Hi Beth, and others,

I just read your email and was struck by the possibility of using the
diagnostic as a prelude to meeting with students for the purposes of
self-placing.  Yes, students often have an inflated sense of their abilities
and many are resistant to the notion of receiving additional instruction.
Perhaps a diagnostic, composed of both objective and essay components, might
provide the introduction for sensible talk and appropriate placing of students
into skill-appropriate classes.

And, yes, I think skill-appropriate placing is important, especially for those
students with the very weakest skills.  If they are to succeed at Knox, where
a very great emphasis is placed on one's ability to write effectively, they
need to receive clear and consistent instruction early and often, perhaps
through three or more consecutive terms, before they can be expected to
succeed in other of the college's writing-intensive courses.  Our class sizes
in what might be called remedial or developmental courses are significantly
smaller than are those in other of our writing courses, and the opportunity
for significant student-teacher interaction is awfully attractive. I'm not
saying that students can't and don't learn from each other or that untracked
approaches don't work; I have no ideological or pedagogical ax to grind.  What
I am saying is that, knowing my developmental instructors as I do and knowing
that they have the opportunity to really work with their students, I want our
weakest students in those developmental courses.

Of course what works for us may not work for everyone, and I don't think that
any approach to either diagnosing, placing, or instructing students ought to
be universally prescribed.  But I do think that at Knox, where we enroll
students from more than 50 countries around the globe and where we are
committed to giving potential achievers an opportunity to succeed, it is
imperative that we identify our weakest writers as soon as we can so that we
can support their learning and increase their chances for success.

And now, having shot off my mouth, I resign my soapbox.

John Haslem
Knox College

Hewett wrote:
> I've been following this thread with interest.  As I said to John Haslem
> earlier, I'm new to the conversation at my college, and I think at times I'm
> a bit naive as well.
> I tend to think that directed self-placement is the way I would want to go
> in a private or more elite 4 year college setting, as students may be a
> little more aware of their own writing inadequacies.  I think it could work
> in a well-funded university, as well, as there likely would be money to
> support the informational initiative necessary to make it work.   I'd
> certainly like the opportunity to try it out for all its potential benefits.
> But in my first semester at Essex, a community college in Baltimore, I was
> rudely awakened as to (1) the state's mindset re the need for placement
> testing and (2) the students' wide missing of the mark in terms of knowing
> their own abilities in reading and writing.  These students generally are
> not readers or writers and generally do not know how unskilled they are.
> They generally have an inflated notion of their skills and are insulted when
> they learn that the college standards are higher than they expect.  It is
> widely agreed by college professionals that the Baltimore County/City school
> systems have not done these students any favors.
> I think that with direction, these students could make good choices about
> their courses and could, as a result, take more responsibility for their
> learning right off the bat.  However, the registration scenario (and my
> inability to be at more than one place at a time AND the lack of other
> instructors' time to help out with this initiative) make it difficult to
> spend the time with a number of students guiding them in the best ways to
> make such important decisions about their school choices/careers.  [If the
> time and money ever become available, I wonder whether making a video to
> guide them would help.]
> All that said, after spending a semester with my developing writers, talking
> clearly and respectfully with them about their abilities, and
> reading/assessing a final portfolio, I decided that they could, at that
> point, self-place in the next level course.  This action was against the
> prevailing thought at the school (and against what the dev ed councils and
> state committees are working toward).  My chair wasn't pleased, as the
> students' choices could make it difficult for their 101 teachers if they
> elected to go to 101 before they were ready.  I had an outtake conference
> with each student where we talked about his/her writing and growth.  I asked
> each student to tell me which course s/he ought to be in following our
> course (repeating the course was a viable option).  I was delighted to see
> that of the three students who most concerned me two stated right out that
> they believed they should repeat the developmental course before proceeding
> to 101.  The third student had personal reasons for moving onward and upon
> listening to them, I agreed that he knew best what to do.  My caveat was to
> talk quite bluntly about the requirements he would face in 101 and ask him
> to outline his strategies for meeting them.  I am satisfied that he will do
> at least as well, if not better, in 101 than in the dev course.
> My current experience with the program director's responsibilities for
> placement are new, as I've said.  It is a complicated issue and I've
> appreciated reading what each of you on the list have had to say.
> Sign me,
> Beth--no longer a lurker
> Beth Hewett, Ph.D.
> CCBC Essex
> Writing Program Director