My Experience with AI-powered Digital Writing Assistants: An Illustrated Autoethnographic Study

Here is a first draft of my Research Proposal. I still need to develop the Literature Review. I look forward to your feedback. Thank you!

Introduction: Although online grammar checkers have gained popularity in recent years, there has been limited research conducted on the impact of AI-powered assisted digital writers on students’ revising and editing skills (Cavaleri, 2000). Therefore, my interests lie in the intersection of writing, specifically grammar, and technology; the focus of my research is Grammarly, which is considered one of the most accurate grammar checkers and the most user-friendly. My study examines the algorithm of Grammarly, evaluates other AI-powered assisted digital writers on the market and offers my perspective as a high school English teacher who offers students access to Grammarly Premium and as a graduate student who uses Grammarly Premium for my writing assignments. Overall, my study will provide best practices and recommendations to enhance the overall learning and teaching experience for students and teachers who are interested in purchasing a paid personal or institutional subscription to Grammarly Premium.

From a High School English Teacher’s Perspective:

Some teachers are reluctant to embrace online grammar checkers because they feel that the machines will replace them. My belief is that AI-assisted digital writing assistants will help teachers rather than hurt them. The reality is that there is overcrowding in public schools, and unlike private schools, public school teachers do not have the luxury of having a class size of 10-15 students. In 2020, public school teachers face a class size of 20 – 30 students per class, and with the increase of students in English classes, there has been an impact on the quality of writing instruction. As a teacher in a large public school in New Jersey, I have had 28 students in my AP Language and Composition class. (There are teachers across the country with class sizes up to 30 students.) In my high school, we have 40-minute class periods. During writing workshops, it is mathematically impossible to revise and edit every students’ essays in a timely manner. Students would sign up for a writing conference with me and would want me to revise and edit their entire essay. It takes me at least 10 minutes to look over a draft and multiply that by 28, which is 280 minutes or over 4 hours per one assignment. However, some of the writing conferences would take longer than ten minutes. I tried limiting the writing conferences. I tried teaching the students to revise and edit their essays. I tried scheduling writing conferences during the students’ study hall, and after school, but it became overwhelming and time-consuming. So, this year, in 2019, I took a leap of faith and purchased Grammarly Premium ($139.95/year). I allowed my 10th-grade students in my Level I (college prep) and Level II (regular track) to use my personal Grammarly Premium account to revise and edit their synthesis essays. Overall, my students found Grammarly Premium more helpful than the free, basic version. I would have a student on my desktop computer while conferencing with another student writer. Once the students finish going over their essays, I would ask:

“What is a common error that you noticed?”

“Did you notice a pattern of errors such as subject-verb agreement?”

The most common alert is that of passive voice. From there, I had a conversation with a student regarding the difference between active and passive voice. I follow up with a mini-lesson on the difference between active and passive voice and provide a grammar handout on this grammatical rule for additional practice. I find this backward design in teaching grammar in context more meaningful to the student than starting off with a random worksheet on passive and active voice. Therefore, AI-powered digital writers do not replace the teacher; instead, it allows teachers to help two writers simultaneously and to have more in-depth conversations about grammar. However, there are times where I would observe some students mindlessly clicking the suggestions without reading them or without rereading their essays. Sometimes, Grammarly would make suggestions that are out-of-context, and the writer may need to reject those suggestions. I would have these students read their essays out loud to me.

Literature Review: A majority of the studies on the impact of online grammar checkers involve non-native English speakers in other countries. Two Australian researchers Michelle Cavaleri and Saib Dianati contend that online grammar checkers such as Grammarly promote “self-directed learning and student self-efficacy” (2016). Furthermore, research from Potter and Fuller found that the use of online English grammar checkers increased students’ motivation, engagement, and confidence in grammar rules and English language proficiency” (2008).

