An exploration of how automated immediate formative feedback might help students overcome some of the challenges of academic writing

Foster, Stephen (2024). An exploration of how automated immediate formative feedback might help students overcome some of the challenges of academic writing. PhD thesis The Open University.



One of the challenges many students face with their assignment writing is presenting a coherent argument. It has long been recognised that the best way for students to improve their assignment writing is to receive formative feedback on it. Students can then amend their writing based on that feedback and repeat the process until they are confident that they have constructed a coherent argument which meets the criteria set for them. At many universities, it is common for students to receive feedback on assignments after they have been marked. That feedback should then help them feedforward to their next assignment; however, the feedback is received too late to help with the assignment on which it was provided. This thesis reports on the extent to which immediate automated writing evaluation (AWE) feedback received whilst drafting an assignment, might help students overcome some of the challenges they have with assignment writing.

Four interconnected studies were undertaken to gather data from Open University students. The findings revealed that students experienced a variety of challenges when writing an assignment, and in particular found constructing a coherent argument difficult. They used several strategies to make the writing process easier, such as collating relevant notes and making a plan of the points they wished to include in the assignment. However, some students suggested they would like additional guidance and support on how to structure their writing and indicated this would be particularly useful whilst learning how to write academically during the early years of their study. Overall, the research found that most students perceived potential for automated immediate formative feedback to facilitate reflection on the extent to which a student’s writing was well structured, and thereby give the student confidence in the coherence of their writing. Indeed, an original contribution of the research was the finding that the new, and unique, rainbow diagram feature from the AWE software known as OpenEssayist, has the potential to provide such support. Nonetheless, the research also found that students must have trust in the source of automated feedback and that the acceptance of AWE by students followed the classic technology acceptance model (TAM) (Davis, 1986).
This thesis reports an original and unique contribution to the very fast developing field of AWE and provides pointers for future research enquiry within the field.

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