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By Karen Herland
After nearly two decades, Senate has decided to discontinue the University Writing Test, because it is not fulfilling its intended mission, nor responding to the current needs of students.
“I know lots of students who have been held back because they didn’t pass the test, even though they do well in class. The test does not reflect student ability,” said CSU President Keyana Kashfi.
Ollivier Dyens, Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning, echoes that dissatisfaction. “Thirty per cent of students don’t pass the test the first time they write it. I don’t believe that thirty per cent of students do not know how to write.” Dyens will be part of the Provost’s Working Group on Teaching and Learning, expected to present an alternative path to Senate during the winter term.
The decision was taken at the Nov. 14 Senate meeting, suspending the test retroactively to May, 2008. The Academic Planning Committee (APC)’s recommendation outlined a series of problems with the current test. Chief among them was that although the test was developed to identify students who might need support, there is no incentive for students to take it early in their programs. The test has effectively becomes an exit requirement or an obstacle. There was also concern the test unintentionally reflects cultural bias and may be inappropriate to the range of students attending Concordia.
Finally, the APC has suggested that a broader set of skills than simply writing — problem-solving, oral expression, scientific, cultural and information literacy — might also be desirable skills for all students.
Kashfi agrees, though she points out that those skills are not equivalent. “There are some common skills, but some are specific. The type of writing needed by a business student is not the same as for a fine arts student.”
Dyens sees this first evaluation of the needs as more philosophical. “For instance, do we want everyone to have the same level of writing proficiency in English or French regardless of background?” Dyens feels there are good arguments on both sides of this question, and has seen his personal position change over the years. “You cannot expect a student from another country to attain near-native language abilities.” Given that, what kinds of direction might be required in terms of expectations, and what impact will that have on accessibility?
This is only one question the working group might address. Other issues include what, if any, other skills should be evaluated, and whether this should be determined and developed at a departmental level, or across the entire university. (It is worth noting that since Engineering and Computer Science established its own writing test, it remains outside the realm of this current decision and reflection.)
Dyens said that even once this basic direction is presented next term, the modalities needed to implement it make it unlikely that any real replacement system (be it a test, course, optional or required program) will be available before the 2010-11 academic year.
Other structures might be student-directed. With a series of courses or other measures available to students who would then determine the level or accreditation they felt they wanted to pursue.
For instance, the School of Extended Learning has struck a committee with representatives from the Faculties, the libraries, the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Counselling and Development services to develop a course called University 101.
“This course would identify entry-level skill sets needed to be successful in university studies,” explained School Dean Noel Burke. The intention of such a course, which could be implemented on a pilot and elective basis as early as fall 2009, would be to develop positive study habits for students from the start.
Burke sees the range of skills offered as falling into three general areas:
1) Basic research, writing and time-management skills.
2) Information literacy skills, likely offered through the libraries.
3) Faculty-specific competencies.
“Ideally, we want students to become independent idea-makers.” says Burke.
Ultimately, there are many challenges ahead in determining both the content and direction of such an initiative. Dyens is aware of the problems, and committed to finding a way to address them.