Something I want tattooed on my forehead is "grades don't matter." The current perception of the importance of grades in academia dumbfounds me, because I think that by caring too much about grades, most students are missing the point of education.
A college education is often cited as a prerequisite for a "good job" out in "the real world" (both terms that I hate). With this understanding of the importance of college, many students get wrapped up in their grades, often taking them as value statements on their own self-worth. It's really easy to get trapped in the cycle of getting good grades to get a good job to make a lot of money to pay for a house to support a family to send your own kids to college so they can get a good job and make lots of money. When this happens, grades become the foundation for an entire future -- and perhaps even the foundation of your child's future, which is honestly just way too much pressure.
Aside from wanting to take some pressure off myself, I maintain that grades really aren't that important because I value education for more than its spot on my résumé. The reason I'm in college isn't to get a good job later. I would be here even if I knew I would never, ever get a job, because I think that college is worth something much more important than some money later on. I think that education is about better knowing yourself, better knowing the world around you, and attempting to figure out your place in the world. Understanding reality and your role in it ("Knowing thyself," as the ancient Greeks said), is infinitely more valuable than any material consequences of a diploma. Education is about self-improvement, not about the number of zeros on the end of a paycheck.
With this in mind, I think that grades start to lose their novelty. By valuing education for its personal return instead of its financial return, grades become less of a statement on the future and more of a (mostly) inconsequential part of knowing thyself. None of this is to say that it isn't important to work hard in school, which will often produce good grades, as working hard is part of improving yourself. What this means is that there is no need to get in a huff about a disappointing grade here or there: it isn't a comment on self-value, and it isn't a comment on projected success out in "the real world" (as opposed to this world, the fake one).
Grades have their place. They're a necessary part of education. What they aren't a necessary part of is self-esteem. They don't really matter because they don't define us: what defines us is the changes education makes within us. So maybe I got a B or a C on that last exam, but am I better overall for having taken the class? The answer is usually yes. And that is what makes education worthwhile. Forget the grades, forget the jobs, and just try to become a better person, enjoying the ridiculous luxury that education is.
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The essential problem in data assessment is called overfitting, i.e. using a small dataset to predict something. The grading software must compare essays, understand what parts are great and not so great and then condense this down to a number which constitutes the grade, which in its turn must be comparable with a different essay on a totally different topic. Sounds hard, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. Very hard. But still, not impossible. Google uses similar tactics when comparing what resulting texts and images are more preferable to different search terms. The issue is just that Google uses millions of data samples for their approximations. A single school could, at best, input a few thousand essays. This is like trying to solve a 1000-piece puzzle with just 50 pieces. Sure, some pieces can end up in the right place but it’s mostly guess work. Until there is a humongous database of millions and millions of essays, this problem will most likely be hard to work around.
The only plausible solution to overfitting is specifying a specific set of rules for the computer to act upon to determine if a text makes sense or not, since computers can’t read. This solution has worked in many other applications. Right now, auto-grading vendors are throwing everything they got at coming up with these rules, it’s just that it is so hard coming up with a rule to decide the quality of creative work such as essays. Computers have a tendency of solving problems in the way they usually do: by counting.
In auto-grading, the grade predictors could, for example, be; sentence length, the number of words, number of verbs, number of complex words and so on. Do these rules make for a sensible assessment? Not according to Perelman at least. He says that the prediction rules are often set in a very rigid and limited way which restrains the quality of these assessments. For example, he has found out that:
- A longer essay is considered better than short one (a coincidence according to auto grading advocate and professor Mark D. Shermis)
- Specific word associated with complex thinking such as ’moreover’ and ’however’ leads to better grades
- Towering words such as ’avarice’ gives more points than using simple ones such as ’greed’
On other instances he found examples of rules poorly applied or just not applied at all, the software could for example not determine whether facts were true or false. In a published and automatically graded essay, the task was to discuss the main reasons why a college education is so expensive. Perelman argued that the explanation lies within the greedy teacher’s assistants who has a salary of six times that of a college president and regularly uses their complementary private jets for a south sea vacation.
The essay was awarded the highest grade possible: 6/6.
To avoid the examining eye of Perelman and his peers most vendors have restricted use of their software while development is still ongoing. So far, Perelman hasn’t gotten his hand on the most prominent systems and admits that so far he has only been able to fool a couple of systems.
If we are to believe Perelman’s claims, automatic grading of college level essays still has a long way to go. But remember that already today, lower grade essays is actually being graded by computers already. Granted, under meticulous supervision by humans but still, technological progress can move fast. Considering how much effort being asserted towards perfecting automatic grading scoring it is likely we will see a fast expansion in a not too distant future.
About the author: Hubert.ai is a young edtech company based in Stockholm, Sweden. We are working to disrupt teacher feedback by using AI conversational dialog with every student separately. Feedback is then analyzed and compiled down to a few recommendations on how you as a teacher can improve your skills and methods. Are you a teacher and would like to help us in development? Please sign up as a beta tester at our website :]