Assessment Documents

A Brief History of WAC Assessment at Howard University

Students' Evaluations

Course Surveys

Method: Starting in Spring 1993, students responded to anonymous surveys measuring their attitudes toward the writing component of their WAC classes. Students answered nine questions about reading, thinking, organizing, and writing, using an attitude scale. They also wrote answers to two questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the WAC component.

Results:The combined data from 1993-2014 showed that students felt that WAC pushed them most to think critically, in addition to helping them more clearly organize their thoughts and present them in a comprehensible format. Click here to see the survey results.


Teachers' Evaluations

Course Surveys

Method: Starting in Spring 1993, teachers responded to questionnaires assessing their attitudes toward the writing component of their WAC classes. Teachers answered the same nine questions that students were asked and wrote responses to questions about teaching and learning in their classes.

Results: Response rates were too low for statistical analysis. Teachers who responded, however, generally gave their courses ratings that were similar to the averages of the students’ responses. Their written responses (and, in some cases, attached writing samples) confirmed that they were using WAC techniques for prewriting, rewriting, and discussing assignments. Their suggestions for improvement varied.

Focus Groups

Method: In Spring 1994, the WAC Director led and taped discussions with the students and teachers in five WAC classes (biology, math, political science, history, and modern languages). Students were asked questions about WAC courses vs. Freshman English, WAC courses vs. other courses in the discipline, writing to learn, and WAC’s effects on their reading, thinking, and writing.

Results: All of the classes felt that writing had enhanced their learning of the subject matter. Many of the students claimed that the WAC course had dramatically improved their thinking, mainly because the requirement to write about texts had improved their reading. Fewer students claimed to be better writers as a result of the WAC courses: The most positive remarks about writing improvement came from the social sciences classes.


Portfolio Assessments

2001 Assessment

Method:  In June 2001, the WAC Director organized the first portfolio assessment of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Program in the College of Arts & Sciences.  The purpose of this assessment was (1) to determine what type of writing instruction was taking place and (2) to measure WAC students’ writing progress and proficiency. The assessment consisted of two types of evaluation, both focusing on the student “portfolio”—a folder presenting examples of a student’s writing:  First, the Director reviewed 179 portfolios consisting of all of the writing (e.g., journals, outlines, papers, essay exams) that the students had submitted during the Fall 2000 or Spring 2001 semester.  Then, on June 4 and 5, pairs of WAC and English teachers rated 140 portfolios, each containing a representative set of papers that a WAC student had produced. 

Results: The following conclusions emerged from the Director’s review of student work and from the raters’ scores:

Writing Instruction.  WAC teachers are providing substantive writing instruction:  Although the genres of writing vary from course to course, WAC teachers are assigning a great deal of writing, including frequent prewriting but only occasional rewriting.  Most WAC teachers are also supplying sufficient feedback on formal papers, but a few need to respond more consistently to grammatical problems.
Writing Progress and Proficiency.  While taking a WAC class, most students progressed in one or more areas of writing (i.e., content, arrangement, or style).  However, by the end of the term, most WAC students had achieved only an average level of writing proficiency in the discipline.

Use of Results:

These findings led the WAC Director (1) to circulate "WAC Tips for Teaching" that describe efficient ways to incorporate more revising, (2) to organize more WAC-English rating sessions to develop a grading rubric, and (3) to encourage the faculty to collaborate more closely with the Writing Center.


2008 Assessment

Method:  In Spring 2008, CETLA collected portfolios from 141 students in 11 of the 12 WAC classes in COAS (response rate= 68%).  These classes were taught by 11 different faculty in the Humanities, Social Science, and Natural Science divisions.  Pairs of WAC and English faculty rated portfolios with at least three papers (53) for progress and those with at least two papers (76) for proficiency, using a descriptive  rubric with seven subcategories and a five-point rating scale (5 = Exemplary, 1 = Deficient). 

