College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Estrem et al. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” WPA, Fall 2018. Posted 12/10/2018.

Estrem, Heidi, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman. “Reclaiming Writing Placement.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 42.1 (2018): 56-71. Print.

Heidi Estrem, Dawn Shepherd, and Samantha Sturman urge writing program administrators (WPAs) to deal with long-standing issues surrounding the placement of students into first-year writing courses by exploiting “fissures” (60) created by recent reform movements.

The authors note ongoing efforts by WPAs to move away from using single or even multiple test scores to determine which courses and how much “remediation” will best serve students (61). They particularly highlight “directed self-placement” (DSP) as first encouraged by Dan Royer and Roger Gilles in a 1998 article in College Composition and Communication (56). Despite efforts at individual institutions to build on DSP by using multiple measures, holistic as well as numerical, the authors write that “for most college students at most colleges and universities, test-based placement has continued” (57).

Estrem et al. locate this pressure to use test scores in the efforts of groups like Complete College America (CCA) and non-profits like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which “emphasize efficiency, reduced time to degree, and lower costs for students” (58). The authors contrast this “focus on degree attainment” with the field’s concern about “how to best capture and describe student learning” (61).

Despite these different goals, Estrem et al. recognize the problems caused by requiring students to take non-credit-bearing courses that do not address their actual learning needs (59). They urge cooperation, even if it is “uneasy,” with reform groups in order to advance improvements in the kinds of courses available to entering students (58). In their view, the impetus to reduce “remedial” coursework opens the door to advocacy for the kinds of changes writing professionals have long seen as serious solutions. Their article recounts one such effort in Idaho to use the mandate to end remediation as it is usually defined and replace it with a more effective placement model (60).

The authors note that CCA calls for several “game changers” in student progress to degree. Among these are the use of more “corequisite” courses, in which students can earn credit for supplemental work, and “multiple measures” (59, 61). Estrem et al. find that calls for these game changers open the door for writing professionals to introduce innovative courses and options, using evidence that they succeed in improving student performance and retention, and to redefine “multiple measures” to include evidence such as portfolio submissions (60-61).

Moreover, Estrem et al. find three ways in which WPAs can respond to specific calls from reform movements in ways that enhance student success. First, they can move to create new placement processes that enable students to pass their first-year courses more consistently, thus responding to concerns about costs to students (62); second, they can provide data on increased retention, which speaks to time to degree; and finally, they can recognize a current “vacuum” in the “placement test market” (62-63). They note that ACT’s Compass is no longer on the market; with fewer choices, institutions may be open to new models. The authors contend that these pressures were not as exigent when directed self-placement was first promoted. The existence of such new contexts, they argue, provides important and possibly short-lived opportunities (63).

The authors note the growing movement to provide college courses to students while they are in high school (62). Despite the existence of this model for lowering the cost and time to degree, Estrem et al. argue that the first-year experience is central to student success in college regardless of students’ level when they enter, and that placing students accurately during this first college exposure can have long-lasting effects (63).

Acknowledging that individual institutions must develop tools that work in their specific contexts, Estrem et al. present “The Write Class,” their new placement tool. The Write Class is “a web application that uses an algorithm to match students with a course based on the information they provide” (64). Students are asked a set of questions, beginning with demographics. A “second phase,” similar to that in Royer and Gilles’s original model, asks for “reflection” on students’ reading and writing habits and attitudes, encouraging, among other results, student “metaawareness” about their own literacy practices (65).

The third phase provides extensive information about the three credit-bearing courses available to entering students: the regular first-year course in which most students enroll; a version of this course with an additional workshop hour with the instructor in a small group setting; or a second-semester research-based course (64). The authors note that the courses are given generic names, such as “Course A,” to encourage students to choose based on the actual course materials and their self-analysis rather than a desire to get into or dodge specific courses (65).

Finally, students are asked to take into account “the context of their upcoming semester,” including the demands they expect from family and jobs (65). With these data, the program advises students on a “primary and secondary placement,” for some including the option to bypass the research course through test scores and other data (66).

