May 29, 2023

Using Grammarly to Provide Effective Feedback on Essays

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) has been quite a controversial topic lately. Regarding its use in education, I believe embracing AI can benefit both you and your students. This is why, during the Winter 2023 semester, I experimented with an AI-powered automated feedback tool in my English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.

I used Grammarly to provide feedback on students’ problem-solution essays to improve their writing revision process. Let me tell you about my experiment and its positive outcomes!

Why use AI automated feedback tools in the classroom

Since I have read about all the benefits AI can bring to students and teachers, I have wanted to integrate it into my teaching practices. I have always believed teachers can work in collaboration with AI to empower each other and maximize their respective potential instead of being afraid of it. With this experiment, I wanted to test its potential to optimize the student’s learning process while helping manage the teacher’s time.

The wide variety of AI tools can be helpful in multiple ways depending on your objectives. For this experiment, I selected an AI-powered automated feedback tool, mostly known to provide personalized, real-time automated feedback to students. I believed this type of tool would be the most appropriate to help my students improve their writing skills, especially in the case of essay writing.

The objectives

In many ESL courses at the college level, an to be able “to write and revise a text.” I usually have the students write a 1st draft of their essay, on which I would provide a pre-correction. Therefore, I would go over every copy and highlight all the errors related to language accuracy.

However, the exercise was time-consuming as I had to review each essay on both the 1st and final drafts. I also had to plan my course to ensure I had enough time to correct the 1st draft before the time allocated in class to write the final draft.

In addition, this approach was confusing and sometimes misleading for students. It was difficult for them to know why I highlighted a part and thus to correct the mistake properly. I noticed that they would sometimes create new, more severe mistakes instead of fixing the actual errors.

Considering these problems, my objective was to develop a new way of correcting their essay to make it more efficient and meaningful for them to revise their text. Besides, I wanted to help my students become more self-sufficient with their own editing while saving time in providing feedback. This was when I discovered Grammarly.

Selecting the AI tool

I selected Grammarly, an AI feedback tool, for the purpose of my experiment since its features aligned with my course and assignment objectives. This tool uses natural language through machine learning to point out any issues with your writing. The free plan offers only the error check, but Grammarly Premium (paid version) has several additional features. For this experiment, I used the Grammarly Premium version, offered for US$30 for a 1-month subscription. An annual plan is also offered for US$12 per month. Grammarly Premium runs many relevant features, such as:

  • tone
  • consistency
  • clarity
  • tangled sentences
  • vocabulary enhancement
  • language register
  • word choice
  • correctness (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.)

Another valuable feature of this tool is its built-in plagiarism checker, scanning the text for matches on the web and academic databases.

In addition, the app is easy to use and has an intuitive interface. For example, when you upload a document (.docx, .odt, .rtf., or .txt), Grammarly asks you to set your goals to get suggestions based on your audience and domain, conforming to the writing style and formality level.

Screenshot of Grammarly’s setting goals options allowing the writer to choose the writing suggestions based on three categories: domain (academic, business, general, email, casual, or creative), type (Essay, Report, or other) and format (APA, MLA, Chicago, or other).

Grammarly’ writing suggestions options based on your goals.

Grammarly also uses a colour-coding process to help give immediate feedback and differentiate the errors, namely:

  • clarity
  • correctness
  • engagement
  • delivery

In addition, it provides you with real-time comments on your writing by delivering suggestions and explanations as you write.

The experiment

This semester (Winter 2023), I taught a Field of Study English 3 (B-Block) course, and my students had to write a problem-solution essay as part of their final evaluation. Once the students had submitted the 1st draft of their papers, I depersonalized them and ran them 1 by 1 through Grammarly. I would check all the suggestions, making sure they were relevant. I was surprised to see that most of them were.

Then, I downloaded a PDF report of the essay (one of the features available on Grammarly). However, I decided to hand back only the pages with the colour codes to the students and not the suggested corrections provided by Grammarly, as the primary goal was to pinpoint their mistakes and have them revise the 1st draft on their own to submit a final draft later. I wanted to develop a revision environment that would welcome their creativity, not only one where they would have to accept or decline the suggestions generated by AI.

Finally, I would examine their essay’s PDF version, highlighting in yellow any errors the tool might have missed. I would then attach the colour-coding key and hand it back to the student.

