Information Sheet #134

March 8, 2002

ASSESSING WRITNG SHOULD BE ASSESSING THINKING

In Evaluating Writing: The Role of Teachers’ Knowledge about Text, Learning, and Culture (NCTE, 1999), the editors Charles R. Cooper and Lee Odell provide a succinct summary of principles for college faculty committed to the teaching of writing:

• Writing a text is a process that unfolds over time through a sequence of stages–invention or prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, reflecting on what has been accomplished; these stages are recursive, for example, with invention continuing during revising; and that these stages present different possibilities and problems for writers.

• Writing instruction need not be fragmented into units or sentences, and then paragraphs, and then, finally, real writing; we should ask students for authentic multi-paragraph writing and then help them with their sentences and paragraphs within the context of that writing.

• Writing assignments should be given and writing projects defined within a full social (or communicative) situation so that students will understand their purposes and readers.

• Writing is different from talk and must be learned attentively, consciously.

• Talk does play an important role in learning to write, through discussions of assignments, models, and criteria and through collaboration among students and between students and their teachers, as in conferences or peer workshops.

• Writing is both free and constrained–both highly creative in that the next sentence is always a surprise and also highly conventional in that all writers work with a limited, describably syntactic repertoire and a set of culturally determined, widely recognized genres; the conventions act as constraints but also as heuristics making possible certain kinds of creative work at both the sentence and text levels.

• Self-reflection or self-evaluation in writing enables students to consolidate and remember longer what they have learned about writing.

In Cooper and Odell’s anthology, this summary introduces an aspect of the teaching process that has been less amenable to consensus: How should faculty respond to students’ drafts?  What should we say and how should the response be communicated?  To guide faculty in thinking about their evaluations, Lee Odell suggests that we remember that writing is “an act of discovery, an act of constructing meaning.”  If faculty are serious about these constructions of meaning, then faculty should regularly focus on how meanings have been constructed and how these constructions offer clues into the students’ thinking processes. Odell identifies six fundamental elements of the thinking process typically evident in students’ texts, regardless of academic discipline. Here are Odell’s six dimensions of thinking and a sample of questions we can ask students as we attempt to help them in their “acts of discovery.”

Questions for Assessing Thinking

Dissonance: What sort of problems, ambiguities, ironies, questions, uncertainties, or conflicts do students mention (or overlook)?

• Do students point out things that surprise or puzzle them? 

• Do they pose questions?

• Do they ever indicate that they are confused, uncertain, or ambivalent about something they have experienced?

• Do they comment on ways in which two strongly held beliefs (ideas, values) are inconsistent with each other? 

• Do they notice ways in which people’s actions seem inconsistent with their words?

• Do they mention ways in which something conflicts with what they had expected or would have preferred?

Selecting: What kinds of information (observations, facts, personal experiences, feelings, memories) do students include in or exclude from their writing?

• When students respond to literature or write personal experience narratives, do they focus solely on the events that happened, or do they include information about people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations?

• When they describe, do they look for details that will “show, not tell”?

• When they try to write persuasively or informatively, do they include appropriate information given the knowledge, needs, or values of their intended readers?

Encoding/Representing: What sort of language do students use to articulate their ideas (feelings, perceptions, memories)?

• When students try to think through complicated issues, do they use highly emotional language that might limit their ability to see the complexity of a situation?

• When students discuss personal events, do they use relatively abstract, generalized terms, or do they use language that reflects the personal significance of those events?

• Do they come up with metaphors that let them take a fresh look at their subject?

• Do they choose words with connotations appropriate to the subject matter, audience, and purpose?

Drawing on Prior Knowledge: Do students explicitly refer to things they already know in order to understand something new?

• When students read a complicated text, do they comment on how this piece relates to other texts they have read?

• When they encounter a difficult problem, what do they use from comparable problems or from prior schoolwork?

• When they are introduced to new concepts in their courses, do students consider ways in which those concepts apply to their personal experience or ways in which they are or are not compatible with what they’ve learned previously?

Seeing Relationships: What kinds of relationships (cause-effect, time, if . . . then, similarity, difference) do students mention?

• Do students note when and why things happen?

• Do they create hypothetical scenarios, speculating about how one thing might cause or lead up to another?

• Do they make distinctions, noting how something is different from something else?  Do they classify or note similarities? 

