Hillel Zand: Writing ability should determine placement in UW classes

Imagine that you’re a first-year Spanish student, but you’re the only beginner in your class. Others are third-year Spanish students, and some are native speakers. A class like that would probably be difficult for both students and the professor to navigate. You would need extra help, but your professor wouldn’t want to bore the other, more advanced students.

Right now, our University Writing classes are similar to that hypothetical Spanish class. GW places a strong emphasis on developing students’ writing skills, and rightfully so. All first-year students are required to take UW 1020, an introductory college-level writing course with specific topics of focus.

But the University Writing program should be improved. Although it aims to bring all students to the same standard of writing for a college student, every freshman arrives at GW at a different writing level. These classes try to bring students at different skill levels to the same standard, but they may all need different types of help to get there.

There needs to be some sort of mechanism that better enables GW to place students in UW classes at a level fit for their writing abilities. Students should either take a skill assessment, or place themselves at a specific level of writing.

Students will feel more engaged in class if they don’t feel like they’re at either extreme of the writing spectrum. Peer editing at a similar level would also help them improve. In a classroom of wide-ranging writing abilities, it can be difficult to express opinions about another student’s writing without seeming uninformed or arrogant. But peer editing is especially important in the UW program.

“We believe that strong academic writing is developed through a rigorous process of drafting and revision,” Sandie Friedman, director of first-year writing, said. “We are less concerned with the skills a student brings to the course than with how hard she is willing to work during the term.”

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the skills that students do bring to the course, especially if they’re willing to work hard during the semester. Just as in the case of a Spanish class, ignoring the skills of a native speaker in a class of varying ability does not benefit that student.

Finding a way to place students more accurately wouldn’t be too difficult or cost too much money. Admissions officers could grade students’ essays during the admissions process, and the University Writing program could place students based on those grades. Students could be placed in higher UW classes based on their English Advanced Placement scores, or through a placement exam like those already required for languages.

The University of Michigan requires nearly all of its first-year students (except those in the honors college and engineering school) to complete a freshman writing course, but only after writing what they call a “directed self-placement essay.” The purpose of this 1,500-word assessment is to help students choose an appropriate course and familiarize their professors in that course with their writing ability.

And faculty at GW would benefit from a change to the program, as well. In 2008, a Chronicle of Higher Education study, the most recent of its kind, found that 44 percent of college faculty believe students are not ready for college-level writing. That means professors have to spend more time helping some students catch up.

“UW courses are structured so that advanced students can take on research and writing projects that challenge them, while receiving support and guidance from instructors,” said Rachel Riedner, interim executive director of the University Writing Program. “At the same time, instructors offer as much individual attention as possible to students who need extra help.”

However, beginning last year, UW professors were forced to teach larger classes, resulting in less one-on-one attention from professors. That’s even more reason to reform the program. If students were placed in classes according to their abilities, professors could address the class’s problems as a whole, making the lack of one-on-one attention less of an ordeal.

Of course, creating lanes for courses – or placing students according to their ability – has the potential to perpetuate the gap in writing abilities. However, most students have already been part of an education system that sorts students by their ability, especially in languages and mathematics.

Writing is just one more subject that would be better taught in environments of similar ability.

Hillel Zand, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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