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CCCC 2006 in Review

A15 The Content of Comp: Assessing FYC Outcomes, Metacognition, and Reflective Practice with a Writing Skills Inventory

Although this session listed three presenters and a respondent, only two of the presenters were there. The colleague of the missing presenter, Betsy Sargent of the University of Alberta, explained that Lahoucine Ouzgane, a Morroccan, feared crossing the Canada-USA border and being subject to U.S. Immigration authorities. Apparently he had been hassled before, so he stayed home this time. Sargent briefly summarized the work he would have presented; both Sargent and Ouzgane had worked on administering a writing skills inventory to students in first-year writing courses at their university, and they had analyzed the responses that students gave.

Sargent gave some of the history of the inventory that she had developed for her institution and course, saying that it emerged from a similar questionnaire first published in Elbow and Belanoff's A Community of Writers (1989). Sargent had added questions to try to gauge students' sense of writing-to-learn as it operated in the course at the University of Alberta. She had increased the number of possible responses students were offered (from four to five) and slightly changed the language of those responses, she changed the headings for groups of questions, and she had added a self-reporting form for first-time takers. She reported on responses to the inventory taken in September and in January at her institution. She had looked specifically at responses to five questions (of the 50 total): namely the writing-to-learn oriented questions. Her absent colleague had studied the responses to two questions about the use of peer feedback and the ability to revise. Together, they analyzed the responses of 36 students. Their conclusions included the following: the writing skills inventory helps to refocus students' attention from grades and written products to the writing process and to metacognition, it encourages reflective practice on the part of both students and instructors, and it offers data for qualitative and quantitative assessment. In terms of using quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures, Sargent explained that in addition to recording the numbers of students answering, for instance, "yes" to inventory questions in the September and January administrations, students were encouraged to write brief explanations for, or glosses of, their responses as well. In terms of how the instrument might be improved, she suggested the possibility of a teacher version, the responses to which might be looked at by the local WPA or other administrators.

The other presenter, Cornelia Paraskevas of Western Oregon University, reported on her use of the inventory in a junior-level teacher-preparation course in English. She used the second-time responses to revise some features of her course mid-stream and as a formative assessment of what students needed to work on before finishing the course and going out to do their student teaching.

The respondent, Pat Belanoff of SUNY-Stony Brook, pointed out that the implicit outcomes of a writing course can be discerned from the course, that outcomes drive the form. She urged those in the audience to make their own local adaptations of the inventory, as Sargent had done with Belanoff and Elbow's inventory. She said that a program assessment using such an inventory would need other data besides what the inventory provided, but that one thing WPA's might do is to write an argument that says how possible changes on a cohort's responses to the questions might demonstrate improvement in their writing.

I found this session enormously interesting and informative. For years in my own first-year composition course I have been administering a version of Elbow and Belanoff's "Writing Skills Questionnaire;" although, it is a version not nearly so nuanced and revised as the one from the University of Alberta. I too have been charting the changes in student responses, although not laying them out in graphic form via Excel, as Sargent has done. When I first ask students to complete the inventory and they return to class with them, I point out that many of the questions are phrased as "Can you ….?" in addressing features of writing and the writing process. Then I ask the class another "Can you" question: Can you infer some of the goals of this course from the questions asked on the inventory? This gets us going on a discussion that looks toward the learning outcomes for the semester, and that is important to me because metacognition and reflection are central to my pedagogy. My students submit end-of-term portfolios in first-year comp, and the inventory, completed a third time, is included. In conferences before students go off to work on their portfolios, I tell them that their answers to the survey—especially changes in their answers to particular questions—might be material for discussion in the portfolio cover letters that ask them to reflect on their semester's work and to assess themselves. So I was nodding in recognition at much of what Belanoff said.

— Joel Wingard

CCCC ConventionFor more information on the CCCC 2006 conference,
visit the NCTE Web site at http://www.ncte.org/profdev/conv/cccc/.