OPTIONS IN WRITING ASSESSMENT : AN EXPLORATION
I would like to start by raising a few questions :
3rd. Or is the notion of general assessment completely out of synchronization with the mega-trends in education where assessment and response to writing have become revolutionary ? I will attempt to answer these questions as a recommended solution to teachers’ problems on how to assess, evaluate and mark students’ work.
Based on my experience as a teacher trainer, I should say that the teaching and subsequent assessment of writing leave much to be desired. Not much change has been undertaken in terms of approaches and classroom procedures. Might this be due to the fact that some of us teach the way we were taught? That some of us still cling to the age-old beliefs and practices in evaluating, grading and teaching, assessing and responding to student writing?
3. Teacher prescribes the exact number of words and the time limit with which to finish a piece of writing. For example, all papers have to be handed in at the end of a 40 or 60-minute period, inclusive of preliminaries such as instructions, number of words, number of paragraphs, etc.
4. Assessment, evaluation and grading are imprecise unsystematic. Teachers usually write marginal comments, which only serve to confuse students. General comments like improve, rephrase, vague, too broad or specify frustrate the students instead of help them.
5. Teacher gives writing assignments, which take time to mark and give back to students, or worse, teacher sometimes fails to return the papers. We were students once and we know how important the teacher’s feedback was. Can we blame our students today if they become indifferent to their English courses?
6. Teacher corrects all errors, “bleeds” students’ papers to death, figuratively and literally. Red pencilling all over the paper reveals that form, rather than substance, is given more attention. By correcting on form, students tend to turn in papers, which are almost flawless in grammar but lacking in substance. Research in the teaching of writing according to Sommer (1989) reveals that red ink, marginal notes and symbols for correction are generally ineffective in improving student writing. He also says that beginning writers have the misconception that flawless grammars, proper punctuation, correct choice of words, are some of the primary considerations in writing; that “what the teacher wants” is more important than a student’s developing original ideas; and that writing submitted to the teacher for correction is finished work rather than a stage in the process of improvement and completion.
These are only some of the classroom “malpractices” that confuse and disorient students. How then do English teachers put an end to these seemingly problematic scenarios in their writing classes?
Assessment and evaluation are not the sole responsibility of the teacher. Teachers need to make their students realize that their paper is their own property- thus answering the question of ownership. A paper which is “excessively marked and scribbled over” by the teacher is no longer the student’s property. It becomes the teacher’s. How can we assess and respond effectively to student writing considering the negative effects of certain traditional beliefs and practices?
My paper main objective therefore is to present new directions in assessing and responding to student writing. Wiser & Dorsey (1991) claim that what we are doing now is not much; what we are going to be doing is a lot more. Some of us want assessment to play a role that is totally different from the role it now plays. Others may want to do away with traditional assessment altogether and to explore writing assessment through the use of alternative forms of assessment.
Options in Writing Assessment
The term assessment, based on the context of my paper, involves the means of obtaining information about students, abilities, knowledge, understanding attainments or attitudes. An assignment in writing, for instance, will be helpful in assessing a student’s ability in and understanding of the assigned activity.
Sommer (1989) defines assessment as the process of finding out who the students are, what their abilities are, what they need to know, and how they perceive the learning will affect them. Sommer further distinguishes assessment from evaluation when he says that assessment takes place at the outset of the writing course, whereas evaluation describes ongoing activities that eventually provide closure in the writing course.
Assessment places the need of the students at the center of the teacher’s planning.
At this point, let me go back to the question raised earlier on – “How do we assess and respond to student writing considering the negative effects of certain traditional beliefs and practices?” My answer is, we have to explore new directions and perspectives along this line.
1. Portfolio assessment
2. Protocol analysis
3. Learning logs
4. Journal entries
5. Dialogue journals
Some of these forms of assessment are familiar to you but they will be discussed in the light of new trends and approaches relevant to the teaching of writing. It will dwell more lengthily an in greater detail than the rest the issues of portfolio assessment.