In the authors’ view, the process has a number of additional benefits that contribute to student success. Importantly, they write, the faculty are able to reach students prior to enrollment and orientation rather than find themselves forced to deal with placement issues after classes have started (66). Further, they can “control the content and the messaging that students receive” regarding the writing program and can respond to concerns across campus (67). The process makes it possible to have “meaningful conversation[s]” with students who may be concerned about their placement results; in addition, access to the data provided by the application allows the WPAs to make necessary adjustments (67-68).

Overall, the authors present a student’s encounter with their placement process as “a pedagogical moment” (66), in which the focus moves from “getting things out of the way” to “starting a conversation about college-level work and what it means to be a college student” (68). This shift, they argue, became possible through rhetorically savvy conversations that took advantage of calls for reform; by “demonstrating how [The Write Class process] aligned with this larger conversation,” the authors were able to persuade administrators to adopt the kinds of concrete changes WPAs and writing scholars have long advocated (66).


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Comer and White. MOOC Assessment. CCC, Feb. 2016. Posted 04/18/2016.

Comer, Denise K., and Edward M. White. “Adventuring into MOOC Writing Assessment: Challenges, Results, and Possibilities.” College Composition and Communication 67.3 (2016): 318-59. Print.

Denise K. Comer and Edward M. White explore assessment in the “first-ever first-year-writing MOOC,” English Composition I: Achieving Expertise, developed under the auspices of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Duke University, and Coursera (320). Working with “a team of more than twenty people” with expertise in many areas of literacy and online education, Comer taught the course (321), which enrolled more than 82,000 students, 1,289 of whom received a Statement of Accomplishment indicating a grade of 70% or higher. Nearly 80% of the students “lived outside the United States” and for a majority, English was not the first language, although 59% of these said they were “proficient or fluent in written English” (320). Sixty-six percent had bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

White designed and conducted the assessment, which addressed concerns about MOOCs as educational options. The authors recognize MOOCs as “antithetical” (319) to many accepted principles in writing theory and pedagogy, such as the importance of interpersonal instructor/student interaction (319), the imperative to meet the needs of a “local context” (Brian Huot, qtd. in Comer and White 325) and a foundation in disciplinary principles (325). Yet the authors contend that as “MOOCs are persisting,” refusing to address their implications will undermine the ability of writing studies specialists to influence practices such as Automated Essay Scoring, which has already been attempted in four MOOCs (319). Designing a valid assessment, the authors state, will allow composition scholars to determine how MOOCs affect pedagogy and learning (320) and from those findings to understand more fully what MOOCs can accomplish across diverse populations and settings (321).

Comer and White stress that assessment processes extant in traditional composition contexts can contribute to a “hybrid form” applicable to the characteristics of a MOOC (324) such as the “scale” of the project and the “wide heterogeneity of learners” (324). Models for assessment in traditional environments as well as online contexts had to be combined with new approaches that addressed the “lack of direct teacher feedback and evaluation and limited accountability for peer feedback” (324).

For Comer and White, this hybrid approach must accommodate the degree to which the course combined the features of an “xMOOC” governed by a traditional academic course design with those of a “cMOOC,” in which learning occurs across “network[s]” through “connections” largely of the learners’ creation (322-23).

Learning objectives and assignments mirrored those familiar to compositionists, such as the ability to “[a]rgue and support a position” and “[i]dentify and use the stages of the writing process” (323). Students completed four major projects, the first three incorporating drafting, feedback, and revision (324). Instructional videos and optional workshops in Google Hangouts supported assignments like discussion forum participation, informal contributions, self-reflection, and peer feedback (323).

The assessment itself, designed to shed light on how best to assess such contexts, consisted of “peer feedback and evaluation,” “Self-reflection,” three surveys, and “Intensive Portfolio Rating” (325-26).

