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Iowa State Researchers Developing an Intelligent Tutoring System to Help Students Write Better

Rachel Cramer, Iowa State University News Service

Posted Jan 12, 2024

When college students are given a writing assignment, they usually get feedback on the final product, not the process. This can make it difficult to catch and correct inefficient habits, like constantly revising each sentence when starting an essay.

To help students become better, faster writers, researchers in Iowa State University’s English Department are developing an intelligent tutoring system called “SourceWrite.” The project builds on a decade of research and development and recently received a three-year $849,992 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Evgeny Chukharev, associate professor of applied linguistics and technology and director of the PACE Lab (see sidebar), is leading the project. He uses a sports analogy to highlight the need for SourceWrite, which will provide real-time, individualized advice to students as they type.

“If you are learning to play football and your coach meets with you after a game to say, ‘The problem is you didn’t score enough points,’ that isn’t very helpful. The coach needs to be standing at the line, giving feedback during the game,” says Chukharev. “It’s the same with writing.”

The researchers plan to implement SourceWrite in introductory and intermediate English classes at Iowa State through a phased rollout, beginning next fall. The software will be open source, meaning that others will be able to use it for free in the future.

How Does it Work?

SourceWrite will build on technology Chukharev and his team previously developed, which tracks a user’s eye movements on a computer screen and keystrokes with millisecond precision. Pauses, edits and time spent re-reading text are automatically analyzed in real time to reveal an individual’s writing behaviors, explains Chukharev.

An eye tracking system is part of the researchers’ development of an intelligent tutoring system.

“For example, we’ve found that many students jump into writing without reflecting on the prompt or creating an outline,” says Chukharev. “They’ll start perfecting their first sentence because it feels useful, changing ‘U.S.’ to ‘United States’ and replacing ‘believe’ with ‘think.’ But then they write the second sentence and feel like the first didn’t have a place in the narrative. So, they delete both and start over.”

Constant revisions at the start of the writing process can distract students from thinking about their overall argument or the main points they want to communicate, he adds.

“A teacher who looks at the student’s complete draft may tell the student that they need to put more time, more effort into their work, which could lead the student to spend even more time in this suboptimal process, and they may hate writing in the end because they spent hours doing it but not effectively,” says Chukharev.

In their previous work, the researchers used their technology to diagnose hang-ups and offer personalized strategies through one-on-one consultations with students. Emily Dux Speltz, a postdoctoral researcher in PACE Lab, says student feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“They’ve told us it motivates them to write, and they want to use our strategies for future writing,” adds Dux Speltz.

The Iowa State team will scale up this technology for use in the classroom. The previous system relied on a researcher to calibrate the equipment, interpret data and discuss strategies after a student finished writing. With SourceWrite, students will be able to set it up themselves and get advice through automated message boxes as they’re drafting their text. It will also allow students to open tabs to read and quote source material, which was not an option before.

The researchers, all of whom teach introductory and intermediate English classes at Iowa State, will collect data next fall as some sections use SourceWrite. Chukharev says their unique position to “stay connected with what happens on the ground” will make it easier to refine the technology.

Opportunities for Mentorship, Undergraduate Research

Projects like SourceWrite in the PACE Lab provide unique and valuable research experiences for students at Iowa State.

“We have undergraduate research assistants graduating in the spring who’ve been with us since they were freshmen. Others join for a semester to see if it’s something they want to do. So, it’s a really cool learning opportunity, not just for us who are immersed in this, but also for undergraduate students who are trying to dip their toes into research,” says Wren Bouwman, a graduate student in applied linguistics and technology and project manager for SourceWrite.

Undergraduate research assistants develop software, interact with study participants and analyze data, and some present their findings at conferences in the U.S. and abroad. Chukharev adds that this helps students expand their network of professional contacts as they consider graduate school or careers after Iowa State.