A Review of Barbara E. Walvoord’s Assessing and improving student writing in college

By Heather M. Falconer, Northeastern University

Walvoord, B.E. (2014). Assessing and improving student writing in college: A guide for institutions, general education, departments, and classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barbara E. Walvoord’s (2014) Assessing and improving student writing in college: A guide for institutions, general education, departments, and classrooms provides a contemporary and pragmatic approach to writing program administration in higher education. Without attempting to standardize Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID), Walvoord works to simplify the institutionalization of WAC/WID by offering a resource to administrators, departments, and faculty alike.

Readers should be aware that this text is not intended for newcomers to the field – it is a resource for those who are already familiar with and wish to formalize WAC/WID initiatives. It is also not meant to be read cover-to cover, as Walvoord anticipates readers will focus only on chapters relevant to them. As such, the content has been distilled into subsections of 150 words or less, with extensive bibliographic resources for further exploration. This approach makes for both quick reading and an effective reminder of best practices in WAC/WID implementation.

Chapter One provides an important orientation to all readers as it establishes basic principles and clarifies terminology. Walvoord reminds readers what “we mean by ‘writing’,” noting that it goes far beyond considerations of grammar and punctuation, is situated rhetorically, and “is enmeshed with critical thinking, information literacy, problem solving, qualitative reasoning, and other skills” (p. 1). The chapter reminds readers of the various ways good writing can be defined and assessed, and lays the groundwork to ensure instructors, program directors, and administrators share a language of writing and assessment.

Rather than transition to the classroom, where WAC/WID efforts are most actualized, Walvoord focuses Chapter Two on the concerns relevant to those working at the institutional level, as well as those concerned with general education as a whole. The chapter devotes space to the exigence for WAC/WID program implementation and assessment, and includes a discussion of the data administrators collect in the early stages of program development (with particular attention to accreditation needs).

Chapter Three identifies concerns relevant at the department and program levels. Notably, Walvoord uses examples from departments other than English, where writing programs tend to be housed. In this way, she makes clear how the integration and assessment of writing is relevant and important across disciplines. This chapter emphasizes individual departments are as much stake-holders in the program as anyone else and demonstrates how articulating the specifics of disciplinary conventions will “help your students become proficient at writing in your discipline” (p. 51).

Finally, Chapter Four addresses the needs and interests of individual instructors, providing guidance “for faculty who want to assign more student writing or to work more effectively with student writing, in classes, in any discipline,” or at any degree level (p. 59). Like the previous chapters, Walvoord guides instructors to start first with observation: “observe your own classroom in reasonably systemic ways…to gather useful information that can help your teaching be more effective and more time-efficient” (p. 61). She directs instructors to consider the student writing itself, as well as to talk with students about their experiences with the course and assignments. This analysis calls for scrutiny of how both students and instructors engage with writing. Drawing on best practices and scholarly research, Walvoord directs instructors to ways they can improve their existing writing assignments, as well as incorporate writing into their course effectively and purposefully without increasing workload.

Overall, the text foregrounds programmatic structure over the actual assessment of writing, and relies heavily on its extensive bibliographies to direct readers to actual writing assessment practices and rubrics. Though Chapter Four, which is targeted toward classroom instructors, does address writing inclusion and approaches to assessment more tangibly, its placement at the end of the text has the consequence of making it an afterthought rather than a focus. Similarly, the pick-and-choose nature of the chapters can leave readers feeling disjointed and the guidance offered brief. Despite these challenges, Walvoord’s text remains a valuable resource for the implementation of WAC/WID programs once stakeholder buy-in has been achieved.