Institute Research

The Institute for Writing and Rhetoric Assessment Project

In 2009, Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric received a $200,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation to improve the effectiveness of our first-year writing programs:  Writing 2-3, Writing 5, the First-Year Seminars, and Humanities 1-2.

Supported by Davis funds, the Institute launched a three-pronged assessment project motivated by two important and related questions—How do students transfer knowledge about writing from course to course and task to task?  and How does composing with new technologies improve the transfer of more traditional writing abilities? 

The Project

Part One: Reading and Coding Student Writing

The centerpiece of the assessment project is a close examination of first-year student writing.  To initiate this examination, the Institute collected first and final papers from students in every first-year writing class for three years.  From these papers, a random representative sample was collected, rendered anonymous by an independent observer, and then coded by three groups of readers, constituted of 9 faculty and 2 graduate students.  Papers were coded in order to address particular questions that had evolved from the faculty’s year-long efforts to define the first-year writing courses’ learning outcomes.  The questions explored are as follows. 

  •  One group read entire papers and considered questions including: Does the paper have a guiding claim?  What kinds of evidence does it offer?  What are the strategies for introductions and conclusions? 
  • A second group read two-paragraph samples from the same papers, asking:  Does the paragraph have a controlling claim?  What kinds of evidence does the writer use?  What sorts of transitions?
  • A third group examined the sources that students cite in order to determine how these sources are being represented.  Are students quoting?  Paraphrasing? Summarizing?  Patchwriting?  

We expect the data we collect to allow us to determine patterns in first-year student writing in four student groups: those who take only FYS, those in WRIT 2-3 and FYS, and those in Fall-Winter or Winter-Spring WRIT 5 and FYS.  We also intend to study individual student writers to observe how knowledge about writing transfers (or doesn’t) from course to course. 

Part Two: Linked Courses

The second component of our assessment project was designed to offer another, close-up look at knowledge transfer, informed by the assessment work described above.  Here, WRIT 5 and First-Year Seminar instructors teamed up in order 1) to track knowledge transfer from course to course, and 2) to think about which teaching methods best facilitate that transfer. 

Part Three: Multimodal Composition

The third component of our assessment project organized a group of faculty to examine how multimodal arguments are read and composed in first-year writing classrooms.  In particular, the group paid attention to how composing with media might improve the transfer of writing capabilities that students use regularly in more traditional writing tasks. Faculty familiar with using multimodal assignments in their teaching designed professional development opportunities for colleagues interested in incorporating multimodal assignments in their courses. 

Assessment and Faculty Development

The Institute Davis Assessment project was designed so that every step in the process is faculty development.  Foundationally, each component of the research was supported by faculty who were reviewing and summarizing current scholarship in relevant fields.  This research not only informed how we framed assessment and interpreted results, it also increased faculty expertise on matters such as knowledge transfer and multimodal composition.

Moreover, faculty involved in the actual assessment of student writing—reading and coding student papers—reported the benefit of seeing student writing in new ways.  In this way, their assessment work came to inform their teaching.  And finally, the assessment project offered many opportunities for writing instructors to talk about their shared enterprise:  a strong first-year writing education for Dartmouth students.