Reflective Assessment of a Course And The Importance of Advanced Levels of Writing: After Graduation and Beyond

Posted on November 12th, 2015 by

Martha Garcia is associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures. She is UCF alumna and returned as a faculty member in 2005 from Vanderbilt University where she earned her doctorate degree. She teaches Spanish language, literature, and culture classes, and courses in her areas of research in literature and theatre: Spanish Medieval, Spanish Golden Age, and the Enlightenment of Spain. She is currently working on her fourth book manuscript and several other academic projects.

The assessment of a course requires the evaluation of student achievements in direct relation to the goals or objectives for that course. After a semester as a Writing Across the Curriculum Fellow in Spring 2014 with writing studies experts and colleagues from a variety of disciplines, I had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of writing as a transferable skill to building a solid professional profile and—also significant—to securing and maintaining professional employment. Spending a semester reading, learning, and writing, in conjunction with the vigorous techniques of John C. Bean in Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom,[1] I have internalized the necessary connection between the student learning and the role of assessment in evaluating learning outcomes.

Even though assessment is primarily related to measuring the results of student performance at the end of each semester, this process also considers some micro-assessment and macro-assessment in order to determine the best possible practice. Fifteen years of teaching at several levels in private and public institutions of higher education has taught me a valuable lesson about isolated assignments in my syllabi: students value assignments relevant to their own work lives. During recent semesters I have reflected about how to unify my assignments–organizing and integrating the previously isolated cogs to design lesson plans around a more coherent path. To that end, I have decided that writing assignments stipulated for grading purposes should be designed for potential use in students’ paraprofessional endeavors or self-improvement academic development. In this article I will focus on graduate work, but my suggestions may be compatible and transferable to similar disciplines in language and literature. A syllabus that includes space for this kind of assignment design can align with the objectives of each individual course as well as the goals of its program. This praxis may also contribute to the mission of the respective college and fulfill the university’s aims of providing excellence in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. This essay intends to identify the possible confluence between the assignments of a course and their transferable use beyond the classroom.

At the micro-assessment level, there are a number of specific learning outcomes that I hope students will meet by the end of the semester. For instance, as proficient writers at the graduate level, students may be able to produce a formal essay that addresses a research question by defending and exploring a thesis based on reliable sources, statistics, manuscripts, and scholarly publications. This essay should include a literature review of relevant sources. It should propose and sustain an argument that leads to a reasonable conclusion. Students should use the scientific method to move from pre-conception to conception and finally to post-conception theories: exploring and applying the elements of hypothesis, verifying data, selecting relevant frameworks and theoretical frames to formulate conclusions based on scrutiny and investigation. This sequence can minimize the risk of misinterpretation, misunderstanding and/or human error. Students are also assessed based on how well they write rhetorically in real contexts; the capacity to formulate a research question based on the reading of the text; the ability to formulate conclusions, and practice problem-solving case scenarios based on the selection and evaluation of reliable sources; the adeptness to code-switch registers among languages and cultural contexts; the ability to differentiate between the parts and the sum of complex texts versus linear cases of study in literature, theatre, and culture; the ability to select the applicable theory to frame an argument or hypothesis, and the expertise to search, select, and organize a bibliography related to their topic using the Modern Language Association [MLA]style manual. After working with other WAC Fellows and the WAC team of writing experts and reexamining the organization of my syllabi, I learned that these kinds of assignments can equip students to learn or improve skills through the practice of low, middle, and high stakes writing exercises designed specifically for the postgraduate education.

Some low stake writing assignments that I assign at the graduate level ask students to demonstrate relevant skills that transfer to other contexts are the following: restating or paraphrasing an idea based on the student’s own experience of literature, theatre, and culture; connecting this current concept with earlier concepts; observation of customs [in some cases tracing the influence of the literature and theatrical performance of culture A in the literature and theatrical performance of culture B—and vice versa; track the influence of literature and theatrical performance of culture B in the literature and theatrical performance of culture A]; synthesizing the connection of two ideas [similarities and/or differences among the findings]; identifying a gap [what aspects of the literature, theatre, and culture are not addressed or are overlooked or misinterpreted].

I strongly believe in the need for some middle stakes writing assignments that can provide a transition between the low and high stakes: revising their writing assignments based on feedback about style, tone, and content from peers; engaging in a dialogue with authors / authorities in the field of expertise by reading scholarly articles [I embrace canonic and non-canonic works in order to select relevant sources, evaluate content, and engage in a constructive dialogue]; analyzing and interpreting trustworthy sources for assessment purposes.