Results:  The following conclusions emerged from a statistical analysis of the raters’ scores:

Proficiency.  Derived from two raters, the mean proficiency score for all 76 portfolios was 22.86, which fell in the “Proficient” range according to the rubric.  Although the mean score in each subcategory was “Average,” with one exception, at least half of the students earned “Exemplary” or “Proficient” in each of the following subcategories: (1) Task fulfillment, (2) Critical thinking, (3) Supporting evidence, (4) Coherence, (5) Correctness, (6) Fluency, (7) Disciplinary conventions.  Only one portfolio was rated “Deficient” in any subcategory.  Students were most skilled in the use of Standard English (i.e., Correctness).  However, they were least skilled in the use of disciplinary conventions.

Progress. The portfolio assessment revealed that barely half of the students (49%) had progressed in one or more areas of writing (i.e., content, arrangement, or style).  Most of the remaining students needed to improve, for only one third of them produced proficient or exemplary writing.  

To sum up, compared to the portfolios rated during the last assessment in Spring 2001, the Spring 2008 portfolios demonstrated more proficiency but less progress.1

Interpretation:  As a result of the last portfolio assessment, CETLA’s Director sought to improve the WAC faculty’s response to grammatical problems in students’ essays by emphasizing rubrics, revision, and collaboration with the Writing Center.   It is gratifying, then, to find that the majority of the students demonstrated proficiency in their use of Standard English (i.e., “Correctness”). 

As for the rate of progress, that may reflect insufficient support from the Writing Center. At the time of data collection, the Writing Center had only five tutors and was open sporadically because it shared a room with graduate seminars.  This state of affairs may have discouraged WAC faculty from referring students to the Writing Center and WAC students from visiting the Center on their own. 

Use of Results:  Having analyzed the data during the summer of 2009, the WAC Director took the following steps to improve proficiency in the disciplines and progress overall:

·         She emailed the Fall 2009 WAC faculty links to writing guides in their disciplines.

·         With the assistance of the Writing Center director, she reminded the Fall 2009 WAC Faculty more frequently to refer students to the Center.

1  Perhaps sampling differences account for the discrepancy between the 2001 and 2008 findings:  In  2001, raters evaluated 111 portfolios for progress because they scored all portfolios with two or more papers.  However, in 2008, raters evaluated only portfolios with at least three papers (53).


2015 Assessment


Method: In Spring 2015, CETLA received portfolios from 119 students (71%) in all 13 WAC classes in the College of Arts & Sciences. These classes were taught by 11 different faculty in the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences divisions.  Of the 119 portfolios, only 82 contained enough assigned papers for raters to evaluate papers of similar genres within a class; moreover, some portfolios did not have enough papers or drafts to compare across time.  Therefore, to assess students’ progress, pairs of WAC and English faculty rated only 73 portfolios—those that contained at least three papers of a similar genre or two drafts.  Then, to measure the students’ proficiency, the raters evaluated all 82 portfolios.  The raters used the WAC-English Descriptive Rubric, including all subcategories except “Appearance”: (1) Task fulfillment, (2) Critical thinking, (3) Supporting evidence, (4) Coherence, (5) Correctness, (6) Fluency, and (7) Disciplinary conventions.  The raters also adopted the following grading scale (29-35 = Exemplary, 22-28 = Proficient, 15-21 = Average, 8-14 = Minimal, 1-7 = Deficient).


Results: The following conclusions emerged from an analysis of the raters’ scores:


Proficiency: Derived from two raters, the mean proficiency score for all 82 portfolios was 24.23, which fell in the “Proficient” range, according to the rubric.  Of the 82 portfolios, 14 earned “Exemplary” composite scores, and 29 earned “Proficient” composite scores.  Thus, more than three quarters of the portfolios qualified as proficient or better. Only one portfolio was rated “Minimal,” and none “Deficient.”  


Progress: The portfolio assessment revealed that nearly two thirds (65%) of the students had progressed in one or more areas of writing (i.e., content, arrangement, or style.)


