Writing Pal: An intelligent tutoring system that provides interactive writing strategy training

Danielle S. McNamara, PhD, Principal Investigator

Effective written communication is an essential skill with critical importance for educational and professional success. Research has indicated that students’ writing abilities influence their acceptance into college, their success once enrolled, and their ability to attain employment and advancement in the workplace. Unfortunately, national assessments of writing, such as the National Commission on Writing (2004; 2008) and National Assessment of Educational Progress (2002) show that many students are poor writers. Thus, effective and innovative interventions are needed to further facilitate students’ development of writing proficiency.

For this purpose, we have developed the Writing Pal, an intelligent tutoring system (ITS) designed to provide writing strategy instruction, game-based strategy practice, and individualized formative feedback for developing writers. These three components are fully integrated within an easy-to-use interface that provides students and teachers with information about student performance and progress.

Strategy instruction is provided via eight Strategy Modules that address three main phases of the writing process: prewriting, drafting, and revising. Prewriting modules discuss strategies for freewriting and planning. Drafting modules present strategies for introduction buildingbody building, and conclusion building. Finally, the revising modules teach strategies for paraphrasingcohesion building, and overall revising. Each module begins with a series of short, interactive lessons taught by animated characters. The lessons offer step-by-step guides, examples, and mnemonic devices. Every lesson video is followed immediately by interactive Checkpoints that offer review and reinforcement of the content via a quiz-like or game-like format.

Example screenshots from Writing Pal strategy modules. From left: Introduction Building: Overview, Body Building: Topic Sentences, and Freewriting: Figure out the prompt.

Each module also includes one or more game-based practice activities, called Challenges, which allow students to practice specific strategies or combinations of strategies. For example, “Mastermind Outline” is a Planning Module challenge in which students

Example screenshots from Writing Pal Challenge reactive games. From left: Introduction Building: Essay Launcher, Paraphrasing: Map Conquest, and Revising: Speech Writer.

Finally, an Essay Writing Tool allows students to author practice essays and receive automated feedback. Students can choose the prompt and time limit. When they begin writing, they can review the prompt, use a scratchpad to freewrite or plan, and have a basic word processing interface to type their essay. When finished, students submit their work to Writing Pal to be automatically assessed. This scoring process is based on a variety of algorithms that evaluate the essay as a whole, as well as specific essay sections and linguistic features. Formative and scaffolded feedback is provided to students to help them identify and select more appropriate strategies for revising their current essay and writing new essays in the future.

Example screenshot of Essay Writing interface.

A number of evaluations of Writing Pal have been recently conducted and are planned for the near future. For example, in the 2010-2011 school year, Writing Pal was integrated into Freshman Composition courses at the University of Memphis. Early college students used Writing Pal over a period of four months as a part of their weekly writing curriculum. Also during the 2010-2011 school year, Writing Pal was deployed in five 10th grade English classrooms in a DC-area high school (involving approximately 140 students). During the 2011-2012 school year, Writing Pal will be implemented in an after-school writing program available to high school students in the Phoenix, Arizona metropolitan area.