Fresno State students get high-tech writing help

More than 140 Fresno State professors are trying out a computer tool that taps into video-game competitiveness to improve student writing.

Those professors and close to 7,000 students are part of a pilot project using a Web-based evaluation program. Students submit essays electronically and get near-instant scores and notes on grammar, mechanics, organization and more.

The program highlights errors — a run-on sentence, a misspelled word — but students correct the mistakes. Faculty members also can offer comments, and students can revise and resubmit essays for better marks.

“I have some students treating it like a video game — ‘I can get a higher score on this,’ ” said Kim Morin, a professor in the theater arts department who brought the program to campus.

The project is part of a larger effort to boost student writing — a skill lacking in many new freshmen. Skills also can erode as students abandon proper grammar and punctuation in texts and e-mails.

But “you can’t ‘tweet’ your way through a paper,” Morin said.

She began using the ETS Criterion program last fall. Averaging close to 100 students in an online class, Morin wanted more time to focus on the content of essays.

She settled on Criterion after sorting through several other similar programs, including SAGrader and Intelligent Essay Assessor. Some weren’t a good fit, and others were too expensive, Morin said.

With Criterion, there is no cost to the university. Each student pays about $15 per semester for access to the system.

Essays are scored by the program on a scale of 1 to 6 based on samples previously rated by people. Criterion doesn’t award a grade — professors do that, Morin said.

Morin’s trial run caught the attention of Associate Provost Ellen Junn, who heads the campus initiative to improve student writing. She expanded the Criterion program this spring.

“We already knew that our students are coming in significantly unprepared,” she said.

More than 60% of first-time freshmen need remedial English programs, according to the most recent Fresno State statistics. That figure has inched up over the past five years.

Dennis Nef, associate vice president and dean of undergraduate studies at Fresno State, said the campus is working to improve those numbers. For example, officials are reaching into high schools to help test students earlier so they have time to shore up skills.

The problem isn’t limited to Fresno State. On Wednesday, trustees for the 23-campus California State University adopted a systemwide strategy to help high school students better prepare for college-level math and English. About 60% of new freshmen don’t show entry-level proficiency on assessment tests.

A widespread problem

A lack of preparation in writing is common across the country, said Gene Bouie, manager for product management at Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit organization that develops tests, performs research and provides other services.

Many experts are finding that “as students go into college, there hasn’t been a real deliberate focus on writing,” Bouie said. “Students don’t write at the level they should.”

ETS, based in Princeton, N.J., introduced Criterion in 2001. About 150 colleges use the tool — mainly in entry-level and remedial English classes, he said.

The program requires students to think about their work, correct mistakes and practice writing, he said.

“It’s a much more robust and useful tool than a spell-checker,” Bouie said.

At Fresno State, psychology professor Jennifer Ivie uses Criterion. Students must first submit writing assignments to the program; Ivie can review the first and final versions.

Because the program responds in about 20 seconds, students immediately see errors, she said. Over time, they also can spot chronic problems with their writing.

“I’m able to focus more on content,” Ivie said.

Junn, the associate provost, said campus officials will evaluate Criterion over the summer. For example, faculty members outside the project will read a random sample of papers submitted at the beginning and end of the semester to evaluate whether writing has improved.

Several students — one of whom submitted an assignment 23 times to Criterion — gave mixed reviews in e-mail interviews. Some said the program was too narrowly tailored to recognize more creative writing or to fit into every class.

Sophomore Delila Jimenez, 19, of Fresno said Criterion catches little mistakes and points out long sentences and repetitive use of words. But she also said it doesn’t recognize many abbreviations, names or foreign words — counting them as spelling mistakes.

Sophomore Veronica Sandoval, 19, of Fowler called the program “a huge plus. … It definitely helps you out before turning in [a paper] to a professor.”

Senior Rosa Lopez, 21, of Riverdale said Criterion has some flaws but is helpful in highlighting the organization and development of an essay.

The program “leads you to be a better writer by giving you the tools to make necessary changes … [and] by getting you in the habit of revising your work,” she said.