Revolution Lullabye

October 14, 2013

McLaughlin and Moore, Integrating Critical Thinking into the Assessment of College Writing

McLaughlin, Frost and Miriam Moore. “Integrating Critical Thinking into the Assessment of College Writing.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 40.2 (December 2012): 145-162.

McLaughlin and Moore explain their study of how to assess critical thinking in college student essays. They developed a writing rubric intended to assess student writing across the disciplines, and then asked participants at the March 2011 Symposium on Thinking and Writing at the College Level to use the rubric to evaluate two student papers (both essays were written in response to a prompt that asked the student to define a term.) The results of the assessment surprised McLaughlin and Moore, as they assumed that one of the student essays was markedly stronger than the other. What they found was that the evaluators (80% of whom taught first-year writing in a variety of contexts) valued different attributes in student writing. McLaughlin and Moore argue that it is simpler to assess student writing based on attributes like “correctness” or “voice” instead of characteristics that point to critical thinking, like thoughtfulness, logical development, and consideration of alternative perspectives. They contend that the writing tasks students are given in K-12, which emphasize creative writing and the development of a strong, emotive voice, are distinctly different from the careful, reasoned academic writing (a very specific voice) that is hallmark of “college-level writing” and which is expected in first-year composition writing tasks.

Notable Notes

based the construction of their critical thinking in writing rubric (CTWR) on other rubrics designed by other institutions (Washington State University) and Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (147)

categories of the CTWR: Focus, Logic (both of these first two categories contain language that incorporates elements of critical thinking), Content, Style, Correctness, Research (150).

keywords that point to critical thinking in these first two rubric categories: thoughtful, interpret evidence, draws warranted conclusions, analyzes alternative perspectives, evaluates when appropriate (150).

overemphasis on the construction of voice (155) – emotional voice (pathos) can mislead a reader where there is no logical, critical thought

college-level writing is mostly expository – requires a “drier” academic voice (156).

personal narrative v. critical analysis – writing tasks students are given in high school, college

the difficulty of capturing elements of critical thinking in a rubric – rubrics simplify writing, often assess what’s easy to assess instead of what’s the most important element (146-147).

Quotable Quotes

“College-level writing, it seems, values the well-reasoned point over its dramatic rendering. Perhaps reasoning, then, is a salient feature of college-level writing. Whether it is as important in high school writing is certainly worth examining in greater detail in the future” (157).

“In conclusion, the assessment of critical thinking takes time and often complicates the act of writing assessment.¬† Sometimes the most highly detalied and interesting student writing is not the product of complicated thinking but rather of strong feeling. Yet voice is not a substitute for thinking, though it can certainly enhance the expression of thought” (157).

“Without open-minded thinking as a basis of approaching the writing task – the thinking that prompts the writer to consider alternative approaches and possible outcomes – the writer may not achieve the level of reasoning that we expect in freshman writing. This thoughtful, fair-minded approach with its resulting careful reasoning, often expressed in a clear but neutral tone, may well be one of the distinguishing features of ‘college-level’ thinking and writing” (158).


February 3, 2009

Phelps, The Institutional Logic of Writing Programs

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee. “The Institutional Logic of Writing Programs: Catalyst, Laboratory, and Pattern for Change.” In The Politics of Writing Instruction: Postsecondary. Eds. Richard Bullock and John Trimbur. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1991. 155-170.

Instead of focusing on what the relationship between rhet/comp and literature can be in an English department, Phelps takes a step back, widens the scope, and discusses what a independent writing program can do for the institution as a whole. Higher education is going through a multifacted crisis (the devaluing of teaching and undergraduate education due to the focus on research, the absence of community due to specialization, and the employment of under-paid, under-trained part-time and graduate teachers), but the theoretical foundations of a writing program makes it a prime candidate for a site of institutional change: the field of composition highly values quality pedagogy and undergraduate education; a writing program serves the whole institution and therefore must reach out across disciplines; and the large, diverse cohort of teachers allows for the construction of professional communities. Writing programs must confront several challenges to be viable. In addition to negotiating the local political and institutional constraints of each university, writing programs have unique budget, space, technology, labor, tenure, evaluation, and structural needs that must be administratively met in order for the writing program to be viable.

Quotable Quotes

“The most important contribution I think writing programs can make, though, with respect to higher education at large, is to exemplify the struggle to foster community in the face of the prevailing mood of skepticism, critique of all cultural institutions and their traditions, radical individualism, and loss of fellowship that troubles our colleges and universities” (167) – through community building and¬†professional development of professors, part-time, grad students, undergraduates

“With luck, and propitious local circumstances, this situational fit enables writing programs to become a positive force for change by enacting their own logic: operating experimentally and hypothetically; nuturing a fragile sense of community in talk, text, and collaborative work; and seeking interdependencies where they can find them.” (168)

“the concrete practices of community” (167)

Notable Notes

rhetorical concept of kairos Рfitting into the historical and situational context Рby having writing programs lead institutional change (168) 

the field of rhetoric/composition as a model, a logic for writing programs to develop and follow

get out of the trap of quibbling over departmental structure

use Syracuse as a model

Ernest Boyer (Carnegie Foundation) – higher ed reform that Phelps bases her argument for writing programs on

Themes of the disciplines that work for institutional change:

  1. writing helps students become active learners and meaning-makers
  2. common literacy strategies adapted for diverse rhetorical situations
  3. collaborative work
  4. communicate patiently through hands-on talk and text – create a community (163)

Challenges 164-166

Writing program acts as collaborator and as a catalyst, an experimenter, for change.

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