Assessing Student Learning Through Writing
As instructors, we are used to evaluating student learning in a variety
of ways. We create tests and assignments that communicate to us what our
students have learned. Writing is an important tool we can all use to
assess student knowledge and mastery. Whether our course content involves
theoretical concepts or process oriented accomplishment, or both, we can
incorporate writing into the opportunities we give students to show us
what they know.
At Washtenaw Community College, many of us are concerned about the quality
of our students' writing and reading. Some of our students are underprepared
for college level work. If our students encounter regular writing assignments
in all of their classes, their chances of leaving our school with college
level literacy skills vastly improves. The more opportunities we give
students to write what they understand, and what they have questions about,
the better off they will be.
Richard Light of Harvard University, author of Making the Most of College,
has found that students relate writing to the intensity level of their
courses. His research suggested that the level of engagment students experienced
with coursework corresponded to the amount of writing required. Given
that, it serves all of us to incorporate writing into what we ask of students.
1. Ask students to note their observations and conclusions following
a particular demonstration (either of a process, a historical event, a
social interaction, etc.) Collecting this sort of writing is a quick way
to see how students are making meaning on their own about the material
2. Have students write a letter to future students in the course, explaining
a key idea, event or concept. If you actually share these letters with
future students, you are demonstrating to students that what they understand,
and write, matters.
3. Have students turn in an informal one page typed commentary on the
reading assignments you give each week. Tell students that you want them
to explore their questions on the readings, and to give a clear and honest
response about what they understand after reading them. This will give
you almost immediate information on what concepts in their reading need
4. A variant on this idea comes from Professor Light, who suggests that
students write "one-minute papers" at the end of each class
session. These papers simply summarize what students understand to be
the central idea of the lecture, discussion or experiment, raise questions
the students may have, and are anonymous. By collecting one of these from
each student, Light ensures that all students participate, and feel free
from any pressures they may feel in submitting work to him, or in speaking
5. Have each student present a mini-lesson on one portion of the course
material during the term. For each mini presentation, ask students to
prepare a handout that conveys important information about the material
involved. Suggest that students consider writing a poem, recipe or letter
as part of what they present to the class in their handout.
Links for more ideas:
Harvard Gazette Archives
- an article by John Lenger outlining some of Richard Light's findings
is archived here. The original date of publication was March 8, 2001.
Many other articles of interest appear here.
Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University - this is the
links page for the Center, and highlights some relevant articles from
Richard Light and others as a result of the Harvard Assessment Seminars
that Professor Light initiated.
More about writing across the curriculum