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Students give rave reviews to online critic

Thank-you notes so rarely follow exams that Leslie Perelman, director of Writing Across the Curriculum in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, has to repeat himself when he describes this unexpected measure of success for MIT's Online Assessment Tool, known as iMOAT .

"Students who took the evaluation loved it. Even students who failed the test have sent e-mails of thanks," said Perelman about the iMOAT assessment process.

The test doesn't sound like a gift; it's hard work. Each student entering MIT must read on the web one or two substantial articles and then submit two essays for evaluation to determine what level of communication-intensive course in the humanities, arts and social sciences they will take.

A 'suite' of web-based services for online writing assessment, iMOAT provides a secure environment for students to read the assigned selections and write the essays at home using their own computers. It also provides students a detailed 250 to 300-word critique of their writing.

"Students prefer using a computer instead of handwriting, and getting the feedback means a lot. Parents have written, 'That was the most substantial response to our child's writing we have ever seen!' It's a great use of technology in education; it transforms a test into an opportunity for learning," Perelman said.

Typically, the student receives the readings on a Tuesday, and the questions to be pondered on a Friday. The essays - one narrative, one expository - are due 72 hours later.

"At MIT, we print out the essays and read and grade them on hard copy according to a point scale. Each student gets about a page - 250 to 300 words - of general comments. These then go onto the secure site and the student can see his or her own score and comments," Perelman said.

A collaborative project of iCampus, the MIT-Microsoft Alliance, iMOAT was developed in conjunction with the California Institute of Technology, DePaul University, Louisiana State University and the University of Cincinnati. All four universities used iMOAT in the summer of 2002 with rave reviews from both students and faculty.

Perelman praised the "robustness" of iMOAT's design, noting that collaborators in the project development each used the program in different ways, depending on the culture and needs of the particular university.

LSU, for example, uses iMOAT at the beginning, middle and end of the school year, Perelman noted. "They use it to assess accountability and to measure consistency of grading across course sections," he said.

Clemson, Cornell, and Oakland Universities will be joining MIT and its four partner universities in using iMOAT during the summer of 2003. Perelman plans to expand the system to accommodate 50-60 schools.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 18, 2002.

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