New first-stage writing requirements give students new agency

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A Cultural Studies Program (CSP) class on “Democracy, Liberty, and Equality in the American Experience.” Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 at Occidental College. The Occidental/Amirah Al-Sagr

This year, the Occidental College writing department and core program rolled out new first-stage writing requirements for first year and transfer students. According to Julie Prebel, director of Occidental’s Writing Center & Programs, the new requirements include a self-assembled portfolio of students’ best work instead of a timed writing exercise like previous years. The portfolio, due March 1, includes an essay leading evaluators on the Portfolio Assessment Committee, comprised of faculty who have formerly taught Cultural Studies Program (CSP) classes, through their selected works.

“Students are to submit two essays they wrote in fall CSP, one essay from early spring CSP, then along with that they provide a guide for us as readers to the portfolio essays with a reflective introduction essay,” Prebel said.

Prebel said one reason the administration decided to make a change was a disconnect between the grades students received on their CSPs and their timed writing scores.

“We had this holistic rubric that had a set of criteria, and then you had CSP instructors teaching courses with a different set of criteria,” Prebel said. “Sometimes there was a mismatch. Students might get grades on papers that didn’t seem to correlate with the scores that they got.”

According to Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs and Director of the Core Program Ron Buckmire, the statistical evidence proved the requirement needed fixing.

“We did an analysis of the data and there was almost no correlation between your grade in a CSP and your evaluation by the CSP instructor,” Buckmire said. “The timed writing exercise doesn’t make any sense in the context of how people actually do writing.”

Buckmire said the portfolio approach to the first-stage writing requirement will also give portfolio evaluators from the writing department an opportunity to evaluate CSP writing instruction to improve the system in the future.

“The idea behind it is that if we make it a closed loop where students are submitting stuff that they wrote in the CSP and we see how they get evaluated when the writing is looked at later, then we can go back and evaluate how well writing instruction is happening in CSP,” Buckmire said.

According to Prebel, the elimination of the timed writing evaluation — a key part of the earlier requirement — helps safeguard students from inequities in assessing their writing.

“There are many studies about how, embedded in timed-writing environments, there’s a lot of inequity across race, class, sometimes gender lines,” Prebel said. “Some timed writing experiences privilege certain types of students. We’ve eliminated that. Everyone is given a chance in terms of what you can submit. It gives students the agency to both choose what they’re submitting and to guide the portfolio assessment committee through a reading of what they’ve submitted.”

According to Buckmire, the nuts and bolts of the new requirement also make it much fairer.

“The students will be anonymous to the evaluators, the evaluators are anonymous to the students, they are randomly assigned,” Buckmire said. “Each portfolio gets read twice by two randomly assigned assessors.”

Berit Goding (first year) said she and her classmates were worried their writing would not be as effective for unknown evaluators compared to their CSP professors, who know their writing and voice.

“It can be a little confusing to know exactly what these people are going to be looking for, because we don’t know who is looking at our papers,” Goding said.

Prebel said when she spoke to incoming students about getting rid of the timed writing exercise, she was struck by how relieved it made them.

“It was almost like pure joy, it was so great,” Prebel said. “I thought, ‘Wow, is that all it took? We got rid of timed writing and already one element of a concern some people might be experiencing in matriculating to college goes away?’ That made me really happy.”

Prebel said her goal for the future is to link the first- and second-stage writing requirements to better evaluate students’ improvement over time. Currently, the second-stage writing requirement usually occurs in students’ third year and is implemented by the staff of each major rather than the writing department.

“We’re not really measuring at this point, ‘Did a student show improvement through their entire academic career at Oxy?’” Prebel said. “Would I like to do that? Yes. I think that would be some interesting data to collect and see, ‘Are we doing what we promise we are doing for you?’”

Buckmire said the writing department and core program share the goal of improving the second-stage requirements down the road.

“Right now, the second-stage requirement is the wild, wild west, because every department can decide how they do that,” Buckmire said. “Once we know how well the first-stage writing is going, I think in the future we’ll be trying to do something for second stage that looks more like first stage.”

Buckmire said while he believes the new system is much better, one drawback is the lack of incentive for students to focus on the CSP lecture series and summer reading.

“The CSP speaker series were used as the source for the questions in the timed writing exercise, so it behooved students to remember or take notes on what happened in the CSP lectures and the summer reading because questions from those would appear on the timed writing exercise,” Buckmire said. “Now we just have the lecture series and the summer readings, and they’re not connected to a specific exercise that students have to do.”

Prebel said the new portfolio approach is in line with her goal to have writing requirements at Occidental align with researched best practices.

“We changed this because we wanted to have a more equitable and fair assessment process for students,” Prebel said. “I want the writing assessment we do college-wide to align with scholarship and researched best practices in the field of writing studies.”

While Goding expressed some doubts about the new requirements, she said it feels like Occidental is making progress in terms of writing evaluation.

“I would say this is definitely a step in the right direction,” Goding said. “Having essays that you have worked on and have feedback on is a much fairer chance than giving everyone 55 minutes to write something, and some people may feel more pressure and not do their best.”