Rolf Noorgard

Program for Writing and Rhetoric

Course Context

Three target courses (3000 level, 16-20 students each):

WRTG 3020 Field Studies in Civic Engagement
This course focuses on collaborative field projects in the community.

WRTG 3035 Technical Communication and Design
This course focuses on client design projects and consulting reports for units on campus.

HONR 3220 Advanced Honors Writing
This course serves as a (pre)thesis writing course; students focus on one major project.


Target of improvement

This assessment project sought to improve my understanding of the preconceptions that students bring into the course, and how the course encourages students to rethink those preconceptions. Those preconceptions often linked to the role of context or disciplinary frame (that is, expectations about academic or “school” writing, technical writing, civic engagement, etc.). By better understanding those preconceptions, I hope to develop targeted strategies for helping students shed unhelpful preconceptions and attitudes, and in turn develop a better or more nuanced understanding of concepts or attitudes vital to their growth as rhetorically informed writers.

Research Design

(1) For each of the three courses I was teaching Spring 2010 (see above), I administered a one-page pre-course questionnaire at the beginning of the first day of class.  The questionnaire posed seven questions that elicited three-to-five keywords each.  I compiled the keyword responses to each question in a word document, and then developed a tag cloud for each of the questions, showing the frequency of the responses. For the tag cloud I relied on three on-line software programs: Manyeyes (,, and I shared the initial tag clouds with the students in each course in week two, which launched a productive twenty-minute discussion about inherited concepts, course goals, and individual learning goals.

(2) For each of these courses I subsequently administered a one-page post-course questionnaire at week 15, mirroring the initial questions and asking for keywords based on how students saw things differently given the course. I then developed a tag cloud for each question in the post-course survey, and compared the resulting graphic with the initial tag cloud. I shared the results with the students in each class in week 16, which led to a discussion about the changes and growth they had experienced over the course of the semester.

(3) For two of the three courses (WRTG 3020 and WRTG 3035), I assigned a brief reflective essay that asked students to comment on their growth in the course, and what specific features in the course facilitated their growth.

Overall Findings

The tag cloud study of keywords revealed that students did indeed bring in concepts to the course that inhibited new learning. Those concepts were informed by prior contexts—chiefly high school instruction—that did not necessarily apply well to the current course goals. When assessing their “strengths” and “goals for growth” as writers, students in every course (even the honors course) fell back on concepts and terminology that reflected high school instruction or long-internalized ways in which the students saw and evaluated their own writing (e.g. grammar, organization, vocabulary).

In-class discussions of the pre-course keywords was useful in communicating that the course was responding to their goals and concerns as writers. Even as it posed new challenges and expected new kinds of growth and learning. Sharing the results of the pre-course questionnaire fostered buy-in to course goals and pedagogies.

The post-course questionnaires and resulting tag clouds from the keywords demonstrated significant growth in each of the courses. Students found that they eagerly had to add new keywords or concepts to their repertoire and that their understanding and valuation of key concepts (e.g. civic engagement) changed because of the course. Specific results are reported below, under the heading of each course.

Apart from its intrinsic value, the reflective essay in two of the courses served to confirm the responses in the post-course questionnaire.

Course-Specific Findings
WRTG 3020 Field Studies in Civic Engagement

The most dramatic shift in pre-post assessment in this course occurred in the way that the students valued civic engagement in fresh and personal ways. At the beginning of the course, students knew what the “right” things were to say about civic engagement. At the end of the course, the students’ keywords demonstrated a new personal and emotional commitment to civic engagement. In other words, the concept became experiential. They lived the concept.

WRTG 3035 Technical Communication and Design
The most salient outcome of the pre-post assessment in this course was the recognition on the part of the students of the value of client-driven design projects and consulting reports, which facilitated authentic, audience-driven writing. This contrasted with their pre-conceptions in the pre-course questionnaire regarding the nature of technical writing, which was seen as dry and boring and lacking in rhetorical context.

HONR 3220 Advanced Honors Writing

The most salient outcome for this course had to do with how high-achieving students re-defined and re-valued traditional concepts regarding writing that they had inherited from high school and that still (even now) shaped their sense of writing and their sense of themselves as writers. For example, their concern for and preoccupation with “organization” took on new meaning as they now saw that concept as having to do with the challenges of shaping and deploying a complex analysis or argument, not filling in some inherited and static structure. The questionnaire also asked students about the characteristics of a “high-impact” course, and results underscore the importance of writing—specifically collaboratively reviewed work-in-progress—in making such courses “high impact.”

Significance and Next Steps

To my mind, the significance of this assessment project lies in understanding the ways in which inherited concepts and preconceptions become roadblocks or challenges to further learning. The assessment project has helped me articulate more consciously what I already suspected, and has suggested curricular and pedagogical tools for addressing this syndrome directly.

I plan to continue the keyword/tag cloud assessment project each semester, but with a shorter, more focused questionnaire (three questions as opposed to seven).

The three members of the team from the Program for Writing and Rhetoric (Catherine Kunce, Petger Schaberg, and myself) plan on reporting on our assessment projects at a fall faculty meeting. We also plan on making pre-post questionnaires (keyword tag clouds) a regular part of our efforts to assess service-learning and civic engagement courses.


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