• Do they comment on how things change?  Do they notice ways in which a person or object fits into its surroundings?

Considering Different Perspectives: To what extent do students try to consider ways in which other people might perceive, interpret, or respond to a given idea, fact, or experience?

• Do students consider good news as well as bad, pros as well as con?

• Do they try to adopt another’s perspective?

• Do they try to think of different conclusions that might be drawn from a particular set of data?

• Do they put themselves in the reader’s place, trying to understand the knowledge, values, or needs with which that reader approaches their writing? 

• When they disagree with someone, do they consider ways in which that person’s view might possibly make sense?

Implicit in [these questions] is the belief that assessment must serve not only to rank or grade students but also to give us information we can use in our teaching.  If we can get some insight into the way students are thinking in a particular situation, we may be able to help them see what they want to continue to do or do differently in other situations.  This possibility, of course, is based on a further assumption: Thinking is something that people learn to do, and we can help them get better at it–not by giving them a steady diet of drills or exercises that claim to teach people to think, not by having them do the mental equivalent of push-ups–but, rather, by using what we already know about teaching writing. . . .

We will help students to think better by asking to look closely at their work–or a classmate’s or ours–and to consider some of the questions [listed above.] For example, we might put a piece of writing–a journal entry, an early draft, a finished draft–on the overhead and raise questions such as the following:

• What kinds of details has this writer selected?

• Are there kinds of significant details missing?

• What questions (problems, conflicts, dissonances) has the writer considered?

• What additional questions might the writer consider?

• Has this writer considered different perspectives?  Should different perspectives be considered?

It’s always possible, of course, that our questions can taken on a pseudo-Socratic tone, strongly implying the answer we want students to give.  But it’s equally possible that we can ask our questions honestly, posing them because they reflect our curiosity, our need to figure something out.  When we do so, our natural tendency to talk about thinking can lead to a dialogue, one in which we and our students get a glimpse of each other’s mind at work.  And, in the process, both we and our students can continue to grow as writers and thinkers. 

–Lee Odell, “Assessing Thinking: Glimpsing a Mind at Work”

A Lost Opportunity

In the spring of 1969, three months before I left graduate school to enter the U.S. Army, I submitted a 20-page paper as my final project for a seminar in literary theory.  My subject was on the nature of time in literary works, trying to discuss how time is experienced as we read a literary text.  It was not a subject I was remotely prepared to discuss in any insightful manner, and the paper was little more than a string of ill-conceived, ill-understood observations based on a haphazard series of readings.  

A week after the end of the term, I went by Dr. Towne’s office to pick up my paper and learn my grade for the course.  The paper received a B+, which meant that I would receive a B+ for a course grade.  When I opened the paper, I discovered that Dr. Towne had gone through my manuscript and meticulously corrected my infelicities in usage and awkward sentence constructions.  On each page were dozens of insertions, deletions, and suggestions for improving the flow and precision of my language.  It was apparent that all these corrections, carefully written in black ink, would have taken an hour or longer.  My response was to glance at 2 or 3 pages, and then I put the manuscript in my book bag.  Eventually the paper was transferred to a box of papers in my apartment.  Shortly before my departure for Fort Lewis, the box was thrown away. 

When I retrieved my paper from Dr. Towne’s office, the grade was all that concerned me.  The paper was done.  The professor’s efforts to improve my language skills meant nothing to me.  There was so much I could have learned from his comments, but I was blind to the value of his gift. Thinking back on this experience, I am struck by the dedication of Dr. Towne to his students.  Perhaps he was naive, but I remain impressed by the example of this professor, nearing the end of a long teaching career, carefully attending to the minutest details in each student’s paper.  How is it possible that after years of reading so many poorly written compositions, he could still believe that students–even graduate students–could care about their writing, could imagine they really wanted to improve? How often was he ever thanked for his efforts?  How many students appreciated this wonderful favor he was granting them? 

Over thirty years later, I still feel guilty for my failure to learn from him--and to thank him.  How I wish I could go back in time and rescue that paper from its oblivion. Unfortunately, at that moment in my life, I was unprepared for appreciating his concern that I become a better writer, a better thinker.  Now, ironically, I find myself in a situation not unlike Dr. Towne’s: reading student papers and wondering who would care what I might write on their papers.  Lacking Dr. Towne’s erudition and skill as an editor, what can I offer students that they might find beneficial?  –Bob Marrs


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