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Alternative assessment

I am helping to conduct a workshop for the upcoming International Writing Centers Association Conference in Las Vegas (woo hoo!) along with WC megastars Jill Pennington and Neal Lerner. While we haven't worked out the session completely yet, I'd really like to pursue alternative assessment models/methods. I'm thinking of methods such as recorded exit interviews, focus groups, recorded discussions with students etc. I've done quite a lot of this assessment over the past few years with peer tutors in particular, and I would like to expand it to talking with student writers. Basically it would allow the student writer to speak out on her writing center work, and provide our writing center with valuable feedback. The questions I would ask them, of course, would have a purpose in mind.

As I have started to think about this, however, I begin to wonder if this is really assessment at all. I suppose I am informally coding the responses when I analyze them and put them together to build a "report" video. It isn't, however, a quantitative thing. I'm not putting stats to it. I realize, of course, that assessment doesn't necessarily have to be quantitative, but in order to find some respect as a "real study" it seems it has to be.

For example, there was a recent post on WCENTER asking about studies that explore faculty in two-year college writing centers. Since I've written on the subject and presented at various conferences, I was initially keen to write a response on the subject. The word "quantitative study" appeared (I believe, I can't seem to find the post right now) so I backed away from the keyboard. Yeah, my work was in no way a quantitative study. It was observational. My perception of their work as well as feedback that I've received from students, peer writing tutors, and the faculty themselves. Is that quantitative? Does that meet muster?

So here I sit, for the moment, wondering if the assessment work I entertain talking to others about is really even assessment work at all. What are the parameters that define assessment? Is it what we do with the outcome and not the outcome itself?


  1. Hey, Clint. I have a very broad view of assessment, one that looks at assessment as a rhetorical act. What I mean is different kinds of assessment will be persuasive for different kinds of audiences. And audiences do have their particular binkies! Some folks will only be convinced by numbers, some folks think numbers obfuscate, and some folks think it's all phenomenological anyway so why bother? Just don't invite all each of those groups to the same party (or maybe you should if you want a lively party).

    In my view, this all means that you have to build in the justification for your assessment approach to go along with whatever results you find. Maybe even more important, the activity needs to start with the justification or reason for doing the assessment in the first place. I've seen too often people who have lots of data they think might say something about their writing centers or student writing, but they're not sure what. Instead, it would have been more powerful had they started with certain questions and then figured out what kinds of data to collect to answer those questions in a meaningful way.

    I look forward to your workshop!

  2. My workshop? It is our workshop, buddy!

    Seriously, though, thanks for your response. Sometimes I feel that my English Major tendencies don't often fit in an Accounting Major world.

    I like where you are going with the notion of framing important questions. I know I've learned quite a lot from doing exit and follow-up interviews with previous tutors. It has also helped to explain why the Student Writing Center is important for the people who are employed by it.

  3. Hi Clint--first of all, we just met at the WPA conference (hello again). I am working on a project on the history of student learning outcomes and how writing centers have responded to institutional demands to measure SLOs. (At this point, I am reading and reading, trying to figure out how outcomes came to be basically before I move onto the next stage, which is to look at how writing centers have responded to the outcomes call.) At last fall's IWCA conference, I helped organize a panel titled something like "Resisting SLOs in the Community College Writing Center," (which was a theoretically informed narrative from four community college WCs from the Southern California WC Directors Group) and I can't believe I missed your panel on alternative assessment models! I would love to see any materials you prepared for your presentation/ workshop. I have a ton more questions and comments, but I'll hold off for now, especially in case you are away from your blog this summer and/ or are on vacation and understandably don't wish to be bothered! Thanks, Julia


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