“We looked at a number of the documents that the faculty has produced over the last decade and organized their insights into a list of nine features of student writing that are most important to us in the class,” Rainbow said. “The focus was on observable, transferable outcomes — things that students should learn in our class and that they can carry forward into any other writing they do in the future.”
The writing assessment was first introduced in spring 2021 and draws on ideas that have been under development for several years as both new and veteran faculty of the course strive to hone their craft as teachers of writing. “This year’s project is a good example of Dean Monroe’s deep and constant commitment to student writing,” Rainbow said. The new assessment differs from past efforts by emphasizing a strong importance “of the observable characteristics of good student writing, rather than the methods to achieve those outcomes. In other words, we focused on outcomes rather than inputs and methods.”
To support Dean Monroe’s ambitious idea of an assessment that looked at the work of every student, the team evaluated 600-plus student essays, specifically targeting each of the ELOWs as well as providing overall comments for their paper, how it measured up to standards set by the faculty and ways it could be strengthened, giving faculty observable outcomes of writing skills and spurring discussion for how to improve common areas of difficulty.
“So, it was not only a measurement of instructional effectiveness, it also gave each student an outside perspective on his or her work from someone other than the professor,” Rainbow noted. “This is important, because after all, we want to teach students the transferable skill of writing for a general audience, rather than just writing for a professor they have worked with extensively.”
Meeting weekly to converse and train together, the assessment team consisted of six readers, including advanced graduate students and writing professionals, that each read and evaluated 23–25 papers a week. By developing a unified perspective on student writing independent of faculty and creating a rubric to observe and measure student understanding and expression through their writing, readers provided in-depth analysis and feedback.
As the assessment evolves, so will incoming students’ writing abilities as they learn how to create powerful sentences, form insightful arguments and effectively organize their ideas in ways that will benefit them throughout their academic and future professional careers.
Now that the spring semester has concluded, the Honors College faculty will soon begin to study the results of the assessment team and recognize what worked effectively along with identifying areas that deserve more attention going forward. And changes are already being made in an effort to examine course strengths, such as comparing students’ work at the beginning of the semester to the end to evaluate advancement and stylistic changes throughout the year.
“The external readers were impressed with the writing of our students on the sentence level, so that’s an area of strength in the course,” highlighted Rainbow. “I think we will also find some areas where we would like to see better results, and then we can go back and make a plan to help our students meet those standards better next year. There is always room for improvement, and this project will really help us to set our priorities going forward.”