To sum up, compared to the portfolios rated during the last assessment in Spring 2008, the Spring 2015 portfolios demonstrated greater proficiency and progress.


Research Studies

Paired Classes Study

Method: After the Fall 1993 semester, the WAC Director and a WAC Committee member from the English Department took advantage of the rare opportunity to compare the final exam grades in WAC and non-WAC sections taught by the same teacher. These included two sections taught by a history professor and two sections taught by a classics professor. The WAC team also compared the term papers in the WAC and non-WAC history sections, using blind and holistic rating procedures to score the papers. Essays were rated on a scale of 1-5 for idea development, support, organization, diction/sentence variety, and mechanics.

Results: Both WAC classes earned more points on the final exam than their non-WAC counterparts did. Moreover, both the history teacher and the WAC team gave the WAC term papers higher grades than they gave the non-WAC term papers. Because of the small sample sizes, the team could not determine whether the differences were statistically significant, but pre-existing ability differences did not account for the WAC advantage. Click here for more details.

Pretest-Posttest Study

Method: In Fall 1994, teachers in five WAC classes (history, biology, physical education, modern languages, philosophy) assigned a WAC diagnostic essay ("What do you already know about the subject matter of this course?) and WAC final essay ("What do you know about the subject matter of this course?"). Because of the number of time references embedded in the WAC final essays, the essays could not be scored blindly, as planned. Nevertheless, the WAC Director scored the essays holistically for development, organization, and language on a scale of 1-4.

Results: The study revealed that most students knew how to organize and develop a personal expository essay when they enrolled in the WAC classes. What the study did not reveal was how well they could organize and develop the type of disciplinary writing taught in their particular WAC class. Nor did the study indicate how well students could command the style of the discipline. As for general editing skills, there was no consistent improvement.

Write to Succeed Study

Method: In Fall 1998, a chemistry professor and theater professor participated in a pilot called the "Write to Succeed Program." The professors in the pilot gave a paper an Incomplete grade (e.g., "IC" for a paper with "B" content) if it contained a noteworthy writing problem. Then they referred the student to the Writing Center, where a tutor helped the student edit the paper. Once the student had earned a Success Report from the tutor for successful editing, the teacher raised the paper grade one letter grade. To implement the pilot, the WAC Director received money from the Fund for Academic Excellence to hire and train six additional tutors.

Results: An analysis of the data revealed that the program (1) ensured that every student referred to the Writing Center earned a Success Report and/or a higher grade, (2) phased out "I" referrals for students who had earned Success Reports—and any others who had received "I" grades previously, and (3) decreased by 80% or more the percentage of a class receiving "I" for a writing assignment.

Case Studies

21st Century Skills Study

In 1998, an Allied Health professor investigated the impact of WAC strategies as well as active learning and computer-assisted instruction in her first-semester professional-level course, Clinical Immunology. After completing her WAC training, she redesigned the course “to include writing components such as pre-writing strategies (journal notebooks), laboratory notebooks, and a formal case-report on a specific immunological disorder.  Included in these exercises are various stages of drafting and review (including peer-review).  Writing assignments are evaluated based on organization, clarity of expression, grammar, and spelling, as well as the demonstration of a clear understanding of the immunological concepts involved.”   From student questionnaires and pre-post comparisons of student work, the professor concluded that the course had fulfilled WAC objectives: 

After some initial resistance, the students seemed to accept the writing components of the class favorably.   They were delighted with the more creative writing assignments; in particular those assignments that involved group participation.  Students also expressed their satisfaction with the case-report activities, especially the peer review.  Students felt that their writing skills were better and, with few exceptions, the final case-reports were excellent and the overall quality of student writing had improved.  From the instructor’s perspective the WAC component was also the most useful and rewarding. Commonly occurring errors as well as specific misconceptions were more easily discerned and corrected before an examination, thereby allowing the students a greater possibility of improving their grades.