1. Portfolio – assessment
How can portfolios be used as an alternative method of assessment? New ideas in the teaching of English do come along. Some of them become quickly established in practice because they are “so right, so timely, so useful.” The portfolio in writing classes is a case of point. Disenchantment with the traditional modes of assessment has probably contributed to portfolio approach to assessment of writing.
What then are portfolios? Applebee and Langer (1992) define portfolios as a cumulative collection of the work students has done. Some of the most popular forms include :
a. A traditional “writing folder” in which students keep their work.
b. A bound notebook with separate sections kept for work in progress and final drafts
c. A loose-leaf notebook in which students keep their drafts and revisions
e. A notebook divided into two sections : one for drafts and the other for final copies (traditionally called original and rewritten compositions way back in the late 50s’ and the60s’ where I used to be a public school teacher in the Division of City Schools, Manila.)
A typical writing portfolio contains the student’s total writing output to represent his/her overall performance, but it may also contain only a selection of works which the student has chosen for the teacher to evaluate. In other words, portfolios show a student’s work from the beginning of the term to the end giving both teacher and student a chance to assess how much the latter’s writing has progressed.
Let me give a specific example. In April 1995, I personally handled 15 hours of a 30-hour writing class (a special CELL writing program.) which I team-taught with another teacher. The class was composed of 20 college bound students who wanted to improve their writing skills in preparation for university studies. I exploited portfolio approach, which I found effective despite the fact that the writing class was a non-degree program. Instead of taking their portfolios home, the students kept them in a writing desk which I appropriated in one corner of the room (we had a permanent room for the entire course). Before they left the class at noontime, the students had to put their portfolios on the desk and would get them back as soon as they arrived the following morning. The students had all the time to discuss their assignments, to write, to do exercises, and other activities relevant to the subject matter. Likewise, I had all the time to assess their work with the assistance of course of the whole class. Incidentally, I also asked my students to put their journals entries in a small notebook, which they kept in their portfolios. Two days before the end of classes, I required my students to prepare a table of contents for their portfolios and to write a timed reflective essay in class which was the only timed writing they did, explaining their choice of papers for assessment and evaluation purposes. They got back their portfolios with my written comments and suggestions on the last day of classes as part of our culminating activity. This doesn’t mean, however, that portfolio assessments should be done only once; actually, they should be done at the outset and progress along with the students’ own progress in writing.
Portfolio collections form the basis for conferences, which I will discuss in a little while as one of the responses to student writing. Conferencing is a vital component of portfolio assessment. Farr & Lowe (1991) are of the opinion that students, through conferencing and keeping portfolios, experience making real-life decisions as well as decisions about schoolwork. In order for students to take responsibility for their learning and their lives, ownership of their own choices and actions is an all-important consideration. In the traditional approach, ownership of work and learning is looked upon more as the responsibility of the teacher than of the learner. But when students actively participate in the selection and discussion of their work, they gain a true sense of ownership, which results in personal satisfaction, and feelings of self-worth.
+ Teachers and students both add materials to the portfolio.
+ Students are viewed as the owners of the portfolios.
+ Conferencing between students and the teacher is an inherent activity in portfolio assessment.
+ Conference notes and reflections of both the teacher and the student are kept in the portfolio.
+ Portfolios need to reflect a wide range of student work and not only that which the teacher or student decides is the best.
+ Samples of the student’s reading and writing activities are collected in the portfolios-including unfinished projects.
Applebee and Langer (1992) believe that portfolios of students’ work offer one of the best vehicles for ASSESSMENT OF WRITING for two reasons :
1. They typically contain a variety of different samples of student work, and
2. They make it easy to separate evaluation from the process of instruction.
No system of assessment is as perfect as portfolio assessment according to Gallehr (1993) because students are required to write, but within this requirement, they can choose the topic, audience, responders in the class, revision strategies, etc. They are also free to select from their works the pieces they want to include in their portfolios. This shows that portfolios may be used as a holistic process for evaluating course work. Portfolios provide a sound basis on which to document individual student progress because they can incorporate a range of assessment strategies over an extended period of time.