Once these middle stakes assignments are in place, students can move more securely to high stakes writing assignments which contain the preliminary revision—by the professor—of the proposal of the term paper, a main research question, plus several related questions. Students will receive then the feedback, not only from the professor, but from their peers as well during the final oral presentation.

This research paper assignment asks graduate students in languages and literatures to engage in research that familiarizes them with academic journals and articles. The assignment includes a section in which the student searches for academic information about the author of a selected text. This assignment is primarily a summary of the article’s content plus the student’s critical opinion of the article (metacrítica). Students explain how the article might be used for further analysis; what questions are explored and what topics are developed in the article. If appropriate, the student might indicate what rhetorical theory has been used. The final product reflects an informed and well-written research paper where students explain the contribution of the article to the academic community and beyond. I find this assignment develops transferable skills into the workforce: the recollection of evidence, the analysis and interpretation of data, and the formulation of the student’s own conclusions based on substantial support, minimizing potential misconstructions and/or misperceptions. Similarly, the objective of this activity emphasizes student recognition of credentials, experience, and educational background of the scholars, scholars who have contributed time, effort, and resources in their fields. All of these factors validate the assigned materials.

In an interactive activity, a classroom workshop on how to write an abstract and an essay may assist graduate students to prepare their work for graduate conferences. One of the main advantages of this approach is that their research will be evaluated, and they receive the necessary feedback from their classmates and the professor from oral presentations and classroom discussion.

Another important aspect of this assignment is the need to consult with librarians about how to better search the electronic databases before they present their piece at a graduate and/or professional conference.[2] During our Writing Across the Curriculum Fellowship, we worked with librarians and representatives of the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning who collaborated with us in facilitating the design (and redesign) of our syllabi.

After all these phases have been implemented, the work of the students can be more easily adapted for graduate presentations and/or professional publications. Practicing this scheme may provide favorable outcomes at different levels: classroom environment interaction, course syllabi and lesson plan preparations, community networking and professional growth—without overlooking the graduate course assessment.

The former brings us to the next scaffold. At the macro-assessment level, the research papers and creative works produced during an academic semester represent potential material for future graduate conferences and/or graduate journal submissions. The skills learned and mastered during the research and writing process of these assignments can be valuable assets for graduate students to be inducted in honors societies and/or admitted in graduate organizations or professional associations. As a result of my participation in the Writing Across the Curriculum Fellowship, I realized that it would be worthwhile to gather information about the benefits of applying skills acquired in graduate courses and how these skills contribute to graduate students in leadership positions in the workforce.

The process of designing these assignments and exercises, from low to middle to high stakes writing practice, has helped me to reach the objectives of the course, and to meet the assessment outcomes. As a result, the benefits of a coherent structure of course objectives with the goals of the program and the ultimate mission of the university may be measured in more tangible outcomes:

After completing these scaffolded writing assignments, students will be more prepared to present their final paper at graduate/professional conferences and/or submitting the final product for potential publication.
The knowledge and skills developed throughout the course become resources for potential academic and professional employment.
The symmetry among the function of components becomes more tangible.
The student learning outcomes and the acquired skills function in harmony with the mission of the graduate program, and assessment at every level is more easily accomplished.
The coherence among the mission of the program and the institutional expectations become more visible.
The graduate students—and their faculty as well—may be more motivated to work on their homework when the assignments can be used for the academic purposes and for the professional aspirations—individually and collectively.
It becomes, in conclusion, more rewarding to assess a specific course when we take the time to reexamine the sequence and process we use to achieve course objectives, objectives which in can lead to significant objectives after graduation. In this form of reciprocity, the micro-assessment of the course and the macro-assessment of the outcomes after the semester has ended function together, instead of as separated identities working towards different goals.

As a final thought, it is noteworth to remember the root of the word assessment, which comes from the Latin assidere–“to sit beside,” which in the context of this work would be applied to the student’s learning process and its corresponding assessment in the classroom and beyond.

[1] Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. Print.

[2] In this regard and in order to avoid unnecessary redundancy, I refer the readers to my previously published piece: “How Can I Write My Term Paper? One-Day Writing Workshop”. Faculty Focus 12.1 (April, 2013): 6-7.