The course supported both formative and evaluative peer feedback through “highly structured rubrics” and extensive modeling (326). Students who had submitted drafts each received responses from three other students, and those who submitted final drafts received evaluations from four peers on a 1-6 scale (327). The authors argue that despite the level of support peer review requires, it is preferable to more expert-driven or automated responses because they believe that

what student writers need and desire above all else is a respectful reader who will attend to their writing with care and respond to it with understanding of its aims. (327)

They found that the formative review, although taken seriously by many students, was “uneven,” and students varied in their appreciation of the process (327-29). Meanwhile, the authors interpret the evaluative peer review as indicating that “student writing overall was successful” (330). Peer grades closely matched those of the expert graders, and, while marginally higher, were not inappropriately high (330).

The MOOC provided many opportunities for self-reflection, which the authors denote as “one of the richest growth areas” (332). They provide examples of student responses to these opportunities as evidence of committed engagement with the course; a strong desire for improvement; an appreciation of the value of both receiving and giving feedback; and awareness of opportunities for growth (332-35). More than 1400 students turned in “final reflective essays” (335).

Self-efficacy measures revealed that students exhibited an unexpectedly high level of confidence in many areas, such as “their abilities to draft, revise, edit, read critically, and summarize” (337). Somewhat lower confidence levels in their ability to give and receive feedback persuade the authors that a MOOC emphasizing peer interaction served as an “occasion to hone these skills” (337). The greatest gain occurred in this domain.

Nine “professional writing instructors” (339) assessed portfolios for 247 students who had both completed the course and opted into the IRB component (340). This assessment confirmed that while students might not be able to “rely consistently” on formative peer review, peer evaluation could effectively supplement expert grading (344).

Comer and White stress the importance of further research in a range of areas, including how best to support effective peer response; how ESL writers interact with MOOCs; what kinds of people choose MOOCs and why; and how MOOCs might function in WAC/WID situations (344-45).

The authors stress the importance of avoiding “extreme concluding statements” about the effectiveness of MOOCs based on findings such as theirs (346). Their study suggests that different learners valued the experience differently; those who found it useful did so for varied reasons. Repeating that writing studies must take responsibility for assessment in such contexts, they emphasize that “MOOCs cannot and should not replace face-to-face instruction” (346; emphasis original). However, they contend that even enrollees who interacted briefly with the MOOC left with an exposure to writing practices they would not have gained otherwise and that the students who completed the MOOC satisfactorily amounted to more students than Comer would have reached in 53 years teaching her regular FY sessions (346).

In designing assessments, the authors urge, compositionists should resist the impulse to focus solely on the “Big Data” produced by assessments at such scales (347-48). Such a focus can obscure the importance of individual learners who, they note, “bring their own priorities, objectives, and interests to the writing MOOC” (348). They advocate making assessment an activity for the learners as much as possible through self-reflection and through peer interaction, which, when effectively supported, “is almost as useful to students as expert response and is crucial to student learning” (349). Ultimately, while the MOOC did not succeed universally, it offered many students valuable writing experiences (346).


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Addison, Joanne. Common Core in College Classrooms. Journal of Writing Assessment, Nov. 2015. Posted 12/03/2015.

Addison, Joanne. “Shifting the Locus of Control: Why the Common Core State Standards and Emerging Standardized Tests May Reshape College Writing Classrooms.” Journal of Writing Assessment 8.1 (2015): 1-11. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Joanne Addison offers a detailed account of moves by testing companies and philanthropists to extend the influence of the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) to higher education. Addison reports that these entities are building “networks of influence” (1) that will shift agency from teachers and local institutions to corporate interests. She urges writing professionals to pay close attention to this movement and to work to retain and restore teacher control over writing instruction.

Addison writes that a number of organizations are attempting to align college writing instruction with the CCSS movement currently garnering attention in K-12 institutions. This alignment, she documents, is proceeding despite criticisms of the Common Core Standards for demanding skills that are “not developmentally appropriate,” for ignoring crucial issues like “the impact of poverty on educational opportunity,” and for the “massive increase” in investment in and reliance on standardized testing (1). But even if these challenges succeed in scaling back the standards, she contends, too many teachers, textbooks, and educational practices will have been influenced by the CCSSI for its effects to dissipate entirely (1). Control of professional development practices by corporations and specific philanthropies, in particular, will link college writing instruction to the Common Core initiative (2).

