MyWritingLab educator study looks at auto-graded Writing Practice assignments at Yavapai College

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MyWritingLab™ educator study looks at auto-graded Writing Practice assignments at Yavapai College

Key Findings

  • To solve the challenge of correcting and giving feedback on large volumes of writing, Professor Joani Fisher turned to technology—specifically auto-graded Writing Practice in MyWritingLab—as a solution for grading a large portion of the writing assessment in College Composition I.
  • In Fall 2015, all sections showed improvement on auto-graded Writing Practice essays, averaging 87 percent on the entrance essay and 98 percent on the exit essay.
  • On average, students improved six percentage points from the Path Builder diagnostic to the Mastery Check post-test. Nearly 80 percent of students scored 70 percent or higher on the Mastery Check, demonstrating knowledge of grammar and mechanics.

School name
Yavapai College, Prescott, AZ

Course name
College Composition I (honors and non-honors)

Course format
Face-to-face (class held in computer lab); online

Course materials
MyWritingLab; Backpack Writing by Faigley

Fall 2015

Submitted by
Joani Fisher, English Professor


Yavapai College is a community college located in rural Yavapai County, Arizona. The main campus is in Prescott, with five additional locations. According to the 2014-15 Fact Book, approximately 80 percent of its 8,400 students attend part-time and 20 percent full-time; 85 percent hail from Yavapai County. As noted in its course catalog, Yavapai College exists so that communities within the county are equipped with the vision and skills to create a sustainable economic environment. The college’s primary goal is to provide education for three types of students: job seekers who need the qualifications, skills, and abilities to succeed in their next role; students seeking transfer and success at their next educational institution; and lifelong-learning adults who desire affordable access to a variety of high-quality learning opportunities.

About the Course

Approximately 20 sections of College Composition I (three credit hours) are offered in fall and spring, with a total enrollment of about 250 students. Students focus on composing expository and argumentative essays for specific audiences. Emphasis is placed on the processes of writing, reading, and critical thinking, with an introduction to research and documentation.

Challenges and Goals

Yavapai College has a 4,500-word writing requirement for students taking College Composition I. Although Professor Joani Fisher acknowledges it is beneficial for students to be required to do so much writing, it can be difficult and time-consuming for instructors to provide personalized feedback on such a workload.

To solve the challenge of correcting and giving feedback on large volumes of writing, Fisher turned to technology—specifically auto-graded Writing Practice in MyWritingLab—as a solution for a large portion of the writing assessment. Students still submit the required amount of writing, but now instructors aren’t solely responsible for correcting and editing it entirely.  

MyWritingLab provides an additional solution for challenges students face in the course. Since Yavapai is a community college with open enrollment, students enter with varying skill levels. Unfortunately, many of Fisher’s students don’t have prior knowledge of grammar. Fisher believes the more students are comfortable with grammar, the more their understanding of grammar will transfer to their writing. By assigning MyWritingLab’s personalized Path Builder and Learning Path, Fisher’s goal was to help students develop a solid foundation of grammar and mechanics on which to build their writing.


Currently working on her Ph.D. in instructional design and technology, Fisher admits she’s “not afraid to let technology do the instruction—it just needs to be designed and facilitated correctly.” She uses a coordinator course in MyWritingLab to facilitate the process of setting up and managing multiple sections in the same semester.

The first week of class, students complete the diagnostic Composition Path Builder in MyWritingLab which covers 37 topics over four modules: Understanding Basic Grammar; Composing Clear and Effective Sentences; Using Punctuation, Mechanics, and Spelling; and Improving Language Usage and Style. Fisher modifies the coverage of topics and modules in MyWritingLab to more closely match course content.

