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HKBU Scholars Develop Web-based Essay Critiquing System to Help Secondary Students Improve their English Composition

Among the four English language skills (listening, speaking, writing, reading), writing seems to pose the most difficulty to many students. Both teachers and students find composition lessons stressful. To assist in teaching and learning, Dr. William Cheung (Associate Professor), Dr. Fion Lee (Lecturer) and Dr. Kelvin Wong (Assistant Professor) from the Computer Science Department conducted an interdisciplinary research project jointly with Dr. Cynthia Lee, Associate Professor of the Language Centre. They have successfully developed a web-based essay critiquing system to give students live feedback on their essay content and the organisation of their ideas. They shared their experience at a media session today (17 June). Joining them were a teacher and two students from Munsang College who helped to try out the system.

Students find composition lessons stressful because they have difficulty generating enough ideas to cover the composition topic adequately or are unable to organise their ideas and thoughts well within the timeframe of the lesson. Teachers also find providing formative individual feedback to students during the lesson stressful, especially when the class size is large. The system developed by HKBU scholars is designed to assist them. Students submit the partly finished essay to the system. The system then conducts an automatic semantic analysis of the text with preset sub-themes, offers suggestions on the essay content and provides sub-themes which are not in the essay that the students’ could consider. Students can submit essays to the system as many times as they wish.

A six-month workshop was conducted at Munsang College from 2007 to 2008 to test the system. Around 50 secondary 4 and 5 students who joined the workshop were divided into experimental and control groups. The project was well-received by the participating students. They commented that the system was easy to use, the suggestions were useful and they expressed the desire to continue using it. The system was also tested in a secondary school in Norway. The response from students there was positive and they also showed interest in the system.

Currently the system has constraints. To tackle the problems, the research team proposes to lessen teachers’ workload by automating part of the sub-theme preparation work, to install Wi-Fi in school classrooms and to fund students purchasing computer notebooks if necessary.

As for future research directions, the researchers said they would explore if providing automatic scoring would increase the interest of the system. They will work on developing high-level suggestions such as the structure of the essay and the coherence of paragraphs, the most effective way of providing advice to students and the formulation of teaching methods that would complement the system.

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Department of Computer Science, Hong Kong Baptist University
Hong Kong Baptist University