Colour-Coding Key document presenting five types of mistakes divided by colour: red for correctness, blue for clarity, green for engagement, purple for delivery, and yellow for any other corrections suggested by the teacher. We can read: “Correctness helps you improve spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (Confused words, Incorrect noun number, Wrong or missing preposition, Faulty verb tense, Incorrect verb form, Comma misuse, Faulty subject-verb agreement, Misplaced words or phrases, Punctuation in compound/complex sentences, Misspelled words, Misuse of semicolons, quotation marks, Determiner use (a/an/the/this/etc.), Pronoun use). Clarity makes your writing easier to understand (Unclear sentences, Wordy sentences, Unclear paragraphs, Hard-to-read text, Passive voice misuse, Intricate text (too complex)). Engagement suggests changing words to make your writing more effective and interesting (Word choice, Fluency). Delivery helps you use the right language register (academic and formal writing), (Inappropriate colloquialisms, Tone suggestions, Incomplete sentences)”. Other corrections suggested by your teacher”.

Colour-Coding Key document

The post-revision survey

After their revision process, I invited the students to complete a Microsoft Forms survey regarding their experience with Grammarly. I received 25 responses out of the 29 students. The responses were mostly positive. Here are some of the survey results:

  • 48% of the students had never used Grammarly before
  • 88% never or rarely used Grammarly
  • 56% found Grammarly somewhat to very helpful in improving their writing.
  • 44% expect improvements in their grades since Grammarly was used

In response to the question, “In what ways was Grammarly helpful”:

  • 40% selected punctuation
  • 60% mentioned spelling
  • 40% selected sentence structure
  • 44% said language register was helpful
  • 60% selected vocabulary
  • 24% selected consistency

In addition, only 44% of the students believe AI tools should be used more frequently in the classroom. To the open question “What do you like most about Grammarly?”, most answers suggest that the students liked the identification of the types of mistakes using a colour code.

On the other hand, to the question “What do you like least about Grammarly?”, the students’ responses suggested that AI is not always accurate. However, I believe some students wrongly classified some suggestions as inaccurate since they could not find the mistakes identified by Grammarly.

In general, these results reveal that the integration of Grammarly positively impacted their revision process. Still, the students’ responses also showed that their knowledge and use of AI tools are limited and that the tool was sometimes inaccurate according to them.

Outcomes and observations

Speaking from my observations and my analysis of the results from the post-revision survey, Grammarly was beneficial to the students in helping them:

  • avoid wordiness
  • improve their writing skills
  • use the right language register
  • spur their creativity by having them find synonyms
  • develop their autonomy with their editing and revising process

As a teacher, even if I still had to go through every essay to identify any remaining errors, this tool helped me save time annotating each paper. I estimated spending half the time it usually takes providing feedback on acopy. In addition, the tool detected some mistakes I would have missed. For example, a typo mistake or an overly used word or expression in a text might be hard for a teacher to notice but is relatively easy to identify for the AI tool.

However, as some of my students noted in the survey, Grammarly comes far from replacing a human editor. Even if it does help with fixing each spelling and grammatical mistake, not every single correction was accurate. In some ways, I believe it helped the students develop their critical thinking by having them wonder if they should accept or dismiss the correction generated by the tool.

I was myself surprised to notice some flaws. For example, the tool would sometimes not detect a mistake involving 2 words that are commonly confused, such as “involve” and “evolve,” or “insulation” and “isolation.” In addition, it did not detect some improper use of prepositions and some mistakes involving sentence fragments and false cognates.

Therefore, I concluded that combining the teacher’s and the tool’s feedback is the key to highly improving the quality of the input provided to the students. However, it is difficult to quantify AI’s impact on student learning and their grades at this point. In any case, their comments from the perception survey suggest that it positively affected their learning.

To try again next year?

I would like to repeat the experience with more groups from different levels next year. I intend to proceed similarly by using an AI feedback tool to provide feedback on their papers, but I would like to experiment with different tools to compare them. Also, I would like to try different types of texts to see if the tools are as efficient with varying writing contexts.

Additionally, I would like to better prepare my students for this type of pre-correction by using it more than once with them throughout the semester. Then, they would practice correcting the different mistakes and would become more effective with their writing revision process.

However, if you want to integrate an automated feedback tool into your course, I suggest experimenting with 1 assignment first! If you do so, I would love to read about your experience in the comments!

About the author

Véronique Drolet

After teaching English as a second language and English Language Arts at the secondary level for 16 years, Véronique Drolet has recently joined the college network. She is currently an English teacher at Cégep Limoilou. In addition, her strong interest in languages led her to complete a certificate in translation. Passionate about the pedagogical integration of digital technology, she is now part of the Eductive team as a technopedagogic editor.

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Nancy Davin
Nancy Davin
8 June 2023 14h48

Thank you for sharing your experience with AI and Grammerly. I have been thinking of doing this so by reading about your experience I feel less intimidated to try it. I especially like the idea that Grammerly will do the colour coding as I find this to be the most time consuming aspect of correcting papers.