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Writing flexibility in argumentative essays: a multidimensional analysis

Abstract

The assessment of argumentative writing generally includes analyses of the specific linguistic and rhetorical features contained in the individual essays produced by students. However, researchers have recently proposed that an individual’s ability to flexibly adapt the linguistic properties of their writing may more accurately capture their proficiency. However, the features of the task, learner, and educational context that influence this flexibility remain largely unknown. The current study extends this research by examining relations between linguistic flexibility, reading comprehension ability, and feedback in the context of an automated writing evaluation system. Students (n = 131) wrote and revised six argumentative essays in an automated writing evaluation system and were provided both summative and formative feedback on their writing. Additionally, half of the students had access to a spelling and grammar checker that provided lower-level feedback during the writing period. The results provide evidence for the supposition that skilled writers demonstrate linguistic flexibility across the argumentative essays that they produce. However, analyses also indicate that lower-level feedback (i.e., spelling and grammar feedback) have little to no impact on the properties of students’ essays nor on their variability across prompts or drafts. Overall, the current study provides important insights into the role of flexibility in argumentative writing skill and develops a strong foundation on which to conduct future research and educational interventions.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported in part by IES Grants R305A120707 and R305A180261 as well as the Office of Naval Research (Grant No. N00014-16-1-2611). Opinions, conclusions, or recommendations do not necessarily reflect the view of the Department of Education, IES, or the Office of Naval Research.

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Correspondence to Laura K. Allen.

Appendix: Essay prompts

Appendix: Essay prompts

General Instructions

You will now have 25 min to write an essay on the prompt below.

The essay gives you an opportunity to show how effectively you can develop and express ideas. You should, therefore, take care to develop your point of view, present your ideas logically and clearly, and use language precisely.

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

[Prompt Specific Information]

Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.

Prompt 1

While some people promote competition as the only way to achieve success, others emphasize the power of cooperation. Intense rivalry at work or play or engaging in competition involving ideas or skills may indeed drive people either to avoid failure or to achieve important victories. In a complex world, however, cooperation is much more likely to produce significant, lasting accomplishments.

Do people achieve more success by cooperation or by competition?

Prompt 2

All around us appearances are mistaken for reality. Clever advertisements create favorable impressions but say little or nothing about the products they promote. In stores, colorful packages are often better than their contents. In the media, how certain entertainers, politicians, and other public figures appear is sometimes considered more important than their abilities. All too often, what we think we see becomes far more important than what really is.

Do images and impressions have a positive or negative effect on people?

Prompt 3

Loyalty is one of the essential attributes a person must have and must demand of others. Being loyal, faithful, or dedicated to someone or something, is not always easy. People often have conflicting loyalties, and there are no guidelines that help them decide to what or to whom they should be loyal. Moreover, people may be loyal to something harmful or bad.

Should people always maintain their loyalties, or is it sometimes necessary to switch sides?

Prompt 4

Many people believe that to move up the ladder of success and achievement, they must forget their past, repress it, and let it go. But others have just the opposite view. They see their old memories as a chance to reckon with their past and integrate past and present.

Do personal memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from their past and succeed in the present?

Prompt 5

When we are young, we learn from parents and teachers that we should wait patiently for what we want. Few people would dispute the wisdom or truth of this teaching. Our society, however, with its mad rush and hurry and its insistence on instant gratification and quick responses, encourages and rewards impatience. Experience teaches us that we should not and do not have to wait.

Is it better for people to act quickly and expect quick responses from others rather than to wait patiently for what they want?

Prompt 6

From talent contests to the Olympics to the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, we constantly seek to reward those who are “number one.” This emphasis on recognizing the winner creates the impression that other competitors, despite working hard and well, have lost. In many cases, however, the difference between the winner and the losers is slight. The wrong person may even be selected as the winner. Awards and prizes merely distract us from valuable qualities possessed by others besides the winners.

Do people place too much emphasis on winning?

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Allen, L.K., Likens, A.D. & McNamara, D.S. Writing flexibility in argumentative essays: a multidimensional analysis. Read Writ 32, 1607–1634 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-018-9921-y

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-018-9921-y

Keywords

  • Writing
  • Flexibility
  • Dynamics
  • Linguistics
  • Natural language processing
  • Individual differences
  • Intelligent tutoring systems
  • Feedback