Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It's Difficult to Assess Student Writing

For the past year I've participated on my university's assessment committee. Although most universities struggle with assessment I think my university has some unique challenges. My university is currently upper division, possibly the only university left that begins at the junior level (although we're just beginning a year long campus debate over the merits of becoming a 4-year institution). The university's regional accrediting organization recently told us that we are still responsible for undergraduate student learning outcomes such as writing, critical thinking, etc.

Beginning with the assessment committee took a commonly used rubric from AAC&U and first decided to use the rubric to assess a small sample of student papers from different disciplines such as education, english, psychology, and business. As a business professor I found the task intriguing but difficult. I am not a writing professor and found it impossible to distinguish between criteria such as understanding audience vs. context vs. purpose vs. task vs. focus. It was a bit easier to assess content development and content syntax/usage/mechanics.  It was interesting and challenging to assess quality and quantity of sources used for a personal reflection paper such as a student's philosophy of teaching statement.

Assessment is an uncomfortable and humbling process. When working with my peers from my own college and also from other disciplines including english (literature and composition), nursing, psychology, chemistry, and business, we all expressed the same concerns about rating the papers totally different from the others. The papers were anonymous, but it was easy to figure out a paper was from an english course when it connected everything to Wuthering Heights. I was a bit nervous that my ratings would reveal that I am either a pushover, too tough, or, more worrisome, an incompetent instructor?

One of the papers was a competitive analysis of a specific industry, and I rated it as fairly well written across all criteria, addressing each of Porter's competitive forces.  As least one rater assessed it as totally unacceptable on most criteria. I am most comfortable in providing students with feedback on executive summaries, memos, white papers, case analyses, project proposals, RFPs, requirements documentation, or pure academic research papers. 

To be continued...

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