Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment & Accreditation


An example of closing the loop...and ideas for doing it well

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I was intrigued by an article in the September 23, 2016, issue of Inside Higher Ed titled “When a C Isn’t Good Enough.” The University of Arizona found that students who earned an A or B in their first-year writing classes had a 67% chance of graduating, but those earning a C had only a 48% chance. The university is now exploring a variety of ways to improve the success of students earning a C, including requiring C students to take a writing competency test, providing resources to C students, and/or requiring C students to repeat the course.


I know nothing about the University of Arizona beyond what’s in the article. But if I were working with the folks there, I’d offer the following ideas to them, if they haven’t considered them already.


1. I’d like to see more information on why the C students earned a C. Which writing skills did they struggle most with: basic grammar, sentence structure, organization, supporting arguments with evidence, etc.? Or was there another problem? For example, maybe C students were more likely to hand in assignments late (or not at all).


2. I’d also like to see more research on why those C students were less likely to graduate. How did their GPAs compare to A and B students? If their grades were worse, what kinds of courses seemed to be the biggest challenge for them? Within those courses, what kinds of assignments were hardest for them? Why did they earn a poor grade on them? What writing skills did they struggle most with: basic grammar, organization, supporting arguments with evidence, etc.? Or, again, maybe there was another problem, such as poor self-discipline in getting work handed in on time.


And if their GPAs were not that different from those of A and B students (or even if they were), what else was going on that might have led them to leave? The problem might not be their writing skills per se. Perhaps, for example, that students with work or family obligations found it harder to devote the study time necessary to get good grades. Providing support for that issue might help more than helping them with their writing skills.


3. I’d also like to see the faculty responsible for first-year writing articulate a clear, appropriate, and appropriately rigorous standard for earning a C. In other words, they could use the above information on the kinds and levels of writing skills that students need to succeed in subsequent courses to articulate the minimum performance levels required to earn a C. (When I taught first-year writing at a public university in Maryland, the state system had just such a statement, the “Maryland C Standard.”)


4. I’d like to see the faculty adopt a policy that, in order to pass first-year writing, students must meet the minimum standard of every writing criterion. Thus, if student work is graded using a rubric, the grade isn’t determined by averaging the scores on various rubric criteria—that lets a student with A arguments but F grammar earn a C with failing grammar. Instead, students must earn at least a C on every rubric criterion in order to pass the assignment. Then the As, Bs, and Cs can be averaged into an overall grade for the assignment.


(If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, what I’m suggesting is the essence of competency-based education: students need to demonstrate competence on all learning goals and objectives in order to pass a course or graduate. Failure to achieve one goal or objective can’t be offset by strong performance on another.)


5. If they haven’t done so already, I’d also like to see the faculty responsible for first-year writing adopt a common rubric, articulating the criteria they’ve identified, that would be used to assess and grade the final assignment in every section, no matter who teaches it. This would make it easy to study student performance across all sections of the course and identify pervasive strengths and weaknesses in their writing. If some faculty members or TAs have additional grading criteria, they could simply add those to the common rubric. For example, I graded my students on their use of citation conventions, even though that was not part of the Maryland C Standard. I added that to the bottom of my rubric.


6. Because work habits are essential to success in college, I’d also suggest making this a separate learning outcome for first-year writing courses. This means grading students separately on whether they turn in work on time, put in sufficient effort, etc. This would help everyone understand why some students fail to graduate—is it because of poor writing skills, poor work habits, or both?


These ideas all move responsibility for addressing the problem from administrators to the faculty. That responsibility can’t be fulfilled unless the faculty commit to collaborating on identifying and implementing a shared strategy so that every student, no matter which section of writing they enroll in, passes the course with the skills needed for subsequent success.


Categories: Practical Tips

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