We surveyed 200 teachers and found widespread support for this sector of ed tech.
In December 2020, the Learning Agency Lab (the Lab) and Georgia State University (GSU) launched The Feedback Prize, to develop new, open source digital tools that can help students improve their writing and support teachers in their writing instruction.
Why? Well, there is strong evidence that assisted writing feedback tools (AWFT) can help students become better writers. Student achievement has dramatically outperformed state averages in districts that use Revision Assistant. And studies on the program Criterion have shown a positive impact for English Language Learners.
As a part of this work, my colleague and I surveyed 200 teachers across the nation to gain insights on how AWFT can support writing instruction. The survey was focused on AWFT and teaching context (ie: subjects taught, student population, etc.) as well as opinions on and concerns with AWFT and its potential impact in the classroom.
Our findings suggest that there are tremendous opportunities to support teachers with new tools. Consider that 90 percent of teachers surveyed believe that writing tools can help students to improve on their writing. Additionally, 95 percent of teachers are willing to try these tools. The responses suggest that teachers are open to using software and recognize the value of these tools, specifically when it comes to writing and writing instruction.
As technology becomes more ubiquitous in the classroom it is important to understand the needs and concerns of educators, especially in the writing classroom.
We surveyed teachers on their current writing instruction. We found that the most common writing approach taught was informative or explanatory writing. This suggests that students do not spend enough time practicing argumentative writing, although it is critical for college and career. These results align with survey data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which revealed that only 13 percent of eighth-grade teachers ask their students to write persuasively weekly.
Additionally we found that only 16 percent of teachers reported that students write more than a paragraph in class every day. Around 50 percent of teachers reported that their students only write more than a paragraph in class once a week or less. This means many students are not getting enough writing practice which would help them become more confident writers.
Time Spent Grading
When it comes to grading, more than 50 percent of teachers reported spending more than four hours grading student work a week. Of these teachers, only 16 percent report that most of their grading is focused on evaluating student writing.
While this seems like a small percentage, this is likely due to the low frequency at which teachers are assigning writing. Nearly 70 percent of teachers reported that they only ask students to write a paragraph or more for homework on a weekly basis or less. Considering the amount of time teachers already spend grading, asking students to write more would place more burden on teachers who are already overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to grade.
Use of AWFT
Our findings suggest that teachers are largely unaware of the current tools that are on the market, especially those that provide formative feedback. Only 28 percent of teachers reported using AWFT in their classroom. Of the teachers that did report using tools, Grammarly and CorrectEnglish were the most popular, even though both of these tools mainly focus on grammar and mechanics. While grammar skills are important for writing, students need more feedback on richer aspects of writing.
For example, only four teachers reported using Revision Assistant, which goes past grammar and spell check by providing students with instant and actionable feedback. This could be due to a number of factors, like accessibility and price points.
Tools like Grammarly and Correct English offer free versions of their product in addition to premium versions (up to $150/year). Both tools also offer Chrome extensions.
In comparison, Revision Assistant costs around $700/year. A MI Write subscription requires users to contact the company. Neither tool can be used with programs like Google Docs. This is likely a barrier to teachers who are willing to adopt new tools in their classrooms. While AWFT can support teachers and amplify their instruction, the ability to seamlessly integrate tools into existing platforms would likely lead to wider adoption.
Opinions of AWFT
While reported usage of AWFT was low, teachers are still very willing to try out AWFT in their classrooms. A whopping 95 percent of teachers are at least moderately willing to try these tools.
Additionally 90 percent of teachers believe that writing tools can help some or all students to improve on their writing. Even with limited awareness of AWFT, these findings suggest that teachers view these tools positively.
Concerns with AWFT
Of course, teachers still have concerns about integrating writing tools into their classrooms. The most popular of them being that students will use writing tools as a crutch. Teachers seem most worried that students using AWFT will allow the software to “do the work for them.”
This is understandable as many of the more common tools, like Grammarly, allow users to click on errors and replace them. While Grammarly provides an explanation of the error, it is likely that many students do not read these and do not have a solid understanding of the error made.
Tools that provide actionable and formative feedback can give students the clear next step. This would encourage students to think through the writing process and support them in working through revisions instead of providing them with the right answer.
Teachers are less concerned about tools replacing them, and seem to understand that these tools would be used in a support capacity. Other concerns that teachers have around AWFT are about navigating technology and the quality of feedback that software could provide. Tools that require a large amount of training will likely deter teachers and students from using them. Additionally, teachers were concerned that low quality or unclear feedback could be a problem with the tools.
Equity in the Classroom
At the Lab, one of our major goals with this work is to support equity in the classroom by producing high-quality, accessible tools. Teachers were optimistic about the potential for AWFT to support equity in the classroom. Over 90% of teachers surveyed believe that AWFT can be moderately helpful when working on writing with marginalized students. There are a number of ways teachers believe these tools can do this.
Teachers surveyed believe that AWFT could provide writing support to students outside of the classroom. Students in better resourced schools have more access to collaborative learning experiences and meaningful writing instruction. Students in lower resourced schools, however, tend to have larger classroom sizes meaning teachers have less time to provide feedback in class. AWFT can help increase the amount of meaningful writing instruction students receive by removing the burden on teachers to give feedback and giving students more opportunities to practice their writing.
Another way that these tools could support equity in the classroom is by providing content, prompts and features that support more relevant and personalized learning. For many students, especially struggling students, writing can be a frustrating task. Students can lose motivation if they are uninterested in the topics or have trouble understanding prompts. Tools that can be adjusted to fit with individual student needs can help teachers to ensure that students are receiving the instruction that they need to become better writers.
Finally, teachers believe that AWFT can provide support to English Language Learners (ELLs) who may struggle with basic writing skills by scaffolding their writing and providing actionable suggestions. ELLs often spend more time than their peers trying to find the right word or constructing sentences in English. Providing examples to ELLs, like sentence starters or predictive text can help students navigate the writing process while learning the English language.
Methods and Participant Information
Participants were recruited using Prime Panels, a participant recruitment platform that was developed by CloudResearch.
While Prime Panel participants are not exactly nationally representative, the distribution is broadly representative of the racial and ethnic diversity of the teaching workforce in the U.S. Consider:
- 90.5 percent of participants teach at public schools.
- 74.4 percent of participants have more than 5 years of teaching experience.
- 54.3 percent of participants teach at schools where most students are low-income.
- 32.7 percent of participants teach at schools with a high population of English language learners.
Overall, this survey suggests that there is huge potential for AWFT to impact writing instruction as we know it. These tools can be used to support teachers with their writing instruction by cutting down on the administrative burden of grading, as well as giving teachers more time to focus on high-level feedback. These tools can also provide students with more opportunities to practice writing and receive feedback outside of the classroom which would help them to become better writers. While these tools can have a large impact on writing instruction, it is imperative that developers keep teachers in the loop and that new tools address the needs of teachers and their students. Tools that are developed with a rich, contextual understanding of the writing classroom can greatly benefit teachers and students.