Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Ideas in Practice: Assessing Writing in the Developmental Classroom

Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Ideas in Practice: Assessing Writing in the Developmental Classroom

Article excerpt

Many instructors, as well as some professionals in the assessment community, define writing as a skill with teachable parts which produces a measurable product. Perhaps because of this view of writing, we find instructors in the college developmental writing classroom who may do their students more harm than good when, in addition to the obligatory grade, they attach comments that are arbitrary and unclear. To cope better with this problem, it is necessary to examine the various assessment procedures in order to determine which method of assessment is most beneficial to the basic writing student and to the instructor responsible for assigning the writing grade. This inquiry compares numerous methods of informal and formal classroom writing assessment and also examines the troublesome aspect of assigning a grade to student writing.

Since assessment procedures affect students more than is sometimes apparent, it would be helpful to consider the features of assessment that most likely serve to improve student writing. The following criteria, determined by a joint task force on assessment made up of representatives from the International Reading Association and the National Classroom Teachers of English (IRA & NCTE Joint Task Force, 1994), can serve as a starting point. 1 . Any assessment measure used should encourage students to think about their own writing in productive ways, such as evaluating their own growth and setting goals for improvement. The wording of comments should motivate students to want to revise. 2. Feedback given to student writers should be stated in terms of what they can do, not in terms of what they failed to do. It has become commonplace for writing teachers to mark everything that is wrong with the student's essay with little emphasis on how to improve it. 3. And, of course, an underlying aspect of any assessment should be that it must yield high quality results. Whether a group of peers, the classroom instructor, or a panel of experts judge these results, the writing must be held to a high standard.

Informal Assessment

With these criteria in mind, an examination of various informal assessments is appropriate. Often informal procedures, without grades attached, are the least threatening and, thus, the most productive within a writing workshop environment. The instructor's role in the workshop format should be well defined since this is the person who designs assignments to motivate student writing and, in the process, should tie the curriculum into assessment theory. For example, the Conference on College Composition and Communication's Committee on Assessment (CCCC, 1996) recommends that a constant eye should be kept on curriculum content to determine when revision is appropriate and the instructor should integrate ongoing research in the field of writing assessment. Overall, it is best if instructors view themselves as facilitators who help students recognize problems and improve their own writing. Instructor response, self-assessment, and peer assessment can all be used as informal appraisal measures to evaluate student writing on a regular basis.

Instructor Response

Edward White (1994), leading assessment specialist, encourages instructors to look for opportunities to give meaningful praise when responding to student work. Generic, vague compliments can have a negative effect, however, since they are viewed as being passed out freely to all. White (1994) encourages instructors to mark the clearest and most inventive sentence in the essay. When commenting on essays, he points out that questions often work better than statements since the latter can be interpreted as authoritative dictates. Questions are more apt to inspire students to think about what they know and are learning about writing. Instructor responses should also encourage risk-taking in early drafts. Trying out an idea or an argument that is new, different, or unusual can be exciting for beginning writers. …

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