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It's a ritual every May. At Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., a group of faculty members gather for four hours a day to discuss the highs and lows of students' sophomore portfolios. In return for a small stipend and a big lunch, they assess essays and reports, seeing whether students are on track to meet the writing requirement to graduate. If trends hold, about 85 percent will pass, some will need work, and a few, says writing program director Carol Rutz, will be good enough to earn a public commendation and "a nice letter from the dean that their moms can put on the refrigerator."
Meanwhile, down at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., students are assembling the writing portfolios they also need to graduate. When they do, they will receive not only their diplomas but also the sealed essays they wrote the day they arrived on campus. The essays, which asked them to describe their expectations for the next four years, are often a source of amusement ("tell me again why I wanted to go to medical school?") but they also serve as revealing benchmarks—a measure of how far the students' writing has come.
The ability to communicate effectively—as a desired learning outcome of college, it is at the top of most educators' and employers' lists, right up there with critical thinking and analytical reasoning. Many even see it as the learning outcome that trumps all the rest. "Writing is not simply a way for students to demonstrate what they know," says The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. "It is a way to help them understand what they know. At its best, writing is learning."
With that maxim in mind—and some grim statistics about student writing ability in hand—a number of colleges have waded into the assessment waters by measuring outcomes based on this one essential skill. Specifically, they have made writing proficiency a requirement of graduation and instituted programs to make sure that students meet it. They have established development programs for faculty, tutoring for students and rubrics for measuring success. When the programs are done well, the benefits of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) accrue to both faculty and students.
At Millsaps, a private liberal arts college with just 1,013 students, writing is seen not as the responsibility of any one faculty member or department, but the shared enterprise of all. "Students can neither be injected with writing skills nor vaccinated against poor writing habits in one single course," the school says. In other words, students are as likely to learn as much about writing from a physics professor as an English teacher.
Writing goes hand in hand with Millsaps' core curriculum, which seeks to foster reasoning, communication, historical consciousness and social and cultural awareness. Students start with a foundation seminar on a particular topic that carries a heavy emphasis on writing, including analysis, organization, documentation and revision. A replacement for the traditional composition course, the seminar could be taught by a physics professor or a law professor. Later core courses emphasize revision as an important means of clarifying thinking. A final requirement asks students to write an essay that reflects on their own learning—an assessment in itself.
Carleton College, also private liberal arts institution, has long required students to submit a sophomore portfolio (thus giving them to time to improve by graduation). Beginning with the Class of 2014, the college will require first-year students to take a writing-rich "Argument and Inquiry" seminar, designed to enhance critical thinking. The new requirements are part of an effort to create an outcome-oriented curriculum in which courses are reclassified in specific modes of thought, such as global understanding and quantitative reasoning.
How well do students write? A recent survey of employers by the Partnership for the 21st Century found three quarters of high school graduates to be deficient in written communication, as were nearly half the graduates of two-year colleges. According to a recent study by the American Institutes for Research, 38 percent of graduating college seniors were unable to perform a writing task such as comparing viewpoints in two newspaper editorials.
Those numbers hardly describe the students at Millsaps or Carleton, but faculty at both institutions say their freshmen show room to improve. Of today's students generally, Rutz says, "They are good at telling stories. They are good at putting in interesting details. What they are not good at is analyzing and synthesizing."
Anita DeRouen, director of Millsaps' writing center, has seen it all at colleges where she has taught, including students who write as well as the authors they read and others who are "functionally illiterate." Generally, she says, college freshmen can write a solid paragraph, but they struggle to connect those paragraphs into a coherent whole.
Teaching writing is hard work—which is one reason instructors often resist incorporating more writing into their courses. It's also why it's essential to give faculty the tools they need to do it well. "The way I have sold this to faculty," says Rutz, "is that you don't want to do a lot of writing in your courses unless it makes things better. But if you have better learning, if students are more engaged ... then people begin to see the point. Most professionals realize that one way we learn is to write."
At Millsaps, DeRouen offers plenty of support to help faculty create writing assignments and constructively respond to them. She stresses the importance of explaining why they are assigning the particular piece of writing and exactly what they want students to learn from it. Professional training can also help prevent writing instruction and assessment from adding too much to faculty workloads. Feedback, says Rutz, doesn't necessarily mean painstaking line-editing. It can mean simply telling a student that he habitually skips topic sentences, then referring him to a peer mentor for more hands-on help. Interestingly, Rutz says, students tend to write better for their peers than they do for their teachers.
With increasing calls for greater accountability in higher education, writing initiatives are likely to proliferate. As Rutz observes, written communication forms the connection point for several important dimensions of learning. The outcomes are evident in every discipline. A writing assessment alone, she says, "provides a rich set of data with which to evaluate what students have learned and how faculty can improve their classroom practice."
In other words, she asks: "What better, more economic place can we find to evaluate what college graduates know and are able to do?"