A general demographic profile of the students within your college, department, or course is a good starting point, as the more that is known about the students, the more likely the program of instruction will address their needs. For instance, many of the departments involved with the Writing Center are often interested in identifying the size and linguistic background of their English Language Learners (ELL) population. With this information in hand, the Writing Center can tailor programs to meet the needs of these specific students.
In order to compile summaries of writing strengths and weaknesses, student writing samples are rated using a rubric custom-designed with the faculty according to the course goals and the writing needs of their students. Then, a profile is compiled from which a writing-intensive curriculum can be created to address specific writing issues.
Part of the assessment process is learning about the writer, not just the writing. However, student beliefs can conflict with their attitudes towards writing – we have found that most students we have worked with believe that writing is important to their career goals, yet are intimidated by the act of writing. The Writing Center can design a program of instruction that demystifies the process of writing, and student anxiety is relieved as they come to understand that writing is thinking. For example, a significant step in developing a personal writing style is adopting the process of revision. Knowing how often a student revises his or her work can lead to changes in the curriculum such as requiring the submission of drafts in various stages of completion.
Focus groups have long been favored in the arena of market research to understand the needs of consumers and gather ideas for quality management. The Writing Center has added focus groups to its array of assessment tools as a way to bolster the quantitative data gained through the survey process. Focus groups are interactive group interviews in which an experienced mediator facilitates discussion of specific topics and encourages dynamic conversation among participants. Administered pre-survey, they are a good way to explore the breadth of student/faculty needs, concerns, and practices. Administered post-survey, focus groups help to flesh out any questions or anomalies raised by the initial questionnaire data.
Surveys and writing samples are the two primary tools we use to measure a program’s effectiveness. End-of-the-semester surveys and writing samples can be compared to those collected at the beginning of the semester to determine how well particular needs are being addressed. Through this process, the curriculum can be further revised for following semesters.