Regardless of school or major, students all take one of the same courses, whether we like it or not: University Writing. It makes sense that everyone takes a freshman writing course, as it ensures that all students know what is expected of them in college-level writing. But we all come to GW with different writing abilities.
Even though we were all accepted to the same University, students begin college at varying writing levels. The current one-size-fits-all approach to UW doesn’t help students learn from their peers, because some might be ahead or behind others based on how much writing they did in high school or their interests. Therefore, the current UW format doesn’t work for a universal requirement.
For students to learn from each other in course-required peer reviews and for professors to teach effectively, GW should require that incoming students take writing assessments before they enroll in UW courses. From there, students can be grouped into classes based on their writing abilities, which would create a more comfortable and learning-friendly environment. Professors would be able to concentrate on aspects of writing that a particular group of students needs.
In my UW course, some students have been embarrassed when others read and critique their papers because they struggle with writing. In some cases, it’s because English is their second language and they need more time to edit and check grammatical structure and vocabulary. Also, there are students who attended high schools where there wasn’t emphasis on writing, which means they may have missed out on knowing certain elements of the writing process. Other students are advanced and may want to be challenged in their writing. They could be learning how to write more persuasively or how to find relevant scholarly sources for compositions, but instead are spending class time talking about more basic grammar rules they are already familiar with.
The concept of separating students into different classes based on their skills in a particular subject is called ability grouping. Robert Slavin, a psychologist at John Hopkins University, studied the effects of ability grouping in high school students. Testing a variety of school subjects, he found that separation based on ability has a positive effect on students at all ability levels: higher level students were able to excel without slowing down to help lower-level students, and lower-level students could work at their own pace without feeling pressure.
This type of system should be applied to the UW program – and GW wouldn’t be the first university to do it this way. Universities like The City University of New York and the University of Georgia already have writing assessment exams in place for incoming freshmen. These assessments provide students with the opportunity to earn credit hours and test out of the introductory level writing course. While GW is against testing out of introductory courses, students should be able to test into higher-level UW courses, either by assessment or AP credit. At GW, students can only acquire credit hours outside of courses if they have received a score of 4 or 5 on the AP exams. Even then, these scores only count as elective credits at GW as opposed to writing credits.
Currently, GW requires all first-year students to take the UW course with the goal “to strengthen every GW student’s ability to write clearly and effectively at the University and in other arenas.” The reason why all students take this specific course is to maintain a consistent writing curriculum across the board. While the structure of all the classes is the same, there is a wide variety of topics offered to make the courses more interesting. The issue with this reasoning is that having different topics contradicts the idea of having a uniform class. Since GW are already breaking free from the standard by offering different topics, it should offer different levels, as well. Students at different levels can still have different topic areas – but the separation should first be level and then desired topic.
The idea of a placement test for writing courses isn’t completely radical, especially considering that GW has placement tests for both math and foreign language courses. If we have students take placement exams in other subjects, then there is no reason why we shouldn’t have a placement test for writing courses – writing abilities are just as varied as math abilities.
By practicing ability grouping in the UW program, the classes would be better learning environments for all students. Students would have a chance to thrive as writers without the fear of judgement from their peers, and all types of students would have the chance to become better writers.
Kris Brodeur, a freshman double majoring in international affairs and Latin American and hemispheric studies, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.