RESEARCH METHODS

I plan to use autoethnography, which is a [qualitative] research method that “seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experiences (ethno)” (Ellis, 2011). Specifically, I plan to use a “layered account which focuses on the authors’ experience alongside data, abstract analysis, and relevant literature” (Ellis, 2011). In terms of data, I plan to collect the first drafts of synthesis essays from my current 10th students. The data that will be collected: 1.) essays without any type of revisions; 2.) essays with just peer conferencing; and 3.) essays with Grammarly Premium. The essays are from students with varying writing abilities, ranging from recently-exited ESL to more advanced students. I plan to notify my supervisor of my research project. In terms of data analysis, I offer “vignettes of my experience with various online grammar checkers, multiple voices, and introspection” (Ellis, 2011). Based on my research, I intend to make recommendations to enhance the AI-powered digital writing assistant experience such as Paperrate, Grammark, After the Deadline and Language Tool.

I plan to collect essays for graduate classes and for blogs that I have written with and without the use of Grammarly Premium. I want to examine the reduction of the errors in my students’ essays and my essays. I want to assess the types of errors that online grammar checkers successfully were able to discern. Cavaleri and Dianati make an important distinction that “grammar checkers do not claim to teach grammar; they are tools to bring potential problems to the writer’s attention” (2016). Grammarly cannot replace a human editor.

Briefly on Grammarly for those who are unfamiliar with it. It was founded in 2009 by Max Lytvyn and Alex Shevchenko. To use Grammarly, users copy and paste a text into the input box, or upload a document. “Grammarly’s free version provides grammar, punctuation, spelling, sentence structure and style support” (see Figure 1). “The premium subscription, which costs $139.95 a year, checks an additional 150 grammar points and provides plagiarism detection, vocabulary enhancement suggestions and a contextual spelling feature and gives users a score out of 100” (Grammarly, 2015) (see Figure 2). It also provides short explanations of each grammar issue it addresses and provides corresponding feedback, which often includes examples of both correct and incorrect usages in green and red respectively (see Figure 3). Users can click the suggested correction to apply it to the text, or click “ignore‟ to move on. Users can also simply read through the feedback without needing to accept or ignore each comment. Before reviewing the text, the premium version also asks users to select audience, formality, domain (academic, business, general, technical, casual, and creative), tone, and intent” (Grammarly, 2020) (see Figure 4.) (Moré, 2006). 

Originally, Lytvyn and Shevchenko developed Grammarly for the college market, thereby offering longer explanations of grammatical rules. As an educator, I appreciated this feature of Grammarly. However, this feature was removed once Grammarly was introduced to the mass market. Recently, Grammarly started hiring human editors to check writing for an additional fee. There were style and syntactical errors that Grammarly was unable to detect, thus requiring human expertise. In terms of the “score” that Grammarly provides it does not necessarily correlate for the grade on the assignment. Teachers take into consideration the context of the essay along with the quality of ideas, the development and elaboration of the ideas, and the insights of the writer — all of which a machine, no matter how good the algorithm, cannot assess. 

Draft of Research Proposal

“Most of us are trained as English teachers by studying a product: writing.” – Donald M. Murry

Naturally, we teach how we were taught, so we teach writing as a product. How do we then get students to shift from a product to improve and produce more wholesome writing? What is the process we should teach? The field of writing studies has developed many excellent strategies for teaching composition that support student reflection about their own writing to help produce more complex text. 

Writing skills are an essential component of literacy; students need to be proficient writers in order to participate in our literate society. Writing is a learned skill, and like anything, learning requires patience and the ability to accept that it’s going to take a very long time to become better. Even lousy writing is considered educational. It teaches you the art of patience and the act of thinking clearly and deeply. The most fundamental belief an English teacher can have is that everyone can write, as Peter Elbow once said. A tool to help students write successfully is freewriting.  

I began each Friday of my middle school Language Arts classes with ten minutes of unfocused freewriting. If there is a Friday, we miss freewriting due to other activities, my students always ask if we can freewrite on Monday to make up for the lost opportunity. Students thoroughly enjoy the process of writing without being judged, to produce the purest thoughts. Freewriting, then is to the mind what yoga is to the body. Freewriting is writing to think. Like brainstorming, freewriting taps into the writer’s inner resources to find individual thoughts, knowledge, memory, and intuition. It is a technique for increasing fluency and achieving personal discovery. 

