As with any skill, the key to better writing is more practice. But that creates a dilemma for the teachers tasked with helping students improve their writing skills: How can they build more opportunities into the curriculum for students to practice writing, while still giving students both timely and meaningful feedback?

The problem is especially challenging for high school teachers, who might have as many as five classes of 30 students each. That’s 150 essays they would have to read and respond to for every writing assignment they give.

One School is Finding Writing Success…

South Kitsap High School, a newly authorized International Baccalaureate World School across the bay from Seattle, has found an innovative solution to this challenge. It’s a technology-based platform called Revision Assistant, from Turnitin.

Using Revision Assistant has allowed South Kitsap teachers in all disciplines to give students more frequent writing assignments, without adding more work to their already-full plates. That, in turn, has helped better prepare the school’s students for the rigors of an IB curriculum.

…with Groundbreaking Technology

Powered by technology that emerged from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Revision Assistant uses sophisticated algorithms to analyze both the context and syntax of writing. Far more than a simple grammar checker, Revision Assistant is able to read an essay and then compare how strong the writing and content is with thousands of similar papers already in its database.

“Revision Assistant isn’t just essay grading software. It’s a complex program that compares essays against a series of standards and then makes recommendations to the student about how to make that paper better,” said Elijah Mayfield, vice president of new technologies for Turnitin.

In other words, Revision Assistant reads students’ writing like a teacher would, then provides immediate feedback to help students improve their writing skills.

Video: Teachers and Students on Revision Assistant:

For high school English teachers who have 150 student papers to read, it might take a week or more for students to get their papers back with the teacher’s comments. By that time, the teachable moment is gone. Revision Assistant provides the kind of detailed, constructive feedback that teachers would give if they had the time to do so for each student draft—and it does so instantly.

“Students learn in the moment,” said Kelly Ogan, an English teacher at South Kitsap High School. “Your best chance at helping them learn is at the very moment they did something wrong, or right.” Revision Assistant helps Kelly and her peers capitalize on that moment, because it gives immediate feedback when the student calls for a “signal check” to evaluate their essay in progress.

(Next page: An example of how this writing technology actually works)

Revision Assistant doesn’t just focus on what needs improvement. It also recognizes the strengths within students’ writing. Every time students request a signal check, Revision Assistant relays two pieces of constructive, correctable feedback, along with two “Kudos” that describe what they did well and encourage them to apply similar effort to another section of the paper.

For example, one sample paper gave the following pieces of feedback:

Rework this sentence to link your example directly to your claim. Show how it proves your point.

Nice work! What about the evidence here is stronger than in other parts of your essay? Be sure to keep developing your ideas.

You are doing a better job of supporting your claim with good reasons. Make sure your audience can relate to your reasoning.

Be sure to end strong with clear and specific language that keeps your audience on your side. (This came at the end of the essay.)

College and Career-Ready

Students appreciate having immediate feedback on their writing, Kelly said—and they like seeing praise as well as suggestions for improvement. Her students use Revision Assistant to practice writing during class, and she walks around the room and helps students one-on-one as necessary.

“The volume that students need to write and the amount of practice they need to improve is much higher than I can handle on my own,” she said. “With Revision Assistant, I can give them more opportunities to practice in each of the various modes of writing, such as narrative essays or argumentative essays. It makes their learning more permanent. I can also give them more differentiated support, with extra practice or intervention as needed.”

Frequent writing is a core component of the IB curriculum, which culminates in a 4,000-word extended essay. But even students who aren’t planning to go on to college must learn how to write well across the curriculum, because written communication skills are essential for 21st century citizenship and careers.

“We want 100 percent of our students to be college or career ready,” said Assistant Principal Casey Ogden. “We have a diverse student population. Not all are university bound. But they all need to write well.” With Revision Assistant, “we are helping them get on a track to success.”

About the Author:

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience covering education and technology. Follow him on Twitter: @denniswpierce.