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Program for Writing and Rhetoric
Summary of 2001-02 Assessment Activities

Last updated 11/15/2002

Outcomes Assessment of ARSC 1150
"First-Year Writing and Rhetoric" (now WRTG 1150)
2001-2002 Academic Year

Eliza Hines, Outcomes Assessment Coordinator
June 2002

Executive Summary

During the Academic Year 2001-02, the Boulder campus saw the first major effort in some 15 years to address the writing skills of entering students. A new course, "First-Year Writing and Rhetoric," was launched, as was a new writing program, the Program for Writing and Rhetoric. This report assesses the new course in the inaugural year of the new program.

Course Development and Institutional Context

General consensus on the need for a new first-year writing course was developed through a campuswide steering committee that met during AY 1999-2000. The curriculum for ARSC 1150 (now WRTG 1150) was developed in Fall 2000 by a campuswide committee of writing instructors, under the guidance of Prof. Donna LeCourt (then at Colorado State University, now at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst). The course was developed in keeping with the national Outcomes Statement for first-year composition, as articulated by the National Council of Writing Program Administrators. Six sections of the new course were piloted in Spring 2001. Under the leadership of Rolf Norgaard, Interim Associate Director, the Program for Writing and Rhetoric offered a total of 82 sections in 2001-2002 AY: 49 in the fall and 33 in the spring.

The challenges normally encountered when offering a new course were complicated by a variety of other factors: the unit itself was a new entity, and the teaching staff was likewise newly recruited and hired. The course was offered in a time of some political turbulence and leadership transition in writing, and a move to a new physical space. The general success of the course, notable in its own right, is even more remarkable given these circumstances.

Course Objectives

The primary objective of the course ARSC 1150, "First-Year Writing and Rhetoric" (now WRTG 1150) is to provide university freshman with the academic writing skills they will need to find success in their coursework at CU-Boulder. The stated objectives of the course are as follows:

A new course designed to reach all incoming students, First-Year Writing trains students to participate in both academic discussions and larger civic debates. The course focuses on introducing students to the tools of analysis and argument so essential to success in college and, later, in professional and civic life. We conceive of analysis and argument broadly, as the making and defending of inferences persuasive to various audiences.
The course opens by teaching students to read critically-not just for information (as they are prone to do) but for inferences. They need to be able to recognize and evaluate the arguments they encounter, and to understand how those arguments take place in ongoing public conversations. The course then gives students the ability to participate in those conversations by offering a more detailed exploration of how arguments are invented and shaped. The course culminates in a consideration of the ways in which writing can be made persuasive in various forms and contexts. Throughout, the course places a premium on training students to think critically and revise thoughtfully.
The course is taught as an intensive writing workshop of no more than 15 students, augmented as appropriate by technology. We draw on the latest educational technologies to support our teaching, and we develop skills in critical information literacy so crucial for our students when they are finding, working with, and evaluating a variety of sources, both print and electronic. The course deals with issues of style, grammar, and organization, not in isolation, but in the context of larger rhetorical and argumentative concerns.

Assessment Methodologies

In order to determine whether the course ARSC 1150 was meeting its intended objectives during the 2001-2002 AY, several types of evaluation activities were conducted by Eliza Hines, assessment coordinator for the program and a Ph.D. student in the School of Education with a special interest in writing assessment. Activities included gathering and summarizing all course syllabi and faculty meetings, administering pre-post surveys to determine students' self-reported knowledge of course content, collecting and analyzing assignments and paper samples received from course instructors, conducting classroom observations, and interviewing instructors in the program.

Assessment Results

Data compiled through these multiple measures clearly indicate that ARSC 1150 is successfully accomplishing all of its goals, yet there are a few elements of the course that could be improved in order to achieve even further success. Table 1, below, summarizes self- reported gains in the key learning objectives of the course. Specifically, the table indicates the increases in the percentage of students indicating that they possessed "Significant Knowledge" or "Some Knowledge" of the skills taught in ARSC 1150 before and after taking the course. Considering that the skills are in most instances cognitively complex and develop over the long-term, the reported increases are significant. Moreover, a review of written work by the students confirms the reported improvement.

Table 1
Percentage of Students Reporting Knowledge of / Improvement in the Following Skills taught in ARSC 1150: Fall 2001 Pre-Test (N=674) Fall 2001 Post-Test (N=533) Fall 2001 Percentage Increase: Spring 2002 Post-Test (N=316)
Assessing an Author's Rhetorical Situation 54.6 85.7 31.1 87.5
Evaluating an Author's Argument 87.2 95.5 8.3 92.3
Evaluating Sources 77.2 91.1 13.9 86.6
Defining Your Own Rhetorical Situation 57.1 83.3 26.2 84.6
Developing an Original Perspective on an Issue 85.3 90.6 5.3 83.9
Writing a Focused Thesis 73.2 88.7 15.5 83.2
Defining Reasons to Support Your Thesis 80.3 91.9 10.8 84.6
Locating Sources 84.6 87.6 3 85.2
Integrating Sources Clearly and Smoothly 71.4 85.4 14 84.5
Using Evidence 87.3 94.6 7.3 89.7
Structuring Your Paper Logically 75.9 88.0 12.1 85.1
Editing for a "Clean" Text-Checking for Appropriate Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, Etc. 73.0 83.5 10.5 76.5
Thinking Critically About Your Own Writing 78.1 86.5 8.4 91.0
Understanding How Different Rhetorical Situations Demand Different Strategies 46.0 81.2 35.2 83.5
Understanding the Importance of Revision and How to Approach It 76.9 91.5 14.6 83.5
Workshopping Papers with Other Students 66.9 89.7 22.8 82.5

