Saturday, September 29, 2012

Placement Essays: What Makes a "College-Level" Writer?

Aside from being an adjunct professor, I have spent the last 4 years consulting at writing centers. 3 out of those 4 years have been spent at a moderately-sized public university. The writing center there is fairly new, growing out of the ashes of an older, less successful writing center initiative, and has made wonderful strides. While it isn't very big, it makes great use of it's limited resources and has built a strong reputation on campus.

At this center, we often see FYW students. In the fall, we see the biggest rush, especially at the beginning, just after the placement essays are due. While I love working with FYW students, I admit that this is my least favorite type of session, and this is mostly because of the questions asked in these placement exams. For the three years I have worked at this writing center, the questions have been, in my opinion, far too complex for the task. It leaves me wondering what exactly a "college-level" writer looks like. What does one need to do before she/he can be considered proficient?

The Good Stuff

What I do love about the university's approach is that they don't simply rely on standardized test scores to place students. Students are initially placed into courses based on those scores, but through the placement essay, the department is given the chance to reassess the students' writing abilities. Instructors also team up to make decisions about moving students up or down in the writing class ranks (students must take 2 writing courses, but there is a 3rd for-credit basic writing course available for those who need some extra practice). It is clearly stated that no student will be moved without the evaluation of a writing sample by the FYW department. I believe this approach works well and helps students to be placed where they can be most successful.

The Bad

As I said earlier, however, the placement essay requires an essay question, and this is where I believe the department has failed. In their desire to push students into intellectual conversations, the questions become overly complex. Some of the questions have been loaded, some of them have been too narrow in scope, and others have simply asked too many questions for the short 2-3 page length.

They have asked questions that require students to go outside the scope of the materials given to them, but do not allow students to use outside sources.

College-Level Writing

Those of us who teach, though, know how tricky it can be to ask the "right" types of questions. Assignment development is a difficult task. When writing an assignment, however, the assignment should be shaped around a set of goals-- usually what you want a student to learn, but in this case, displaying a students' potential for success in FYW.

The question is, then, what exactly should a writing program look for when they are aiming to place students? In his (really useful) essay "What is 'Academic' Writing?'" L. Lennie Irvin cites the three characteristics of academic writing, as suggested by George Mason University. They are:
1. Clear evidence in writing that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study. (5)
2. The dominance of reason over emotions or sensual perception. (5)
3. An imagined reader who is coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response. (7)
I think this is a reasonable, well-informed description of what makes something "academic" writing at the college level, especially in a FYW course. However, many of these placement essays do not gauge students' abilities to use these skills or their potential to develop them throughout the course of a semester.

Of course, that success is typically determined through grades. At my current place of work, the definition of an "A" paper is:
Outstanding Work An A paper presents interesting, insightful ideas.  There is a clear focus (thesis, controlling idea) which is developed in an organized, concise, logical manner.  Unified and coherent paragraphs include specific, relevant supporting evidence and examples.  Sentences are varied and well constructed.  Word choices are precise, fresh,  and vivid.  There are virtually no errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, or usage.  Research, if used, is thorough, accurately documented, and effectively integrated.
I feel that one could accurately assess these qualities without giving super-complicated prompts. While I understand that college is a time to engage in deep analysis and critical thinking, I don't think it does any student good to be placed down and have their confidence shattered because they were asked to think about a question that is simply complex for the sake of being complex. Sometimes, students (myself included) need to talk about readings before they fully understand the concepts, for example.

The idea is to assess potential, not engage in "a-ha gotchya" moments. We want students to succeed. That's why we're trying to place them appropriately. Not to make money. Not to show how clever we are. Not to show how "intellectual" our writing program is. We are doing it for students.

Bad Examples

In case you can't tell if the placement question is too complex, here are some guidelines:
  • You get a lot of essays that do not answer the question.
  • There is no possible way to answer the question without making use of outside sources (with the exception, perhaps, of an assigned reading).
  • The faculty cannot agree on the meaning of the question.
  • The staff at the writing center is confused about how to help students because they do not understand what the question is asking.
  • The whole placement essay is written in 45 minutes, and there is no drafting process.
Better Criteria
Here are some criteria that I believe could help improve placement essay assignments:
  • Form a committee to come up with a question. If the writing center works closely with First Year Writing, include writing center staff in the committee.
  • Ask questions that are open-ended and have no "correct" answer.
  • Avoid "social justice" as a goal or questions that set them up to make value judgments. Odds are that the professors are looking for PC answers and have some notion of correctness as far as the topic is concerned. This limits the students' ability to speak freely or think deeply. Society has already prescribed an answer.
  • Some good alternatives to the typical literature-based essay: Literacy narratives ask writers to consider audience and purpose. They're one easy way to assess a writer's voice, ability to organize, and ability to consider audience. Ad or digital identity analysis requires writers to think critically, describe carefully, and organize their thoughts logically. It is, perhaps, more academic than a literacy narrative. Proposals can easily demonstrate a student's ability to consider tone, audience, and logical organization, as well. You could give them a reading that gives a problem, and ask them to propose a solution.
  • Think about contexts-- what are the needs of the program, the students, the university, and the local community? 
In the end, there are many writing prompts that would enable students to be successfully placed, and I believe there is nothing inherently wrong with assigning a placement essay. We do need to make sure students are getting the writing instructor they deserve, even if that means they must be moved up or down a level. We should be willing to take the time to think about what is important to our program and our students, though, in doing so. This requires a feedback process for the development of placement essays, a unified understanding of what the task requires across faculty, topics that encourage students to consider many aspects of the rhetorical situation, and open conversations with students about the purposes for placement essays.

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