Addison connects the investment in the Common Core to the “accountability movement” (2) in which colleges are expected to demonstrate the “value added” by their offerings as students move through their curriculum (5). Of equal concern, in Addison’s view, is the increasing use of standardized test scores in college admissions and placement; she notes, for example, “640 colleges and universities” in her home state of Colorado that have “committed to participate” in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) by using standardized tests created by the organization in admissions and placement; she points to an additional 200 institutions that have agreed to use a test generated by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) (2).

In her view, such commitments are problematic not only because they use single-measure tools rather than more comprehensive, pedagogically sound decision-making protocols but also because they result from the efforts of groups like the English Language Arts Work Group for CCSSI, the membership of which is composed of executives from testing companies, supplemented with only one “retired English professor” and “[e]xactly zero practicing teachers” (3).

Addison argues that materials generated by organizations committed to promoting the CCSSI show signs of supplanting more pedagogically sound initiatives like NCTE’s Read-Write-Think program (4). To illustrate how she believes the CCSSI has challenged more legitimate models of professional development, she discusses the relationship between CCSSI-linked coalitions and the National Writing Project.

She writes that in 2011, funds for the National Writing Project were shifted to the president’s Race to the Top (3). Some funding was subsequently restored, but grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation specifically supported National Writing Project sites that worked with an entity called the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) to promote the use of the Common Core Standards in assignment design and to require the use of a “jurying rubric ” intended to measure the fit with the Standards in evaluating student work (National Writing Project, 2014, qtd. in Addison 4). According to Addison, “even the briefest internet search reveals a long list of school districts, nonprofits, unions, and others that advocate the LDC approach to professional development” (4). Addison contends that teachers have had little voice in developing these course-design and assessment tools and are unable, under these protocols, to refine instruction and assessment to fit local needs (4).

Addison expresses further concern about the lack of teacher input in the design, administration, and weight assigned to the standardized testing used to measure “value added” and thus hold teachers and institutions accountable for student success. A number of organizations largely funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation promote the use of “performance-based” standardized tests given to entering college students and again to seniors (5-6). One such test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), is now used by “700 higher education institutions” (5). Addison notes that nine English professors were among the 32 college professors who worked on the development and use of this test; however, all were drawn from “CLA Performance Test Academies” designed to promote the “use of performance-based assessments in the classroom,” and the professors’ specialties were not provided (5-6).

A study conducted using a similar test, the Common Core State Standards Validation Assessment (CCSSAV) indicated that the test did provide some predictive power, but high-school GPA was a better indicator of student success in higher education (6). In all, Addison reports four different studies that similarly found that the predictor of choice was high-school GPA, which, she says, improves on the snapshot of a single moment supplied by a test, instead measuring a range of facets of student abilities and achievements across multiple contexts (6).

Addison attributes much of the movement toward CCSSI-based protocols to the rise of “advocacy philanthropy,” which shifts giving from capital improvements and research to large-scale reform movements (7). While scholars like Cassie Hall see some benefits in this shift, for example in the ability to spotlight “important problems” and “bring key actors together,” concerns, according to Addison’s reading of Hall, include

the lack of external accountability, stifling innovation (and I would add diversity) by offering large-scale, prescriptive grants, and an unprecedented level of influence over state and government policies. (7)

She further cites Hall’s concern that this shift will siphon money from “field-initiated academic research” and will engender “a growing lack of trust in higher education” that will lead to even more restrictions on teacher agency (7).

Addison’s recommendations for addressing the influx of CCSSI-based influences include aggressively questioning our own institutions’ commitments to facets of the initiative, using the “15% guideline” within which states can supplement the Standards, building competing coalitions to advocate for best practices, and engaging in public forums, even where such writing is not recognized in tenure-and-promotion decisions, to “place teachers’ professional judgment at the center of education and help establish them as leaders in assessment” (8). Such efforts, in her view, must serve the effort to identify assessment as a tool for learning rather than control (7-8).

Access this article at http://journalofwritingassessment.org/article.php?article=82