Ed Brent, a sociology professor at the University of Missouri, grades his students’ papers by computer. The program, Qualrus:
works by scanning text for keywords, phrases and language patterns. Students load papers directly into the system via the Web and get nearly instant feedback.
How can a cold, mechanical computer comprehend the art and nuance of writing? The program is actually quite sophisticated, Brent said. It’s not enough to just throw keywords into an essay willy-nilly. The program analyzes sentence and paragraph structure and can ascertain the flow of arguments and ideas. It gives each work a numeric score based on the weight instructors place on various elements of the assignment.
The computer-generated scores count for about a third to a quarter of students’ final grade for Brent’s class. Students have challenged the scores, but if they don’t use the right lingo in their papers, they’re out of luck. “In sociology, we want them to learn the terms,” Brent said.