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 Faculty Senate

The University of Montana

ASCRC Writing Deliberations (3/5/05 draft)

Teaching and assessment of undergraduate writing are among the most controversial issues at UM.  Almost every forum for discussion of the "writing dilemma" triggers heated debate, much of which focuses on only one or two aspects of the writing curriculum. 

Key Issues:

1.  All UM students must develop effective writing skills. These skills are described in the UM catalogue. 

2.  Students enter the UM with widely varying writing abilities.  The writing curriculum should address the diverse needs of students, from developing a minimal skill set in poor writers to strengthening the work of good writers.

3.  Development of student writing skills.

The primary mechanism for teaching writing skills is the required course ENEX 101, Composition. 

Writing skills are further developed in two required W (writing) courses and other non-W courses that include writing assignments.  These courses can help a student practice and polish writing skills, but they are not designed to teach composition. 

4.  Assessment of student writing skills.

grades in ENEX 101

grades in two W (writing) courses, at least one of which must be an upper division course

grades in other courses that require writing on exams or papers, but that are not designated as W courses

WPA (writing proficiency assessment)-the "gating exam" required for graduation

Composition 101, writing courses in various academic disciplines, and the WPA require overlapping, but not identical skill sets.  For example, Composition deals with grammar, sentence structure, paragraph organization and logical development of ideas.  Writing courses deal with the subject matter of specific disciplines, and may address issues of style that are specific to the discipline; composition is a secondary issue.  The WPA tests reading comprehension, critical thinking and composition.

This exposure to different aspects of writing is a strength of the existing writing curriculum.     

5.  ENEX classes are significantly larger than ideal for development of strong writing skills.

Classes average 25 (?) students.  If an instructor has a full-time load, 5 sections, and spends 15 minutes per student per week (on reading, grading and discussing the student work), s/he spends 31.25 hours on these activities.  Assuming 3 meeting hours per week per section (15 hours) and 4 hours of preparation time, the load is >50 hours per week.

6.  The current writing curriculum provides adequate development and assessment of writing skills for many students. 

Many students pass the WPA on the first attempt (~~50%)

Many students produce well-written papers and exams in upper division courses.

7.  The current writing curriculum fails to provide adequate development of writing skills for many students. 

Many students do NOT pass the WPA after several attempts (data have been difficult to gather, see below).

Many students produce very poorly written exams and papers in their upper division courses.

8.  The current requirements for general education and writing, combined with courses required for accreditation of specific programs, max out the required credits for many programs.  Therefore, additional writing courses will be implemented at the expense of other requirements in general education or the writing curriculum.

9.  There is very little data that addresses how well the existing writing curriculum meets the specific writing goals.

Gathering this type of data is a nontrivial exercise.  Selecting data from Banner has been difficult, even for simple questions like "what is the pass rate for students taking the WPA for the first, second and third time?"  The Registrar's Office and the Office of Academic Affairs have been working on procedural changes in the administration of the WPA that will allow for collection of more useful data.

10.  Data that have been gleaned from recent rounds of the WPA do indicate some specific problems.

Most students are not preparing carefully for the exams.  For the first WPA of spring 2005, ~1100 students signed up to take the exam; only 578 (53%) students actually took the exam, and only ~100 students (17.3% of students who took the exam) attended a workshop or visited the Writing Center to prepare for the exam.

Most students who fail to pass the exam are not taking advantage of opportunities to correct problems before the next attempt.  Of 985 students taking the exam in the fall (9/25/04 and 10/22/04), 550 (55.8%) students passed the exam.  Of the 435 students who did not pass, only 113 (26%) picked up the blue books to find out where their exams were weak. 

The system allows students to delay taking the WPA until they are seniors, at which point it is difficult to address problems.  The registration block has not worked as a disincentive; it is cumbersome to administer and students often sign up for a WPA to move past the block and then fail to take the exam.

11.  The generally poor preparation of students for the WPA makes it difficult to draw any conclusions from the pass rates for this exam.  It would be ill-advised to propose major curriculum changes until effective incentives/disincentives are in place to ensure that the majority of students sitting for the WPA have prepared for the exam.  At that point, the WPA will be a better indicator of which students have developed appropriate reading, critical thinking and writing skills.   

There are risks to implementing major curriculum changes, including:

implementation of changes that do not improve student performance because we do not understand the scope of the problem

implementation of changes that have serious negative consequences for other parts of the curriculum

significant budget and staffing repercussions

Students are less likely to take the writing curriculum seriously if it undergoes frequent major overhauls.

12.  It has been suggested that UM should require a second composition course for all students delivered through the English Department or distributed across departments. 

This is not a good use of limited resources.  Not all students need a second composition course.  Strong writers are unlikely to polish their skills in a class in which many students are stilling working on fundamentals. 

Most importantly, students who have not reached a moderate level of competence by taking ENEX 101 and one writing course will benefit only marginally from a second course in which they receive a few minutes of feedback per week from the instructor (see item 5 above). 

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Faculty Senate

The University of Montana

Missoula, MT 59812