The results of this pre-test and post-test survey indicate that most students did indeed learn the skills targeted by instructors of ARSC 1150 during the Fall 2001 semester. Likewise, post-survey data obtained at the conclusion of the Spring 2002 Semester indicate that students improved in their knowledge of the skills taught in ARSC 1150. The results of this spring semester survey show that an average of 80% of students reported that they experienced "Significant Improvement" or "Some Improvement" in each of the skills taught in the course.

Given that this course is part of the Arts and Sciences core curriculum and is intended to have an important educational impact on the students' college careers, it is important to determine whether students felt the course was beneficial in the broader contexts of their college work. Table 2, below, shows that over 80% or more of the students who took ARSC 1150 during the 2001-2002 AY believe that this course will help them in their other courses and has provided them with adequate information about the research process:

Table 2
Survey Comment: Percentage of Students Responding "Strongly Agree" or "Agree" at the Completion of the Fall, 2001 Semester (N=533): Percentage of Students Responding "Strongly Agree" or "Agree" at the Completion of the Spring, 2002 Semester (N=316):
"I think the skills I learned in this class have helped and/or will help me in my other courses." 80% 80%
"ARSC 1150 provided enough information about the research process for me to complete my research assignments successfully" 82% 84%

These survey data are supported and corroborated by other assessment activities. Instructors of ARSC 1150 attended a two-week orientation prior to the beginning of the Fall, 2001 Semester, at which the goals of the course were clearly presented, and at which they were provided with instructional materials suited to the achievement of course objectives, such as sample syllabi, examples of writing assignments, and descriptions of course activities. Classroom observations indicated that instructors of this course did focus on course objectives during class time, and writing assignments also showed that the objectives of the course as stated in departmental literature and described in instructor orientation meetings were implemented into course writing assignments. Paper samples based on these assignments indicate that students were taught the skills targeted by the course and that they experienced improvement in these skills with each subsequent draft.

Areas for Improvement, and Actions Taken

Although broadly successful in its inaugural year, First-Year Writing and Rhetoric, much like any new course, requires further adjustments and development. Assessment data point to three such areas.

The course is distinctive in that it embeds skills on critical information literacy, taught in conjunction with University Libraries, directly into the course. This integration needs further attention so that the PWR/Library collaboration comes off as more seamless. Over the summer of 2002, Rolf Norgaard and Jennifer McCarty will be revising the electronic reading threads, revising the worksheets (soon to be conducted on line), and developing new orientation materials for instructors.

The course requires that instructors call on a rich and flexible set of workshopping techniques in the classroom. Given that the teaching staff was in large part newly recruited, it is not surprising that further professional development would be both appropriate and welcome. In Spring 2002, three distinguished teacher/scholars held teaching workshops for the program. Under the leadership of Patricia Sullivan, the program will also have more regular pedagogy discussions.

As the course matures, and the goals and objectives of the course become more firmly anchored in the culture and practices of the program, it will be possible to encourage more diversity and innovation in teaching materials. Although there was one common rhetoric text in AY 2001-02, there is now a range of textbook options planned for AY 2002-03. The electronic reading threads developed collaboratively by PWR and the Libraries also hold rich potential as an instructor-owned resource. The program is currently exploring options for sharing best practices and teaching materials on a regular or on-going basis.

General Recommendations

  1. Continue to update and develop the course, as its overall direction and focus seem quite promising. Course goals seem apt, widely shared among instructors, and welcomed by students. This year-long assessment suggests that course goals are being met successfully, especially given that the course was only in its first year.
  2. Continue to nurture and develop the collaboration between the Program for Writing and Rhetoric and University Libraries. Information literacy is being recognized as a key campus-wide concern, and this course serves as a key opportunity for helping students acquire such skills.
  3. Continue to develop opportunities for professional development and pedagogical discussions that will encourage our faculty to take an increasing degree of intellectual ownership in this new course and to craft increasingly distinctive course materials, consistent with shared goals and objectives.
  4. Continue to develop the technology infrastructure that is necessary to and appropriate for this course. Initiatives such as the wireless mobile laptop cart, which saw fruit in April and May of 2002, provide a welcome beginning, but additional infrastructure, training, and resources will be needed.
  5. Continue to explore options for several flavors or versions of the first-year course, in order to better meet student needs and interests. The Directed Self-Placement website, piloted in January 2002 and implemented in spring and summer of 2002, will provide useful information on those needs and desires, and a better means for pre-registration and enrollment management.
  6. Begin to discuss the long-term articulation between the first- year course and the existing suite of upper-division courses. Now that an increasing number of students will have taken the first-year course, we can begin to rethink our curricular and pedagogical options at the upper-division. In short, the upper-division courses will soon be able to build on the first-year course, and not merely remedy its absence.

Following these recommendations will help to ensure the continued success of "First-Year Writing and Rhetoric" as it enters into its second academic year of operation at CU-Boulder.

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Last revision 11/15/02

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