Expanding research potential in writing instruction

What started as a prototype writing evaluation tool has blossomed beyond expectation, thanks to funding from the Liberal Arts and Sciences Signature Research Initiative.

After using and researching with a commercial based automated writing evaluation tool, a computer-based system to help users improve their writing skills, Volker Hegelheimer, professor, Carol A. Chapelle, Distinguished Professor, and Evgeny Chukharev-Hudilainen, assistant professor, all in the Department of English, and

Donald Bear, professor emeritus in the School of Education received funding to create their own prototype automated writing evaluation tool, which they named CyWrite. CyWrite, designed with the student, teacher, and researcher in mind, could provide more accurate and customized feedback than a commercial system in addition to saving costs.

The project was selected as a recipient of the Liberal Arts and Sciences Signature Research Initiative (SRI), designed to encourage LAS faculty to develop and lead interdisciplinary, collaborative research projects with the goal of enhancing the international visibility and impact of LAS-led research and to increase the College’s sponsored research.

"What's really special about CyWrite is this transformative potential that it has,” Chukharev-Hudilainen said. “We are really trying to push the envelope and go beyond what's currently possible."

CyWrite went beyond a prototype to being fully developed and implemented in English as a second language (ESL) courses at Iowa State as well as internationally at two universities in Turkey. Unlike other automated writing evaluation tools, CyWrite is able to give real-time feedback to the user. The real-time feedback helps address weak areas in a student’s writing while they work.

"A second-language writer, for example, who stops in the middle of a sentence to worry about subject-verb agreement may in a literal sense forget what they were going to say next," Chukharev-Hudilainen said. "As a result, they may produce text with poorer content, structure and organization. When instructors look at that text, they may infer that the student lacks good ideas; however, that may not be the case. The ideas might be there, but the student might be struggling with the low-level cognitive processing (grammar, vocabulary, and spelling) to the extent that it prevents them from expressing their ideas proficiently."

With the SRI funding, the researchers were able to purchase an eye-tracking device. Eye-trackers enhance the level of feedback CyWrite can provide through a more detailed, biometric evaluation of the student’s writing process.

"When you write, you subconsciously let your eyes flick back at different places in the text that you compose," Chukharev-Hudilainen said. "By analyzing this behavior, we can infer what you are thinking about and provide more actionable feedback."

This research has resulted in an NSF grant for a new project studying how eyetracking and keystroke logging can be used to improve the learning of writing.

CyWrite’s success would not have been possible without a collaborative team, including hiring many students to work on the project. Students in computer science and engineering were instrumental in the software development process.

"The CyWrite project operates like a little software company within the English department," Chukharev-Hudilainen said. “The whole pipeline that you've got in a research-intensive software development company we really do have here."

That pipeline includes students working on large-scale data collection, data analysis, software development, quality assurance and more. Students also have the opportunity to work on their own research projects within the scope of CyWrite.

"I think it has had a significant impact in our undergraduate program in linguistics, because students before didn't have this kind of an opportunity to engage in such real-life and serious research," Chukharev-Hudilainen said.

It's not just undergraduates who are excited about the program.

"When students now look for a Ph.D. program that focuses on writing development, we are one of the top picks," Hegelheimer said. "It has really put us on the map."

This story is one of three updates on research projects awarded LAS Strategic Research Initiative funds in 2014.