategies in an essay or to engage actively with course material in the classroom and beyond, it’s clearly all about affect.

 The word "affect"AFFECT. [v. uh-fekt; n. af-ekt] In both noun and verb form, this word has the power to move minds.

I get the sense I’m not blowing yours here, but I’m still working on some connections:

Intrinsic motivation is the topic of an article published today in the Chronicle.  Researchers from the University of Chicago and Hamilton College will soon share their findings from a longitudinal survey of 17,000 college students, making the case that motivation should be an outcome of college and that educators can instill motivation in their students:  “There [is] an identifiable moment in which a faculty member create[s] a spark in them; students [become] energized or excited by a topic, an idea, or a discipline.”  Student motivation was – wait for it – “highly influenced by their perception of the intrinsic value of the material”.  Wanna guess what part of the brain is associated with intrinsic value of course material according to Zull?  

Okay, so I return to style as affect and robot grading.  It takes time to read through and respond to another’s iterative attempt to share the excitement, the commitment, the internalized understanding of a concept.  In all our efforts to speed up the assessment of students’ communicative acts, are we concomitantly sending a message that we don’t have time to wade through the infinite ways students’ might express their processes of coming to knowledge?

Book cover for CCA reportWell, it’s true: Time is the Enemy.  Mine, yours, our students.  Did you see that 2011 report from Complete College America?  Honestly, I have not read it in its entirety, but I get a sense of gloom and doom every time I scan the title.  We tell our students every minute that they need to hurry up and learn and graduate.  I’m not sure that’s entirely motivational; nor am I sure that such a message provides any *real* motivation for learning.  To my mind, the CSU’s Mandatory Early Start Program for developing writers isn’t providing any real motivation to learn either, though I guess only time will tell.  (Note: the CSU will use data collected from CCA and the 2011 report to determine early start success rates, hence my connection here between the two.)

The Rolling Stones might be bummed to know that time is not on my side, not on yours, not on our students’.  But clearly, folks, it *is* all about time, and they are fast times (though not the kind at Ridgemont High, alas): how fast can I speed up your learning, and how fast can I respond to that process, at least enough so that you are motivated to race through life-changing, brain-altering events in only four years’ time?  I’m pretty sure even Siri would have trouble catching the nuances of all this.

An early start is a right start.  Time is the enemy. Correct English and Criterion will make you a better writer/righter in no time!  The titles are affective, for sure.  But they’re not my style.  

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