In this article we investigate the use of latent semantic analysis (LSA), critiquing systems, and knowledge building to support computer-based teaching of English composition. We have built and tested an English composition critiquing system that makes use of LSA to analyze student essays and compute feedback by comparing their essays with teacher’s model essays. LSA values are input to a critiquing component to provide a user interface for the students. A software agent can also use the critic feedback to coordinate a collaborative knowledge-building session with multiple users (students and teachers). Shared feedback provides seed questions that can trigger discussion and extended reflection about the next phase of writing. We present the first version of a prototype we have built and report the results from three experiments. We end the paper by describing our plans for future work.
Essay writing can be viewed as a design activity, producing a textual artifact—a document. A document consists of words and sentences. It has structuring (abstraction) and content production (composition) elements (Yamamoto, Takada, Gross, & Nakakoji, 1998). These are key aspects of any design process. More specifically, structuring defines the organization of the document in terms of sentences, paragraphs, and sections (i.e., levels of abstraction); whereas content production is about finding words and phrases and sequencing them into readable sentences, which again become part of paragraphs, and so on. A well-composed essay will communicate certain ideas, topics, or themes about some area of shared concern. Intermediate level abstractions, such as paragraphs and sections, serve as placeholders for complex ideas extended over multiple paragraphs so that the writers and readers can focus on one idea at a time while suppressing unimportant details.
The two basic activities of design are action and reflection (Schön, 1983), supporting composition and abstraction, respectively. Action means to create an artifact by selecting building blocks and combining them into functional arrangements, and reflection means to evaluate the artifact from multiple viewpoints (McCall, Fischer, & Mørch, 1990). When this occurs without external disruption other than situation-specific feedback, it is referred to as reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983). In a good process of design, the designer will rapidly cycle between action and reflection until the design is completed. During this process, the “back talk” of the situation signals to the designer when there is a need to switch to the other mode. This is communicated by means of an incomplete design (e.g., missing parts), inconsistency in arrangement of parts, or a need for restructuring the overall activity.