Assessing the Teaching of Writing: Twenty-First Century Trends and Technologies

Assessing the Teaching of Writing: Twenty-First Century Trends and Technologies

by Amy E. Dayton


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Although fraught with politics and other perils, teacher evaluation can contribute in important, positive ways to faculty development at both the individual and the departmental levels. Yet the logistics of creating a valid assessment are complicated. Inconsistent methods, rater bias, and overreliance on student evaluation forms have proven problematic. The essays in Assessing the Teaching of Writing demonstrate constructive ways of evaluating teacher performance, taking into consideration the immense number of variables involved.

Contributors to the volume examine a range of fundamental issues, including the political context of declining state funds in education; growing public critique of the professoriate and demands for accountability resulting from federal policy initiatives like No Child Left Behind; the increasing sophistication of assessment methods and technologies; and the continuing interest in the scholarship of teaching. The first section addresses concerns and advances in assessment methodologies, and the second takes a closer look at unique individual sites and models of assessment. Chapters collectively argue for viewing teacher assessment as a rhetorical practice.

Fostering new ways of thinking about teacher evaluation, Assessing the Teaching of Writing will be of great interest not only to writing program administrators but also to those concerned with faculty development and teacher assessment outside the writing program. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874219548
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2015
Edition description: 1
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Amy E. Dayton is associate professor of English at the University of Alabama. Her research interests include historiography, community literacy, language attitudes, literacy in literature, assessment/teacher training, composition theory/pedagogy, and models and methods for community outreach.

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Assessing the Teaching of Writing

Twenty-First Century Trends and Technologies

By Amy E. Dayton

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2015 the University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87421-966-1


Assessing Teaching

A Changing Landscape


Assessing the teaching of writing is a process fraught with conflict. Despite a significant body of research pointing to the importance of multiple assessment measures and careful interpretation of the data, the evaluation of postsecondary teaching still relies heavily on a single measure of performance — the student ratings score — and interpretation of this score is often done in a hasty, haphazard fashion. Aside from student ratings, other data on teaching effectiveness tend to be collected in piecemeal fashion, without sufficient space for reflection and dialogue. When it comes to assessment, practical realities — including a lack of time, administrative resources, or knowledge about best practices — frequently trump our intentions to do a comprehensive job of evaluating classroom performance. Without clear guidelines for collecting and interpreting data, the outcome can be influenced by individual biases about what counts as evidence of good teaching. This collection offers new perspectives on that question of "what counts," pointing to ways that we can more effectively gather data about teaching and offering practical guidance for interpreting it. It also suggests ways we can improve our practice, mentor new teachers, foster dialogue about best practices, and make those practices more visible.

This book is for teachers who want to improve their practice, administrators and program directors who hire and train instructors, and faculty and staff in writing programs, centers for teaching and learning, and other instructional support units on college campuses. Although its primary audience is composition specialists, the collection offers practical suggestions and perspectives that apply to many contexts for postsecondary teaching. The tools presented in these chapters — mid-semester focus groups, student evaluations of instruction, classroom observations, teaching portfolios, and so on — are used across the disciplines, in many instructional settings. While some chapters focus on specific methods, others provide new frameworks for thinking about assessment. In her chapter on writing center(ed) assessment, for instance, Nichole Bennett describes a philosophy that could work for both writing programs and other sites for teacher training across campuses. This approach involves bringing teachers and tutors into the broader conversation about the program's missions and goals, and asking them to reflect on assessment data. By making assessment a broad, program-wide conversation, we invite stakeholders at every level to participate in setting goals and outcomes and gauging how well those outcomes have been met. The authors of chapters 6 and 7 argue for an ethos of transparency, suggesting a need to set clear standards for how materials might be read, to give teachers a sense of agency in deciding how to represent their work, and to share evidence of teaching quality with broader audiences while contextualizing the data for outside readers. These more inclusive, transparent models allow us to engage both internal and external audiences in more productive dialogue.

This collection arrives at a time when the public dialogue and political context for postsecondary teaching are particularly fraught. Challenges include a decline in state funding, public anxiety over the rising cost of college, concern about the value of a degree in today's lagging economy, and, to some extent, hostility toward college professors. An example of this hostility is found in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recent book, Academically Adrift, which criticizes faculty for being more interested in their research and the advancement of their disciplines than in their students' progress or the well-being of their institutions — a trend that, in the authors' view, has contributed to an epidemic of "limited learning" on college campuses (Arum and Roksa 2011, 10 — 11). (See Richard Haswell [2012] for a critique of their findings and methodology). At the state level, this picture of the self-interested, disengaged faculty member permeates our political rhetoric. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that recent state election cycles have been dominated by efforts to curb faculty rights, including measures to limit salaries and collective bargaining rights, attacks on tenure and sabbaticals, and proposals to require college faculty to teach a minimum number of credit hours (Kelderman 2011). In a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece, "Putting a Price on Professors," Simon and Banchero (2010) point to some other developments. Texas state law now requires that public universities publicize departmental budgets, instructors' curriculum vitae, student ratings, and course syllabi, making all of this data accessible "within three clicks" of the university's home page. At Texas A&M, university officials have gone even further, putting a controversial system in place to offer cash bonuses to faculty who earn the highest student ratings, and creating a public "profit and loss" statement on each faculty member that "[weighs] their annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained" (Simon and Banchero 2010; see also Hamermesh 2010, Huckabee 2009, June 2010, and Mangan 2000).