Peter Elbow introduced freewriting in 1973; it’s been 47 years since, and still little research has been done on the benefits of freewriting. Freewriting deserves much more serious attention then it has been given up until this time. Our curriculums do not address freewriting; I want to research how freewriting can influence the writing of a five-paragraph essay. After short term training through one marking period of freewriting before every piece, I will collect data on whether freewriting improved student writing.                                                                              

According to Elbow and Belanoff (2000), freewriting is defined as writing any ideas or thoughts that come to mind in a given time period without stopping. The fundamental rules of freewriting are simple, just write without thinking or stopping. Don’t think about punctuation, ethical writing convections, grammar, capitalize, spell right, the point is to write your ideas. To produce the information, you have in your brain already. It will make writing less blocked because words will come more easily. 

The approach I will take is going to be focused freewriting. My experience with middle school students is that they concentrate only on getting the “right” answer vs. creating a more genuine response. The students need to get the correct interpretation makes them shortchange the analytical process. In a five-paragraph essay, this shows up most disastrously when students fail to examine a text thoroughly and therefore reach a misinformed conclusion. Students read through the text and decide what they think the story is about and write a paper to support that decision. They then ignore aspects of the story that contradict their original thought. In this case, I want to see if focused freewriting can counteract this tendency and help students methodically to examine all aspects and details and only then to come to a conclusion.  

The Adventures of The Writing Project: 1st Draft Research Proposal

During my time serving as a Reading Coach under the organization AmeriCorps, I was assigned within a 2nd grade English Language Arts class. Within the two years, 2018-2020, that I have served, I noticed a common phenomenon that appeared for each class of 2nd grade students I worked with. These 2nd grade students had and continue to have struggles within approaching writing. The issue of writing that I am referring to is not the physical mechanics of writing (i.g. Handwriting, constructing sentences, spelling, etc.), what I am referring to is the process of writing. 

The Writing Process can be defined as the following: A writing process describes the series of physical and mental actions that people take in the course of producing any kind of text. With that said, coming into my second term as a Reading Coach alongside my first year as a graduate student within the M.A. in English Writing Studies program, I have come to an understanding of this phenomenon within my classroom. My research study is to test the effectiveness of my program T.A.W.P in aiding students with the Writing Process. 

Currently in my first semester as a part-time online graduate student at NJIT, I am taking the Advanced Information Design course. Within this course, we were assigned to pick a topic that we would like to turn into an eLearning course module; the topic should be an area of study that we are both passionate about and have knowledge on. I chose teaching the Writing Process to 3rd students, to help aid in the learning gap when approaching writing. The T.A.W.P program is the variable at play, that I am testing to see if it will cause a change in the students’ learning.

Below is a screenshot of my eLearning (T.A.W.P) content home page:

My Research Proposal: Conquering Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Through Expressive Writing.

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    Conquering My Anxiety and OCD Through Expressive Writing

  1. Introduction:

 I chose to research how expressive writing (EW) has helped me personally overcome and conquer my own battle with anxiety and OCD. I find writing to be a therapeutic and healing process therefore I decided to use an autoethnographic approach to share my story. Over the years writing has been a catharsis and escape for me during some of the most difficult times in my life. Besides having a personal connection to this research, I am passionate and invested about furthering my knowledge. Through this research I’m excited to share what a powerful impact EW has had on me and my long journey to find relief from persistent and debilitating anxiety and OCD. Although it’s not a new phenomenon I still believe it’s a relevant topic to research because there are millions of people suffering from mental health disorders specifically anxiety and OCD, and the numbers continue to rise. Furthermore I hope my study will empower and give hope to others who are struggling. Through my autoethnographic approach I will seek to describe and analyze my personal experiences in order to understand the cultural experience of millions of people who are afflicted with mental health disorders.

