A look at “ai” writing feedback

Jill Barshay:

This week I challenged my editor to face off against a machine. Barbara Kantrowitz gamely accepted, under one condition: “You have to file early.”  Ever since ChatGPT arrived in 2022, many journalists have made a public stunt out of asking the new generation of artificial intelligence to write their stories. Those AI stories were often bland and sprinkled with errors. I wanted to understand how well ChatGPT handled a different aspect of writing: giving feedback.

My curiosity was piqued by a new study, published in the June 2024 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Learning and Instruction, that evaluated the quality of ChatGPT’s feedback on students’ writing. A team of researchers compared AI with human feedback on 200 history essays written by students in grades 6 through 12 and they determined that human feedback was generally a bit better. Humans had a particular advantage in advising students on something to work on that would be appropriate for where they are in their development as a writer. 

But ChatGPT came close. On a five-point scale that the researchers used to rate feedback quality, with a 5 being the highest quality feedback, ChatGPT averaged a 3.6 compared with a 4.0 average from a team of 16 expert human evaluators. It was a tough challenge. Most of these humans had taught writing for more than 15 years or they had considerable experience in writing instruction. All received three hours of training for this exercise plus extra pay for providing the feedback. 

ChatGPT even beat these experts in one aspect; it was slightly better at giving feedback on students’ reasoning, argumentation and use of evidence from source materials – the features that the researchers had wanted the writing evaluators to focus on.