Barbara Walvoord on Assessment and WAC

Today, I attended the New Vistas: WAC/WID Conference at Quinnipiac University (the meeting of the Northeast Writing Across the Curriculum Consortium).

Barbara Walvoord, one of the founding mothers of the WAC movement, gave the keynote address, “How to Assess and Improve Student Writing in Classrooms, Departments, and Institutions.”  Walvoord stressed three main elements of WAC Assessment –  Goals, Information, and Action.
Below are my notes from the talk.  I apologize for the strange bulleting, which occured as I converted my notes from Evernote to WordPress.
  • Retired from Notre Dame
  • Working on a book, Josey-Bass, same title as the talk
  • WAC/WID are different now than they were in the 70s and 80s when some programs were started
  • Now we have Assessment (capital A); a strong national higher education reform movement; has captured the attention of accreditation institutions, which places it outside of the institution (and they can force us to do it)
  • WAC is a reform movement in a sociological sense
  • Assessment has possibilities, but also causes alarm
  • Most useful question to ask: What do we need to work on?  Look at students’ work as they walk out the door [graduate] and see what you need to work on – it doesn’t really matter what they knew when they walked in the door – it matters what they know (or don’t know) when they walk out the door
  • GOALS, INFORMATION, ACTION (many programs get to wrapped up in data and then don’t act on it)
  • Articulate goals for student writing (these options below are broad, yet helpful – cannot be used exactly but can be adapted at the classroom and disciplinary level)
    • WPAcouncil.org/positions/outcomes.html
    • AACU.org/value/rubrics/WrittenCommunication
    • individual faculty, programs, department
    • Combat myths (like, writing = grammar)
  • Gather information (data)
    • Direct Assessment
      • Standardized tests
      • Readers score papers or portfolios
    • Indirect Assessment
      • Student self-report
      • Document use of instructor and/or student actions, beliefs, etc, that research has linked to learning (done by Pew, for example)
    • Direct assessment will be valued over indirect
    • e-portfolios “That is the way to the swamp”
    • Assessing writing across the curriculum
      • Keep purpose clear – what do I need to know and why?
      • Is this work valid at measuring what we’re trying to capture
      • Is it reliable? (you cannot have interdisciplinary faculty reading/scoring interdisciplinary work – no inter-rater reliability [80% is standard for publication])
  • Cannot mount a new program that will affect the results of standardized tests – it will not work!
  • What will work (by using standardized tests results) — (cites Stuart Greene’s longitudinal study of 25 students through 4 years at Notre Dame by collecting all of their writing — they wrote a report indicating that students were not doing enough writing and the writing wasn’t demanding enough — check into this)  (question for IUP – what do our NSSE reports say about student perceptions of writing?)
    • identify a specific problem
    • get people’s attention
    • focus resources
  • Draw on faculty members (Which learning goals are most difficult for your students?  Which should the institution work on?) — phrase questions to focus on students, not on what the faculty are/aren’t doing, to ask in a non-threatening way
  • What does it mean to “work on writing”
    • define it more narrowly? (grammar, source use, etc)
    • consult the literature; it tell us:
      • students develop as writers when they
        • believe that writing is important
        • believe they can learn to write effectively
        • use effective writing processes
        • write often with effective guidance
        • develop meta-cognition and strategies that encourage transfer
      • how do students develop as writers?  what methods can help them? –> your best chance of improving student writing is to make these things happen in as many classes as possible
  • Acting on the data
    • intensive work with faculty
    • institutional action (rewards, incentives, workload, freedom from punishment by student evaluations)
    • intensive work with student cultures
    • a system of reporting, aggregating, and disseminating results of actions
    • Actions are unlikely to change results on a national standardized test, but they CAN change student written products, processes, and attitudes in individual classes, major programs, gen ed program, etc
    • You then also have to assess the effects of the actions
  • Document the data by aggregating the action taken in smaller arenas (individual courses, programs, etc)
  • Assessment IS the driving force behind resurgence of WAC programs
  • Must have funding – need to have stipends to pay faculty to help do any sort of surveying of their students, to implement anything they learn in a WAC workshop, etc  (faculty development grants) – Institution needs to make improving student writing a priority
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