A second though somewhat complicated means of assessing student writing is protocol analysis. Actually, protocol analysis, as well as the other non-traditional forms of assessment, is a writing procedure that promotes the process approach to writing.
Protocol analysis is also known as the “composing aloud protocols” or a “think aloud” activity, which is the exact opposite of the fixed model used by traditional composition teachers. This type of analysis reveals the conscious processes involved in writing. In this approach, students are asked to record every thought that comes to mind during the writing process. The transcripts are analyzed and used as one of the instruments for assessing student writing. To enable the students to use protocol analysis effectively, the teacher should first serve as model. She should show the class how to proceed, by making the class listens to a tape-recorded model of her own protocol analysis procedure, or to do actual protocol analysis in the classroom with students listening and observing. Assessment of student writing can be done using this strategy for through protocol analysis, a teacher can tell how students write, the strategies they use to generate ideas, how often they revise and edit their work, whether their written work has improved at all.
3. Learning logs
A learning log is another form of assessment that helps teachers keep track of what students are learning, particularly in the writing class, and in the language class as a whole. According to Applebee & Langer (1992), in a learning log, students write about the knowledge they have gained from studying in their writing classes, and from their own thinking. One great advantage of learning logs is that student’s record in writing information and their thoughts about it. A teacher doesn’t grade learning logs, but from these logs a teacher can assess how much a student has gained or benefited from the writing class.
4. Journal entries
Journal entries may be used as an informal means of assessment by the teacher. I said informal because journal entries are personal and intimate. It is a record of thoughts and impressions mainly for personal use. What a teacher can do is to write short notes in response to students’ thoughts. Just as in portfolio assessments, journal entries may be a source for conferencing.
Journal keeping, being informal in nature, enables a student to get extensive writing practice. Some of its advantages are : (1) it can be enjoyable, since it gives the students free reign to write on any topic at the spur of the moment; (2) it offers students the privacy, freedom, and safety to experiment and develop as a writer (Applebee and Langer, 1992).
Since journal keeping is as private and confidential as well as a highly individualized process, assessing students’ journal entries is also a private matter between the writer and the teacher. At this point, I am pleased to say that I started journal keeping at the DLSU Writing lab in the late 80’s. I required all students to keep their journals in the Writing Lab. Because the students had been doing it regularly, it eventually became a habit with them. I gave them a maximum of 10 minutes to write briefly on anything that came to mind, e.g., family gatherings, family problems, ideas on love and courtship, travel, current-events, special occasions and other relevant issues. They wrote down their thoughts in a few sentences at the beginning, but their writing improved and developed so much so that at the end of their Writing Lab stint, they could already compose their thoughts in longer paragraphs. Sometimes the teacher responded to journal entries through conferencing. At the beginning, for as long as the students could communicate their thoughts on paper, for as long as their writings were comprehensible – their grammatical flaws and lapses were taken care of later. What worked well at the time were due to several factors such as the interest of the students, the patience of the lab instructors, and the collaboration between the lab instructors and the subject teachers.
Incidentally, I also suggested to the lab teachers to keep journals and engage in writing their journal entries simultaneously with the students. Occasionally, some students shared their entries with the class.
Kreeft, Jay and Staton (1993) distinguish journal keeping from dialogue journals as follows : Journal keeping is a provide journal which provides practice in writing. It does not give students assistance beyond what he/she already knows how to do. Dialogue journals, on the other hand, are written dialogues with a teacher or on rare occasions, a classmate, which provides guided assistance to the learner in expressing ideas and feelings, describing and elaborating on experience, and reflecting more and more critically on that experience. Dialogue journal interaction creates a context of equality and power symmetry that leads to trust between learner and teacher.
A dialogue journal aims to show how it can support a reflective, interactive classroom, which is rewarding for both teacher and students. Its value in terms of assessment is that it provides unassisted, unedited samples of student writing and reading comprehension as students become more and more able to read and respond fluently to the teacher’s entries. Kreeft, Jay and Staton, 1993). Incidentally, this shows that reading cannot be disassociated from writing that a link really exists between these two skills.
