We commend Nicholas Dion and Vicky Maldonado for calling for assessments of university students’ writing (“We need to assess student literacy skills”) in University Affairs. We agree with their argument that without these assessments, universities will face budget cuts and students have no way of proving their worth as writers. However, we disagree that entrance testing at the university level will contribute to solving this problem.
In a series of conferences we’ve organized in Alberta over the last two years, we have talked with more than 100 high school teachers, university instructors and administrators about the transition from high school writing to university writing. One clear finding from these conversations is that testing – at least, the large scale “standards-based” testing suggested by Dion and Maldonado – is not the answer.
The problem with this type of writing assessment is that it is built upon the mistaken idea that knowledge about writing is a-contextual: that the ability to compose in an artificial, time-constrained, impromptu testing situation can generalize to writing across other tasks in other contexts. Decades of research shows us that writing ability is highly contextualized and that what constitutes “good writing” differs widely from discipline to discipline. The skills needed to write a polished first draft in an exam situation are very different from the skills required to understand and respond to the values and expectations of the academic communities that students are writing themselves into.
Research into the consequences of large-scale writing assessment on education in Canada has shown that, given the stakes associated with them, these assessments focus students on developing the limited skill sets required for success on these exams, rather than on developing the broader set of skills and understandings necessary for success at the postsecondary level. As a consequence, too many students leave high school believing (because this is what preparing for the standardized writing tests has taught them) that their mastery of the five-paragraph essay has set them up for success in their university writing. Many of them struggle when they find out that this is not the case.
In their first year of university, students are likely to face a wide array of writing tasks (see the chart below). Few of these writing tasks were taught in high school courses. A student taking a five-course load at university could easily write 10 to 15 assignments per term, or 20 to 30 documents in first year. Many of these types of assignments will be new to them, so a crucial “literacy skill” will be to decode the instructions they receive for the assignments and then marshal the appropriate resources to complete these various tasks.
The specific tools they will need include library research skills and citation or referencing system knowledge – skills usually developed at university. They will also need to read quickly and deeply before transforming what they have read into knowledge appropriate for their course of study; to some extent this skill will be developed before they enter university.
As they progress through their degrees, the nature, number and kind of assignments they are asked to complete will become more complex, more varied and situated in a field of knowledge. To some extent, their instructors and their departments will furnish this knowledge; libraries, writing centres and, to a lesser extent, writing courses will also help them learn to create these documents.
At present, few universities assess the writing of their students when they graduate. In some isolated instances (the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication program at Western University, for example), students must complete a portfolio of their written work as part of a capstone exercise. Unlike the standardized assessments recommended by Dion and Maldonado, this type of writing assessment reflects the contextualized nature of writing. Designed well, these assessments encourage students to develop the skills and understandings they need for the academic or professional communities they are studying to enter.
These written portfolios serve important purposes: they provide qualitative proof of the writing ability of the student who produced them; and the documents can form part of the basis for employment interviews and graduate school applications. More importantly, they are a very good assessment of how well that student can use language to communicate with various audiences.
Some writing assignments in the first year
|Liberal arts||Political science||Service-learning||Nursing||PE|
|Average # of writing assignments per first-year course||3||1.4||10||3.4||2.5|
Roger Graves is director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Alberta. David Slomp is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Lethbridge.