So what is expressive writing? Expressive writing (EW) is defined as personal writing. It expresses and explores the personal feelings of the writer. The piece may attempt to answer a question, state an opinion or recount the writer’s personal experiences. Many times, expressive writing does all of these. Unlike most forms of writing, this type of written communication isn’t focused on proper spelling, punctuation and grammar.Whereas communicative writing should contain the proper mechanics of language as well as a more or less objective approach, expressive writing should not. This highly personal form of writing shouldn’t be objective or impersonal. It also doesn’t need to be informative or educational as long as it is expressive.

The main expectation of expressive writing is to express feelings and observations personally. The topic can be anything as long as the writing expresses personal thoughts, feelings and emotions. 

Writing has been an essential component to psychotherapy and has been used by mental health professionals for decades now. Daily logs, questionnaires, journals and specific writing oriented homework has been used to help patients track their symptoms and emotions in direct relation to their writing. Expressive writing is considered an essential outlet and tool to help patients express their innermost thoughts and feelings about a traumatic experience, loss, or like in my personal case, helping me cope with my debilitating anxiety and OCD. This form of writing allows the writer to be free and write with no limits. Normally there are very restrictive guidelines to writing but with EW the skys the limit. Expressing oneself and releasing stressful emotions through writing is the main objective.

The convenience and power of writing, especially writing with no limits offers an important health opportunity. Writing provides an enjoyable means of exploring and expressing feelings. Science has proven that when people write about what’s in their minds and hearts they feel better and get healthier. And it isn’t just that they’re getting their troubles off their chests. Moving past negative emotions like guilt and shame, and accessing positive ones like more optimism and empathy, makes people feel connected to others even when they can’t have a direct conversation. This helps lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation that plagues anxiety and OCD sufferers. So my research is to prove how EW has helped ease my distressing anxiety and OCD symptoms over time. 

I was diagnosed with anxiety at around the age of twelve. Throughout the years my anxiety would ebb and flow and eventually became very distressing and debilitating. My so called normal and everyday life was upended by daily panic attacks, intrusive thoughts and the use of rituals and compulsive behaviors that I falsely believed would bring me relief from the relentless anxiety I felt. This negatively impacted my professional and personal life. Some days I found it hard to get out of bed and insomnia had become my new best friend. At my lowest point I was in my mid twenties and was referred to a local and well known psychiatrist. In our first one hour visit  he had me describe in detail exactly what was plaguing me. I was scared and confused and sure that I was going insane. But he quickly assured me that I was in fact sane and what I was suffering from was not only anxiety disorder but a specific form called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To have a name to put with the monster that was slowly destroying me was a relief. What exactly is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) features a pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). These obsessions and compulsions interfere with daily activities and cause significant distress. (Mayo Clinic, 1998-2020). Of course his job as a psychiatrist was to prescribe medicine, not to engage in much talk therapy with me which he made very clear. But I wasn’t ready or convinced that medication was my best choice at that particular time, so I opted to go to a cognitive behavioral therapist who specializes in OCD instead. My first experience in a cognitive behavioral therapy session I was full of mixed emotions. I was nervous to the point my knees were shaking and I had no idea what to expect. Did I have to talk about my childhood? Was I too damaged to ever be fixed? Am I really going insane? All these questions flooded my already anxious mind. But soon enough mid way through my first session I felt lighter. I was able to talk openly and earnestly about my condition and new diagnosis. I felt relief for the very first time in almost a year. On top of talking my way through the depressed life I was living due to my anxiety and OCD, the therapist introduced me to the idea of writing my way through it as well. This opened up a world of possibilities for me. EW was a new way for me to release my negative and often disturbing thoughts and allow it to transform itself out of my mind and onto the paper. I was given weekly homework assignments and told to keep a journal handy everywhere I went. I was to write expressively and freely about how I was doing emotionally. And also to keep a log of  my intrusive thoughts, what they were, when it happened and what I did to relieve the anxious feelings that followed. I was up for the challenge. Already having a deep and innate love for reading and writing sparked my interest even more. I was intrigued and ready to take on the world. For the first time in a long time I felt at peace.