6. Response to Students Writing In responsive teaching, the student acts and the teacher reacts. The range of reaction is extensive and diverse because an individual teacher is responding to an individual student, and the student in turn is passing through an ever-changing process of discovery through writing. (Murray, 1985)
How do language teachers respond to their students’ written composition? Most teachers cannot resist correction the errors both global and local in their students’ compositions. Generally in the case of global errors (errors that impede communication), teachers substitute their own words, sentences, and even ideas for their students’ errors so that (as I mentioned earlier on) these students’ lose the ownership of their writing. They can barely recognize their work. This is contributory to many students’ dislike of writing.
Responding or feedback to writing can be both oral and written. There are a variety of response types that an English teacher can utilize in the classroom. In alternative forms of assessment, I emphasized portfolio assessment; in response to student writing which comprises the other half of my paper, I will zero in on conferencing – but first, let us see what other responses are.
Self-response and assessment of one’s own writing or feedback is possible. Studies on self-assessment reveal that students are capable of analyzing and responding to their own writing given the proper training. By allowing students to react to their own work and to practice self-feedback, the teacher is encouraging them to be self-sufficient and independent. How can self-assessment be done? A few sample questions can be given as guidelines to the students such as :
+ What am I writing about? (s.m.)
+ Is the main idea of my work clear?
+ Do I have details, e.g. example and illustrations to support my main idea? Etc.
Many teachers are interested in having students able to do self-assessment and understand how they are developing as literary learners.
2. Peer Response.
Peer response show that readership does not belong exclusively to the teacher since in this type of response, students are enjoined to share their writings with each other. Students may not like this at the beginning but with the teacher’s encouragement, they will gradually get used to the idea of communicating their ideas to each other. Elbow, (198) believes that when the students write only for their teacher (which usually means for a grade) they often fall into certain bad habits, treating writing as an empty school exercise and attempting simply to just “get it right” or “give teacher what they want.” When students write for their peers, they become very concerned about what they say and how they say it. Students may not be as skilled as teachers responding to each other’s work but they are excellent in providing the one thing that writers need most – an audience.
Kroll (1991) says that because ESL students lack the language competence of native speakers of English who can react instructively to their classmates’ papers, peer responding in the ESL classroom must be modeled, taught and controlled for it to valuable activity. Controlling peer response is just like self-feedback, can be done through the use of a checklist. Below are the typical questions for peer response :
+ “What is the main purpose of this paper?”
+ “What have you found particularly effective in this paper?”
+ “Do you think the writer has followed through on what the paper set out to do?”
3. Teacher response.
The last to respond to a written work is the teacher. The teacher’s load is lightened when students have done both individual and peer feedback. Gradually, the teacher can introduce peer correction so that students can be used to it. If individual and peer correction and feedback fail at first, the teacher can sometimes help by focusing attention on the place where the mistakes occur.
4. Conferencing : A one-to-one conversation.
Conferencing is a form of oral teacher feedback. A short conference of 10 to 15 minutes will enable the teacher to ask the student about certain arts of the latter’s writing which are problematic, but conferencing may be as short as 30 seconds, or as long as the two parties wish to talk. All the forms have the same essential feature : only two parties, a teacher and a student, not a teacher and a class. The conversation between these two parties is the strength of the conference method. Conferences make better acquainted with students.
According to Kroll (1991), conferences allow the teacher to cover potential misunderstandings that the student might have about prior written feedback on issues in writing that have been discussed in class. Furthermore, in conferencing students can usually learn more than they can when attempting to decipher teacher-written commentary on their own.
Meeting individually with students is one of the most valuable services a teacher can perform. In the context of assessment and response to student writing one-on-one conferences round out the process of discovering the needs of students, especially the first conference. Sommer (1989) further suggests that, the teacher should arrange to meet with students one-on-one after the latter have completed writing samples.