This push to make college faculty more accountable — and to quantify their contributions — comes, ironically, at a time when tenured, sabbatical-eligible faculty members are dwindling in numbers, being replaced by part-time and non-tenure track teachers whose situations are often tenuous at best. A New York Times article reports that "only a quarter of the academic work force is tenured, or on track for tenure, down from more than a third in 1995" (Lewin 2013). The challenge facing many university writing programs, then, is not the task of fostering commitment to teaching among research-obsessed, tenured faculty members, but rather supporting teachers who are new to the profession — like graduate teaching assistants — or who are working without job security, a full-time income, or adequate professional resources (such as office space or support for professional development). Because first-year composition (FYC) is one of the few courses required for most students at public universities, and because personalized, process-based instruction requires low student-to-faculty ratios, university writing programs find themselves at the front lines of these labor issues in higher education.

Despite the challenging times, composition studies, as a field, has capitalized on the accountability movement and current zeal for assessment by taking a proactive stance, seeking meaningful ways to gather data about teaching and participate in large-scale evaluations of student learning. In the aftermath of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Spellings Commission on Higher Education, and initiatives such as the ones put in place in Texas, we recognize that developing thoughtful, context-sensitive assessments is the best insurance against having hasty, reductionist evaluations imposed upon our programs. Many writing programs have either fully adopted the WPA Outcomes Statement on First-Year Composition (Council of Writing Program Administrators 2000), or have modified the statement to create local outcomes. Other programs are participating in large-scale, national assessments and making use of the data for local purposes. As Paine and his colleagues explain in chapter 11, the Council of Writing Program Administrators has teamed up with the consortium for the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to create a writing component within that national assessment. In chapter 12, Deborah Goodburn and Amy Minter point to the ways that the trend toward "big data" can provide methods for analyzing trends and understanding patterns on our campuses and in our programs (they also acknowledge the need to use data mining in a responsible manner). These large-scale assessment projects have raised the visibility of our professional associations. More importantly, they have helped ensure that efforts to standardize outcomes or measure students' experiences with writing are informed by a solid understanding of composing processes and best practices for teaching.

While the national context for higher education has changed in recent years, the assessment landscape is also shifting. One way to gauge some of those changes is by considering the essays in this volume in relation to Christine Hult's 1994 text, Evaluating Teachers of Writing. On one hand, many of the central concerns of Hult's volume — the impact of the teaching-as-scholarship movement, the need to develop equitable practices to assess adjunct and graduate student teachers, and the overreliance on student surveys — are still important issues. On the other hand, the methods we use to assess teaching have evolved in ways that make them quite different from their predecessors. Take, for example, the practice of gathering mid-semester feedback from students. While Peter Elbow (1994), in the Hult volume, presents this method as an informal exchange between the students and the teacher, in chapter 5 of this volume Gerald Nelms explains how the small-group instructional diagnosis (SGID) method has formalized and systematized this practice, yielding more data and more reliable results. My point here is not that formal methods should always be privileged over informal, organic ones, but that with a range of methods at our disposal teachers have more choices about the kinds of feedback they would like to obtain.

Similarly, emerging technologies create new options for sharing our results. Electronic portfolios, teachers' homepages, professor rating websites, and other digital spaces now function not just to display data but also to foster conversation about their meaning. The dialogic nature of Web 2.0 technologies can make our assessments more open and transparent — but they also bring challenges for teachers who may not want to be visible in the way that technology allows (or compels) us to be. In chapters 7 and 10, Chris Anson and Amy Kimme Hea present contrasting perspectives on the tension between teachers' visibility and vulnerability online. While Anson urges writing programs and teachers to consider making assessment data more visible (by posting student opinion surveys online, for instance), Kimme Hea suggests ways that teachers can monitor and manage their online presence, noting that today's teachers are being "written by the web" in ways we could not have predicted before the arrival of Web 2.0.

Key Terms

For readers who are new to the assessment landscape, the following section gives a brief overview of the key concepts that appear throughout this book. This section will also complicate these common terms, and will show how we might blur the boundaries between them in order to consider anew the potential, and the peril, of the approaches we choose.


The term assessment, with its origins in the Latin phrase "to sit beside," suggests the possibilities inherent in formative, cooperative methods for training and mentoring writing instructors. Traditionally, composition scholarship, rooted in a humanist, progressive tradition that values the potential of the individual, has privileged that cooperative work of "sitting beside" our developing teachers over the sometimes necessary, but less pleasant, task of ranking, sorting, and judging them.

