Audrey Watters writes on a recent study finding that automated essay scoring did about as well as human graders. Naturally, most who teach composition oppose the replacement of human grading with robo-graders. As Watters writes,

Done thoroughly, and done right. This feedback – on drafts as well as on final versions – is crucial. It’s grueling. It’s time-consuming. It’s frustrating. But the hope, as you do so, is that you’re offering individualized feedback that will help a student learn, help the student be a better writer and a better thinker.

Robots can give a grade. That grade, according to the study by Shermis and Hamner, approximates that of a human. But a human can offer so much more than just a grade. And without feedback – substantive, smart, caring, thoughtful, difficult feedback – what’s the point?

It's interesting that she considers it a "hope" that individualized feedback will help students learn, write, and think better. In other words, there is little to no research supporting such a contention. As Knoblauch and Brannon have written,

The literature has demonstrated, beyond anyone's determination to reject the results, that commentary, however defined ... however categorized ... has limited meaningful impact on draft-to-draft revision and virutally no demonstratable effect on performance from assignment to assignment. (p. 14)

Knoblauch and Brannon posit that because the comments on one paper are just a very small part of students' "immersion in [a] web of influences" (p. 15), one shouldn't expect to see measurable improvement in the short term, but rather, over the long term, the aggregation of such comments and other experiences lead to students learning to read and write.

No doubt, it's difficult to measure improvement across semesters and classes and tie that improvement to specific teacher response in an earlier class. Even so, then, the usefulness of feedback remains a "hope."

Even so, some research indicates that feedback, if done appropriately, might be effective. For earlier posts on this position, see

First-year composition, email, and feedback
Computers as writing instructors
Error feedback: Bibliography


Knoblauch, Cy, & Brannon, Lil (2006). Introduction: The emperor (still) has no clothes. In Richard Straub (ed.), Key works on teacher response (p. 94-111). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.