Path Builder scores do not count towards the final grade, but students are encouraged to take their time and read the questions carefully, since their Path Builder results will assign their course work. After students have taken the Path Builder, Fisher points out that doing well on module-level Skills Checks can decrease the number of topics assigned on each student’s Learning Path. Students are not required to complete all of the work leading up to the post-test for each topic. Rather, they are encouraged to start with the overview and gauge for themselves how much they need to work through the topic before taking the post-test. They have a few opportunities to take the post-test. Any topics that are prescribed must be mastered with a 70 percent or higher on the post-test and are due by midterm, with the exception of the research documentation topic, which is completed after midterm.

After her first semester using MyWritingLab, Fisher admits to making a few mistakes and learning some lessons from the process. One best practice she discovered is to give students a pacing guide for completing topics; otherwise, students will likely wait until the last minute, negating the benefit of the work. Some students are assigned many more topics in MyWritingLab than others, so she makes a personalized plan for them and typically extends the deadline, letting them know that if they want to succeed, they have a lot of work to do. At midterm she checks in to see how her students are doing. If some are falling behind, Fisher encourages them to come to her open office hours in the computer lab.

Students do not receive points for skills topics in MyWritingLab; however, the completion of topics in the Learning Path is mandatory. All MyWritingLab skills work is done outside of class time, and Fisher does not accept students’ second essays until the MyWritingLab work is finished.

Fisher tells her students, “It’s not a bad thing if you have a lot of topics to complete in your Learning Path.” She frames the work positively by saying, “Here is a program that will help you fix your grammar mistakes and will help you build a solid foundation for writing. Now is the time to get it right.” She tells students that they will need to write for other non-English courses, and if they are making simple errors, they will easily lose points in those courses. Fisher often uses the metaphor that, as the instructor, she has an obligation to “cook excellent food” for her students and make sure they get the academic “nutrition” they need. She maintains, “Working in MyWritingLab is an opportunity students should not pass up, as it will help them be more successful in their academic career.”

Writing Practice Auto-graded Essays: The second diagnostic “test” students complete at the very beginning of class is a 500-word, auto-graded writing prompt in MyWritingLab, entitled Overcoming a Challenge. This is completed in the first class period for one hour in the computer lab. (The first semester, Fisher did not give a time limit and later realized this was an important part of the assignment.) This in-class essay scores students on a scale of 1 to 6. The essay is mandatory, but the score does not count towards the final grade. Not only does this first essay help Fisher quickly ascertain students’ skills, but it helps her get to know her students a little better on a personal level. This is especially useful in her online classes. When she gets the grades back from MyWritingLab, she read all the essays, reviews the scores, and puts students who scored low on her “watch list.” She makes a point to conference with these students and encourage them to visit her office hours in the writing center.

Email by Criteria: Fisher uses Email by Criteria in MyWritingLab to give positive feedback on the first essay to all her students via email. She says, “I don’t give any negative or evaluative feedback because the auto-grader has already done that. I see this as an opportunity to reduce writing anxiety and start the class off in an upbeat way. This exercise has been a great way to connect with my students and find out about more about their writing abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.”

Mastery Check: At midterm, students complete the Composition Mastery Check which is the post-test counterpart to the Path Builder pre-test. Students must receive at least 70 percent; however, if a student scores below 70 percent, they will have an opportunity to review MyWritingLab topics and take the Mastery Check a second time.

At midterm, students are also assigned a second auto-graded essay entitled Solving Problems. Their actual score is counted. For example, if a student receives a 5.7 out of 6.0 points, that equates to a 95 percent.

Students can earn 50 extra credit points (five percent of the course grade) by completing the “Reflecting on College” auto-graded essay with a minimum of 500 words. They must revise it once, and Fisher heavily encourages students to use WriteClick in MyWritingLab to check their grammar before submission. She feels that doing this extra essay can make the difference in a letter grade for some students. Fisher shares, “I am comfortable with my students using WriteClick because it doesn’t automatically correct mistakes—it provides suggestions and it is up to the student to take or leave the suggested changes. I find that my ESL learners especially like using this tool.” Fisher gives students extra credit (the equivalent of one percent of the course grade) if they show they downloaded WriteClick.

