Critical Writing seminars

Overview and Statement of Goals

The Critical Writing Seminars are discipline-based and organized around a specific scholarly inquiry or debate. Curriculum is based on the discourse theory of learning, which emphasizes collaborative problem-solving, prompted self-explanation, peer review, and dialogue. Instructors teach a common writing curriculum that they integrate with their individual topics, readings, and scholarly conventions (types of evidence, genres, etc). The first part of the seminar introduces a network of active concepts: the course topic and discourse community; strategies of reasoning; fundamentals of rhetoric (genre, audience, purpose); reading and writing like a rhetor; collaborative learning and decision-making; peer review; and the writing process. The second part integrates and links these concepts to others that students encounter as they immerse themselves in an advanced research project on the topic. Guided by the instructor and a librarian assigned to the course, students learn the fundamentals of scholarly research (e.g., Boolean searches, subject-specific databases, keyword and known-item searching) as they create their own text-based knowledge through analysis and complex synthesis of sources, and move from novice to apprentice writers in a scholarly or professional community.

Creative thinking and collaboration are at the heart of the curriculum. Students are obliged to understand and account for their interlocutors’ positions, beliefs, values, and knowledge. This rigorous rhetorical demand gives them substantial skill-building in empathy, judicious interpretation, and problem-solving. Students are also obliged to identify and evaluate others’ lines of reasoning, as well as their own, distinguishing these from the accompanying verbiage. They exit the course able to provide a concise, well-reasoned explanation or argument attuned to a diverse readership and to the demands of specific genres. They experience all stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy (original and revised) and end the course at the top, engaging in higher order reasoning and the ability to share it with others as discussants and writers. We aim for our students to be able to transfer the skills and knowledge they acquire in the seminars to the many new writing situations they will encounter at Penn and beyond.

All undergraduates are required to earn a C- or better in the course as well as in a final portfolio assessment performed by the student’s writing instructor and one or more outside readers drawn from the writing faculty and administration. The coursework grade is based on students’ demonstrated knowledge of the fundamentals of writing and participation in a discourse community: knowledge of topic, rhetoric, genres, and writing process, as briefly outlined above. The portfolio grade, in turn, is contingent on students’ demonstrated competence in the following areas: cognition, invention, reasoning, and presentation, this latter including grammar, mechanics, style, and adherence to genre and discourse conventions.

The Critical Writing Program engages in a range of assessment strategies tied to the teaching and learning process as well as learning outcomes, including diagnostic timed essays to assess students’ command of basic writing skills; self-directed placement and ongoing self-scripts to facilitate the level of metacognition fundamental to knowledge transfer and application; detailed rubrics for each writing assignment; and mid- and final portfolio assessment, scored by the instructor and at least one other member of our writing faculty.

Student self-assessment begins with self-directed placement, offering students descriptions of three types of seminars and encouraging them to choose the type that most suits their needs. All seminars follow the same writing curriculum and varies according to the discipline, mode of inquiry, topic, and readings. The same methods and criteria of assessment are used in all of the seminars, and all students must pass the coursework and final portfolio assessment to fulfill the university’s writing requirement.

Our writing assignments are scaffolded and designed to foster habits of mind that provide a framework for success as described by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. They introduce a range of concepts and provide practice and reflection, allowing students to build skills and knowledge of writing and rhetoric, as well as research strategies. Our learning outcomes encompass and exceed those recommended by the CWPA, and our assessment criteria are geared to the categories of writing knowledge and skills delineated by leading scholars in the field of writing.

Assessment of student metacognition, integral to successful transfer, is conducted throughout the semester by various self-assessment scripts and strategies, with students producing pre- and post-outlines and assessments of their work and that of their peers; student mid-and final evaluations of what they have learned from the course; and a letter of self-assessment in the mid- and final portfolios in which they analyze their writing prior to or at the beginning of the semester and compare it to their final work for the seminar, providing concrete evidence of their ability to evaluate writing as rhetors. These self-scripts are quite useful for our instructors and the program at large as a diagnostic tool, demonstrating what students are learning and are able to articulate about their learning. They are also a basis for knowledge transfer, according to recent research on this topic, which finds that students must be able to identify and articulate concepts, as well as apply them, if they are to put them to use in new writing situations. For example, a student who can recognize and create a counterargument or identify and deploy quantitative evidence in one field will be able to discern whether these are being used, or might be used, in another class or on the job.

Along with self-assessment scripts and strategies, students review their peers’ work throughout the semester with guidelines that incrementally expand their ability to practice and apply to other writing the lessons and criteria they are learning. In turn, the instructor assesses each assignment and each peer review by means of a rubric shared with the students that articulates the expectations of the assignment, listing the assessment criteria and describing levels of quality in relation to each of the criteria. The rubrics are detailed scoring guides used for individual assignments as well as for the multi-dimensional assessment employed for the mid- and final portfolios, which, by gathering a range of student writing, provide a more holistic and productive assessment of the students’ achievements than can be grasped in a single document or test.

Finally, our assessment practices, including our rubrics, are not confined to a summative function (i.e., grades). They serve a central pedagogical purpose in our program as formative assessment tools that inform students about their progress and aid them in their development as writers and critical thinkers.