Click here to read more about the study in the paper the professor presented at the “Interinstitutional Symposium: Curricula for the 21st Century.”

Writing Competence Study

In Fall 1995, the coordinator of the Health Ethics Program incorporated WAC strategies in an interdisciplinary course for 251 health science students, including 57 medical students.  With the help of her team-teachers, she introduced the class “to writing interventions to help students master writing techniques as well as reinforce the analytical synthesis of information through observing, listening, and critically thinking.”  An end-of-the-semester survey revealed that 56% of the students found the WAC strategies helpful, especially while preparing the assigned research paper.  The Health Ethics faculty also noted that the students’ performance on the preliminary WAC assignments correlated with their grades on the final paper.  Click here to view the PowerPoint presentation.

Labwrite Study

At the end of the Fall 2006 semester, the coordinator of all fifteen Biology 101 sections administered an anonymous survey to assess students’ attitudes toward lab reports, since they had been using Labwrite, a web-based tutorial for writing lab reports.  Altogether, 172 of the 372 students responded to the survey.  However, students in some sections reported using LabWrite more than others.  For instance, there were three sections (35 respondents) where 90% or more of the students used Labwrite for four or more labs.  On the other hand, there were two sections (16 respondents) where only 40-45% of the students used Labwrite for four or more labs.  Because of the uneven implementation, low response rates, and small group sizes, it was impossible to conduct a meaningful statistical comparison. 
However, the Biology 101 coordinator also surveyed his nine Teaching Assistants, eight of whom responded to the anonymous survey. They were asked specifically to compare the students’ writing and their teaching productivity with and without LabWrite. Two thirds (67%) of the TAs agreed that their students were better prepared for the lab and understood the scientific concepts of the lab better when they had completed the LabWrite PreLab, while two disagreed. Moreover, three quarters (75%) agreed that the students composed better lab reports when they completed the LabWrite PostLab; this time only one disagreed. 
In addition, the TAs reported gains in their productivity. When they used the LabWrite PreLab, PostLab, or Rubric, at least two thirds of the TAs found that the LabWrite PreLab helped them prepare students for the lab, the LabWrite Post Lab helped them teach students how to write a lab report, and the LabWrite Rubric helped them evaluate students’ lab reports. They only regretted that the LabWrite materials and links had been posted inside Blackboard: Because of login and performance problems with Blackboard, accessing and submitting LabWrite assignments often became time-consuming.

Writing-to-Learn Study

In Fall 2006, an Allied Health professor investigated whether the 11 students in her WAC course learned more when they (1) wrote a summary of a text for a lay audience, (2) wrote a summary of a text for the teacher, or (3) only read the text. Although each student was supposed to rotate through all three conditions, some students assigned to the “Read Only” condition repeatedly wrote summaries. Thus, it was possible to evaluate only the impact of writing a summary (regardless of audience) vs. merely reading the text. 

Unfortunately, the sample was far too small to warrant statistical analysis. Moreover, only 7 of the 11 students responded to the anonymous survey, and a few did not complete all of the assignments. However, a few striking differences emerged. When summarizing the text, all of the respondents indicated that they had read the assigned text more than once (regardless of the audience). In contrast, only two of the students read the text twice when a summary was not required. On the other hand, 40-50% of the students claimed that they remembered comprehended, analyzed, synthesized, and evaluated ideas from the text best when they merely read the text.  This claim could not be substantiated because several students did not submit all of the summaries and quizzes. Also worth noting is that despite their claim, 85% of the students recommended that the professor continue to assign summaries. 


WAC Fact Sheet

Students' Evaluations

Teachers' Evaluations

  • Course Surveys

Portfolio Assessments

Research Studies

  • Paired Classes Study
  • Pretest-Posttest Study
  • Write to Succeed Study

Case Studies

  • 21st Century Skills Study
  • Writing Competence Study
  • Labwrite Study
  • Writing-to-Learn Study

Writing Matters Campaign

WAC Fact Sheet



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