Pearson Tutor Services: Students have three chances to submit their essays to Pearson Tutor Services through MyWritingLab and receive credit for doing so. Fisher requests a screenshot so that she can see what suggestions the tutor had and if the student incorporated any of the tutor’s feedback.

For the course’s exit essay, students are assigned the auto-graded Violent Video Games Writing Practice prompt in MyWritingLab and have 75 minutes to complete the essay. This serves as a “post-test” counterpart to the Overcoming a Challenge “pre-test” essay students completed at the beginning of class. Students must conduct research before they respond to the writing prompt and are asked to take a stance and make an argument in their response. A works cited sheet is required to be completed ahead of time. Fisher suggests students work on an outline or even write a draft before they sit down to write the final essay in class. She also recommends students first write their essays in a Word document file before submitting to MyWritingLab. 

Working in MyWritingLab is an opportunity students should not pass up, as it will help them be more successful in their academic career.

Working in MyWritingLab is an opportunity students should not pass up, as it will help them be more successful in their academic career.


  • 35% Argument essays (two; including peer reviews, revisions, and submission to Pearson Tutor Services)
  • 20% Exit essay research and documentation
  • 15% Homework from textbook
  • 10% MyWritingLab Writing Practice auto-graded essay
  • 10% MyWritingLab Writing Practice auto-graded exit essay
  • 10% MyWritingLab Composition Mastery Check post-test

Results and Data

In Spring 2016, 83 out of 88 students (94 percent) who started in Fisher’s College Composition I section were able to log in and take the Path Builder and the first auto-graded essay prompt. Fisher sees this as a successful outcome of learning access.

In Fall 2015, all sections showed improvement from the pre- to post-auto-graded Writing Practice essays, averaging 87 percent on the entrance essay and 98 percent on the exit essay. A breakdown by course section is shown in figure 1.

Students scored an average of 73 percent on the Path Builder diagnostic and 79 percent on the Mastery Check, an increase of six percentage points (figure 2). Nearly 80 percent of students scored 70 percent or higher on the Mastery Check, demonstrating knowledge of grammar and mechanics.

Average scores for Writing Practice auto-graded entrance and exit essays

Figure 1. Average Scores for Auto-graded Writing Practice Entrance and Exit Essays in College Composition I, Fall 2015; Face-to-face/honors (two sections combined) (n=22); Online/honors (n=10); Face-to-face/non-honors (n=18); Total Number of Students with Scores for Both Entrance and Exit Essay (n=50)

Average Path Builder and Mastery Check scores

Figure 2. Average Path Builder and Mastery Check Scores, Fall 2015 (n=63)

The Student Experience

Fisher believes that working though MyWritingLab modules forces students to improve their reading and comprehension, as well as develop good time-management skills. She finds that the Pearson text Backpack Writing “is visually appealing and provides students with models they can relate to.” Fisher is cognizant of textbook prices and doesn’t want her students to spend a lot of money on the text if she is also asking them to purchase MyWritingLab. In a welcome email, Fisher gives her students a few options for purchasing the course materials. She tells them they can buy the package from bookstore, order the access code and buy a used text online, or simply purchase MyWritingLab and use the e-book that is included with MyWritingLab as the most cost-effective option.


Fisher is currently working on developing a MyWritingLab course shell for all sections of College Composition I, which will help the department gather more data on student achievement. They are planning to implement a course-wide pre- and post-test. The department is also considering incorporating MyWritingLab into Introductory Composition to help developmental students become familiar with MyWritingLab and to give them additional opportunities to write using different auto-graded writing prompts as well.

Fisher shares, “At the end of the semester, students self-reported that they were much more confident about all of the learning outcomes in the course. I believe assigning auto-graded writing practice gave students more opportunities to write without adding extra burden to instructor’s busy teaching loads.”


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