Learning Beyond the Textbook

Instructors who stumble upon SAGrader for the first time are understandably skeptical that it can evaluate anything beyond keyword mentions.

Usually, I hear something like: “Sure, I believe that SAGrader can score specific content…but I don’t just want my students to parrot the textbook back to me. I don’t see how a machine can grade student understanding, like application of the material.

In terms of good teaching practices, these instructors are on the right track. They know learning isn’t just about memorization. It’s about internalizing information, combining it with other ideas and applying it to new circumstances. Asking students to apply what they learn also helps them see course concepts as relevant, and can go a long way to help student engagement.

And once they see it in action, these instructors realize that SAGrader can support this learning process. The key is to put some thought into how you construct your writing assignments. With a little creativity, you can build SAGrader assignments that move beyond factual recall and challenge students to pose an argument, make a comparison, synthesize material, and apply ideas to new situations.

You can use a number of different strategies to try to accomplish this.  Here are some of the ones that work well in different circumstances.

(1) Ask students for examples from their own lives.

Frame your prompt in terms of a personal experience, then ask students to reference the appropriate concepts as they discuss their personal example. SAGrader won’t be able to directly assess the relevance of the personal example (because the number of correct responses is infinite) but it can evaluate how well students frame their response. This gets students thinking in terms of application, even if you don’t assess the application directly.


For this assignment, you must violate a norm in a public setting. Make sure you violate a folkway, NOT a more. Describe the norm you violated. Explain what a norm is, and what type of norm you violated (should be a folkway). What do these terms mean? How did people respond. Were there positive or negative sanctions, or some of each? Describe how it made you feel. Would you say you have internalized this norm?

(2) Ask students for examples from a particular example text.

This might be a contrived example, a newspaper article, something downloaded from the Internet, or anything you want.  The key is that it be a specific text with examples students can use.  For example, you can give a vignette describing a hypothetical student and their daily life then ask students to use examples from that to illustrate their points in the essay.  This can work very well, particularly if you choose an engaging example. One sociology instructor asked students to read some personal ads on the internet, then discuss examples of identity, social statuses, roles, self-concept, etc.


The following is an excerpt from a life-history interview with a man named George. For this assignment, analyze this transcript, looking for portions of the life history that illustrate important concepts, issues, and/or theories related to socialization. For each issue, concept, or theory you detect in the life-history, make sure to include the specific quote that illustrates the socialization issue. [Include a vignette for students to read and discuss.]

(3) Ask students for examples from a well-known, commonly shared aspect of culture.

Have students respond to various cultural concepts at your school (sports, mascot, frats/sororities), a popular TV show, celebrities or a current news item.  Or link to a YouTube video and ask students to write about what they see. These resources help narrow the range of possible responses (which helps SAGrader grade), while still encouraging application of course material.


In this assignment, use the University as a case study for culture. For each cultural issue to be discussed, provide examples from your experiences in the University culture. Discuss at least three of the types or varieties of culture (for example sub-, high, and dominant cultures); differentiate between material and nonmaterial culture (also discuss norms and other elements of nonmaterial culture); describe culture and social change (such as cultural diffusion, integration, lag, and leveling, as well as global culture); and finally, discuss one of the common responses to cultural diversity.”

Hopefully, you’re beginning to get some ideas for assignments in your own class. The key is asking students to apply their knowledge to new situations — such as their personal lives or a hypothetical example — while ensuring that the range of possible answers is constrained enough for SAGrader.

When in doubt, ask the SAGrader team. We have a boatload of experience building SAGrader assignments that challenge students and maximize learning.

We love brainstorming assignment ideas with customers and try to take on as much of the workload as possible, leaving you free to, well…teach!

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