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  1. Literature Review:

#1: Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity.

Alec J. Grant and Laetitia Zeeman’s article; Whose Story Is It? An Autoethnography Concerning Narrative Identity is divided into three parts. The first part outlines the historical, philosophical, theoretical and methodological contexts for the use of autoethnographic short stories in the social and human sciences. Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings. Autoethnography is a self-reflective form of writing used across various disciplines such as communication studies, performance studies, education, English literature, anthropology, social work, sociology, history, psychology, religious studies, marketing, business and educational administration, arts education, and physiotherapy. Autoethnography differs from ethnography, a social research method employed by anthropologists and sociologists, in that autoethnography embraces and foregrounds the researcher’s subjectivity rather than attempting to limit it, as in empirical research. 

What I like about this type of research method is that it embraces personal thoughts, feelings, stories, and observations as a way of understanding the social context they are studying, auto ethnographers are also shedding light on their total interaction with that setting by making their every emotion and thought visible to the reader. The article begins with Grant stating how a strong shift and change had been developing in research: “Emerging in the latter part of the 20th century, the “narrative turn” in the human sciences has increasingly challenged a single, monolithic conception of what should constitute scholarly work in favor of a developing pluralism. This has resulted in the promotion of multiple forms of representation and research, and a relative shift of focus from master narratives to local stories.” (Grant,1). The wave of change was going against what had been the norm in the past. The aloof researcher, the spectator who was distanced from his work. It was very much impersonal. Now the tide was changing into the researcher position becoming more engaged, aware, emotional and sharing personal antidotes. This is more relatable because like the article states we as human beings on this earth have shared experiences. We all have a unique story to tell. Autoethnographic story telling has important functions. It can be therapeutic for the storyteller to work through difficult times, events and issues in their lives. This also helps them build their authentic identities. Specifically, writing personal stories can be therapeutic for individuals as they make better sense of themselves or their experiences. It helps relieve them of their painful pasts and burdens, and determines what kind of lives they should live and want to live. 

Grant goes on to talk about Riemer who is a proponent of this method of research: “Riemer took researchers in the social sciences to task for too frequently neglecting the first-hand knowledge that they alone possess in the execution of their research ventures. Riemer argued that such researchers, including autoethnography, are well placed to write about their reflexive biographical engagement with culture, since they are, by definition, experts by experience. Equally, bearing in mind the relational, dialogic basis of stories, readers might be helped to make better sense of their own lives by locating themselves in relation to what they read.” (Reimer, 1977). I agree with this viewpoint. It’s all about making human connections, research should not just be about numbers, stats and graphs. This type of research makes it more relatable, more personal and to me, more believable. However like with all research methodologies autoethnography does have it’s critics who believe it is highly self indulgent and not a concrete or reliable form of qualitative research. Grant disagrees with the criticism and believes that all of us have similar experiences in life that we can make personal connections with and find meaning from. He says: “This leaves the self as a sociocultural rather than an autonomous phenomenon.” In the remainder of the article we read the short story of Alec Grant and his turbulent childhood. He details to us how his mother was mentally ill and unstable. His father was absent and his older siblings had left the home. He was the youngest and sadly was stuck in the home with his unstable mother. He recounts how numerous teachers ignored him and the situation he was living in. He never felt like he could trust them or confide in them. The one time he did he was ignored and nothing was done to help him. He recounts how he grew up feeling insecure, unworthy and socially inept. In his adulthood he was plagued with alcoholism, anxiety, and manic depression. We also learn his mother ended up taking her own life. 

It was also interesting to read how he requested some old artifacts from his old school and as he was looking through yearbooks and albums, he made note of the fact that everyone looked happy, content and as if they were living their best lives. But is that true? Grant says of his overall experience in writing and sharing the short story quote: “This pattern was to inform the story of who I was down the decades. However, in the space between then and now, in direct response to and in order to compensate for my early life experiences, I have managed to accumulate a range of narrative identity resources. These tell multiple success stories about me, and in my own terms, and can help me re-inscribe my past in sophisticated and, more importantly, self-compassionate and forgiving ways.” This is so powerful! Like he states he is telling his truths, in his own terms about his turbulent past, struggles and ultimately his successful future. This is where real connections can be made with others.

