Writing and Assessment

Once Upon a TimeI spoke to my wife recently about writing instruction and assessment. Her PhD is in rhetoric and composition, but she managed to flee to the literature side of English after finding that writing instruction is often regarded as non-academic, non-important women’s work. Our short-hand term for this kind of phenomenon is toilet cleaning — no one pays any attention to the people who clean the bathrooms until the day the bathrooms aren’t clean, and it’s the cleaners who get blamed rather than the people who made the bathrooms dirty in the first place. In regards to writing, it’s the faculty attitude of “my students can’t write, I’m too busy teaching important stuff to waste time teaching writing, why can’t the English department do its job?” Meanwhile programs in writing instruction are frequently headed by staff rather than full-time faculty, people who are regarded as lesser forms of life no matter how effective they might be, and writing tutors are graduate students or even undergraduates who lack the most rudimentary pedagogical training. The message for students and faculty is that writing instruction is too unimportant for the real professors to bother with.

Students’ grammar, punctuation, and spelling will improve with instruction, and assessment of these basic writing skills across large numbers of students is relatively easy to implement. For example, Turnitin.com has an automated grammar checker that can be used as a rough assessment mechanism. Alternatively, students can be assigned the task of writing a paragraph in a specified format, and the results can be checked against a simple rubric without too much effort.

The larger problem comes with trying to efficiently assess higher order writing skills, because as my wife puts it, good thinking precedes good writing, and sloppy thinkers will invariably produce sloppy writing. Ideally students would finish high school proficient in basic writing mechanics so college-level instruction could focus on the development of more complex forms of thinking and writing, especially within the context of a student’s chosen major, but that hasn’t been possible at most institutions since the adoption of the post-secondary education open-enrollment paradigm in the USA several decades ago. And trying to quantitatively assess complex thinking, as evidenced by writing, in a manner that is valid and reliable enough for longitudinal measurement of student progress is a big complex mess.

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