In recent years, writing assessment research has reached a kind of crossroads, with opposing visions of the work that we ought to be doing. On one hand, most scholars are deeply invested in empirical methods, drawing from the methodologies of our colleagues in educational measurement (Huot 2007; O'Neill, Moore, and Huot 2009; Wolcott and Legg 1998). These traditional approaches provide us with the means for gauging validity and reliability, as well as reading statistical results. On the other hand, an emerging body of work calls on composition scholars to take a more critical stance, and to interrogate the ideologies implicit in standardized assessments. Patricia Lynne (2004), for instance, rejects psychometric approaches entirely, advocating a rhetorically-based approach that eschews positivist assumptions, while Inoue and Poe (2012) urge us to consider "how unequal or unfair outcomes may be structured into our assessment technologies and the interpretations that we make from their outcomes" (6). That concern about the positivist assumptions and ideologies embedded in assessment work is not unique to scholars in the humanities, but is also the focus of an evolving conversation among scholars in the social sciences, including the field of educational measurement. In her influential essay, "Can There Be Validity without Reliability?" Pamela Moss (1994) argues that we cannot make reliability judgments solely from statistical analyses of numerical data. Rather, they require an interpretive or "hermeneutic" approach involving "holistic, integrative" thinking "that [seeks] to understand the whole in light of its parts, that [privileges] readers who are most knowledgeable about the context in which the assessment occurs, and that [grounds] those interpretations not only in the ... evidence available, but also in a rational debate among the community of interpreters" (7). In other words, assessment is, at least in part, a rhetorical practice, regardless of the disciplinary home of the person conducting the evaluation. When we assess, therefore, we must ask: Who are the stakeholders? Whom and what are we assessing? For what purposes? Who will be the ultimate audience? (Huot 2002; O'Neill, Moore, and Huot 2009). For this reason, most of the essays in this volume strike a balance between empirical and interpretive modes, without privileging one approach over the other.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment

Assessment scholars traditionally distinguish between formative and summative evaluation. Formative evaluation is "ongoing," designed to encourage improvement, while summative evaluation is "more fixed and 'retroactive,' bearing the connotation of finality in its sense of accountability" (Wolcott and Legg 1998, 4). Formative assessment is a tool to help teachers; it involves an element of self-evaluation that is best used in situations where instructors have the opportunity to reflect on the feedback, set goals for improvement, and implement the results in their classroom. Summative assessment, on the other hand, is done for external audiences, for the purpose of sorting, ranking, and making decisions about teachers — for example, when giving awards or making decisions about staffing, merit raises, contract renewals, and promotions.

In practice, the categories of formative and summative assessment are not clearly distinct from one another, nor should they be. Chris Anson argues in chapter 7 that summative evaluation should include some evidence of formative, or reflective, thinking about teaching. Moreover, when programs do not have the time and resources to offer both formative and summative evaluation (through multiple course observations, for instance), they tend not to make distinctions between them. It may be more productive, then, to use the term instructive assessment, as Brian Huot (2002) suggests. Instructive assessment shifts the focus to the teacher's growth and continuous improvement, even when making summative judgments. This stance reflects the growing consensus in educational circles "[recognizing] the importance of holding all educational practices, including assessment, to rigorous standards that include the enhancement of teaching and learning" (18). This may be especially true for university writing programs. Considering the marginalized status of many of our teachers, it is critical that our assessments facilitate their continued improvement and professional development — and lead to some discussion about the resources our teachers need to be successful and the ways that programs and WPAs can provide better support.


Excerpted from Assessing the Teaching of Writing by Amy E. Dayton. Copyright © 2015 the University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Edward M. White vii

Acknowledgments xi

Section I Frameworks And Methods For Assessing Teaching

1 Assessing Teaching: A changing Landscape Amy E. Dayton 3

2 Assessing the Teaching of Writing: A Scholarly Approach Meredith DeCosta Duane Roen 13

3 Making Sense (and Making Use) of Student Evaluations Amy E. Dayton 31

4 Watching other People Teach: The Challenge of Classroom Obserbations Brian Jackson 45

5 Small Group Instructional Diagnosis:Formative, Mid-Term Evaluations of Composition Courses and Instructors Gerald Nelms 61

6 Regarding the "E" in E-portfolios for Teacher Assesment Kara Mae Brown Kim Freeman Chris W. Gallagher 80

Section II New Challenges, New Contexts For Assessing Teaching

7 Tecnology and Transparency: Sharing and Reflecting on the Evaluation of Teaching Chris M. Anson 99

8 Telling the Whole Story: Exploring Writing Center(ed) Assessment Nichole Bennett 118

9 Administrative Priorities and the case for Multiple Methods Cindy Moore 133

10 Teacher Evaluation in the Age of Web 2.0: What Every College Instructor Should know and Every WPA Should Consider Amy C. Kimme Hea 152

11 Using National Survey of Student Engagement Data and Methods to Assess Teaching First-Year Composition and writing across the Curriculum Charles Paine Chris M. Anson Robert M. Gonyea Paul Anderson 171

12 Documenting Teaching in the Age of Big Data Deborah Minterd Amy Goodburn 187

About the Authors 201

Index 204

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