 The third and final part of the article concludes with an interview between the two authors. Laetitia Zeeman and Alec Grant. They engage in an open, honest dialogue about his short story, her reaction to it and about the research method of autoethnography. She mentions some of the pros and cons and asks him how he interprets it. He also talks about the importance of changing the status quo in research methodology. That’s what makes autoethnography different and important to the growing changes in the field and to the fast changing world around us. It’s pulling away from the rigid academic norms and the outdated conventional uses of the past. It embraces culture and activism and promotes change. It also encourages us all to use our unique voices in the process.

  1. Research Methods:
  • Subjects for Study: 

This research is an autoethnography, therefore I will be the subject of the study. Autoenthnograpghy is a qualitative approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno). (Ellis, 2004; Holman Jones, 2005). This approach challenges the established norms of doing research and representing others and treats research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act. Thus, as a method, autoethnography is both process and product. I will be the researcher who will use the doctrines of both autobiography and ethnography to do and write my own autoethnography. 

The purpose of my research is to focus on the positive effects that EW has had on me personally as a clinically diagnosed anxiety/OCD sufferer. I want my research to focus on the effectiveness that EW has had on alleviating the severity of my anxiety symptoms. It’s an ongoing journey but my pain has been eased through cognitive behavioral therapy and the writing skills I developed by putting EW into practice on a consistent weekly basis. I will also use scholarly peer reviewed articles and medical journals to support my research and that shows evidence to prove that EW does in fact work in alleviating anxiety and obsessive compulsive symptoms. 

My perspective and personal experience will be analyzed and added as essential information. Throughout my journey with anxiety I have seen several cognitive behavioral therapists who all encouraged me to buy a  journal, which I was instructed to keep with me at all times so that I can write down how I was feeling at any given moment throughout my day, and also to gauge how I was dealing with my intrusive thoughts. I also had to write down if I refrained from engaging in OCD rituals or not. So I kept a journal, I also was given homework which consisted of daily OCD logs which was a chart that I had to fill in daily to track my symptoms. I attended therapy sessions once a week and that’s when I would bring in my entries and discuss it with the therapist. It was also very helpful for self reflection and helping me to build my confidence in battling this disorder. There is no definitive timeline but I would say that in order to see whether EW works it will take about six months to a year of consistently writing and evaluating how you feel and the severity of your symptoms over time. 

Measurement: 

This research requires the use of a mixed methods approach. The key variables of the study are: 

Qualitative: Words have power and using words to heal is an effective tool in combating many major mental health disorders. Studies have shown that the physical act alone of writing, picking up the writing tool and pressing it to paper is in itself a therapeutic experience for some. Being able to free write and express yourself without worrying about the restrictions of grammar and spelling is a liberating feeling for people, especially those who have a hard time conveying their thoughts and feelings to a therapist or even a family member or friend in person because of shame or guilt. Sometimes writing it down is more effective than saying the actual words out loud.  

Taking an autoethnographic approach can help to draw on a subject’s written experience of particular situations and experiences to be interpreted. This method also proves usual in constructing a framework to understand observable written phenomenon and realities. Free writing and writing prompts is required for EW. Every week is broken down with a routine for encouragement. Time is designated each week to keep a daily journal. Also to include important information on the OCD log daily to keep track of intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. There were no time limits given to me for writing. I was instructed to free write expressively for as long as I desired. I would write expressively daily sometimes several times a day. Then once a week I would share my entries from the journal and OCD log with my therapist and we would go over and determine the results to see if I was in fact feeling emotionally more stable. Thus allowing me to live a normal life again.

I hope you all enjoyed my proposal! I look forward to reading yours! I also hope your all staying well and safe! I thought this Ted Talk was very informative and helps to highlight a lot of the benefits of expressive writing and helps to back my research! Xo.