Directed Self-Placement: Empowering Students and Professors

By Beth Ann Williams (’11)

In 2010, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) commissioned a report concerning the expectations of employers regarding college graduates. What did their research discover? The most desired skill among new graduates was written and oral communication. The report highlights what professors have known for years: writing is a critically important part of the college learning experience.

This summer, Wake Forest empowered its incoming students to take ownership of their writing. Laura Aull, Assistant Professor of English, and Josh Courtney, a rising senior and summer URECA fellow, spent the past year developing and implementing a new program entitled the Directed Self-Placement (DSP). Every first year starting classes in the fall of 2012 was expected to complete this assignment before the beginning of the semester.

The DSP is essentially a reading, writing, and reflecting exercise. Students read a New York Times article, wrote an evidence-based response and answered a series of reflection questions about their preparedness for the assignment. The questions were designed to help students self-assess their level of readiness for college level writing. Based on their answers and linguistic analysis of the essays, along with help from other faculty and administrators, Aull and Courtney provided each student with a recommendation for their first English course.

This is a new system at Wake Forest. In the past there has been little guidance and no standard procedure for helping incoming students choose among their three first year writing options: Eng 105 which provides more rigorous assistance for students who want extra writing training, the standard Eng 111 and testing out of a writing-intensive English altogether. Now, with the DSP in place, every student completes the same assignment and reflects on what course(s) will best prepare them for success in their academic writing, based on their experiences completing the DSP, the course descriptions, and the email guidance they receive confirming their anticipated registration option or prompting them to consider changing their decision.

Aull faculty photo

Assistant Professor of English Laura Aull

In addition to setting up student expectations of college-level writing and helping them to register for their ideal English course, the DSP is positioned to help faculty members better support their first-year writing students. Each English professor receives his or her students’ essays before the semester begins. This will allow the teachers time to become familiar with their students’ writing strengthens and weaknesses. Additionally, Aull will conduct a series of workshops to help professors think about the linguistic and rhetorical habits of incoming students and how they might utilize the DSP essays to strengthen their teaching strategies towards these students.

This fall, as professors and students meet for the first time, both parties will arrive equipped to intentionally and critically tackle the challenge of transitioning high school seniors into strong undergraduate writers. The students will have already been exposed to collegiate expectations and challenged to start processing their real readiness to meet those demands. The professors will have a body of texts to reference as they begin to open students’ eyes to new kinds of writing and thinking. These new levels of planning and preparation can only result in a stronger, more equipped student body.

The development and implementation of the Wake Forest Directed Self-Placement program was supported by the Humanities Institute’s College Collaborations program, URECA and the English Department Writing Program.

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