Steering students to the appropriate English course

Earlier this week, Matt Reed asked how colleges should determine whether an adult needs developmental coursework.

Although the question is particularly relevant to colleges—remediation is expensive—high schools are finding that asking a similar question about eighth graders about to enter high school can make a difference their students’ success.

In my experience teaching first year college composition, I’ve not seen any placement exam or test score that could be relied on to sort students into the right courses. Some of the problem lies with the measuring devices, but the difference in how teacher A and teacher B approach the same course is equally problematic.

In the comments section, two people offered suggestions that I think have merit.

SFisher suggested:

Why not turn the summer bootcamps into a kind of 3-week trial period, at the end of which a student will be placed into an appropriate level by a faculty member, without the student having to battle the dreaded (In)Accuplacer beast?

Edward White suggested Directed Self-Placement as an alternative measure:

It in essence replaces the usual invalid testing with student counseling and information on what is required to pass particular courses and leaves the final decision (and responsibility) with the student. Most reports about it are highly positive.

Perhaps a combination of the two might be worth considering: A boot-camp trial period in which students write and get feedback on their, as Fisher suggests, and which, as White suggests, gives students enough information about what the various college writing courses entail that they can make their own decision about what’s appropriate for them.

I find most of my own students  expect college writing will demand imaginative writing, detailed descriptions of their personal lives, and what they invariably call “good grammer.”  Simply correcting those impressions takes a weight off technically-oriented students.

I also find most of my students, whether traditional “college age” or adults, have a pretty good idea of what their writing and writing-impacting problems are. They also are typically capable of determining what kind of help would really be helpful to them.

An additional value of the boot camp, is that it would give the college data from which to determine the most common problems of students entering their programs. From that data, the college could develop shared resources all faculty teaching a given course could access so that official course descriptions and what happens in the classrooms is a reasonable match.

Also from that data, the college could develop support structures—for example, in-person individual and small group tutoring, digital resources, online chats or webinars—that students can elect if their boot camp experience reveals a need for some particular help.

My idea might not work—many of my ideas don’t—but it almost has to be as good a remedial English, doesn’t it?

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