“I can’t teach writing in only one semester”

One complaint I’ve consistently heard (and myself made) during all my years teaching college writing is that one or two semesters is not enough time to teach writing. One finding I’ve repeatedly come across in all my years poring over educational research is that the largest source of variance in student writing performance is the interaction between student and task. In other words, the fewer the number of tasks assigned in your course (assignments, papers, tests, etc.), the higher the variation in student performance, which means the less reliably (consistently) your class measures whatever it is we conceive of as “writing ability.” This seems intuitive to me, and it is consistently found in the literature. On average two different assignments, in the same course and even for the same student, are basically nonpredictive of performance in one by performance in another. A student can write an amazing editorial and absolutely bomb a research paper. Does that make your course an unreliable measurement of writing ability? Maybe.

The logical response to this is simple: just assign many more and wildly different tasks in your course to better cover the vast domain of writing ability and thus reduce performance variance. But, alas, that’s where the time constraint comes in. It’s virtually impossible to assign more than four major assignments a semester. Are four writing assignments enough to reliably capture writing ability? No way. Not given the infinite amount of genres and writing tasks out there and our evolving definition of writing ability.

So then, what if we increased the number of assignments, but made them smaller and spent less time on each? 10 small writing assignments a semester, instead of four major ones? Would 10 assignments more reliably capture writing ability and minimize our measurement error? Statistically, yes. Intuitively, I think yes, too. But I understand the resistance to this idea. There is value, I think, in longer, more in-depth writing assignments. I bet most freshman college students haven’t written a paper longer than 10 pages, and at some point they absolutely should write one. (I think multiple.)

But I wonder if that value can be realized in a freshman writing class. What is the realistic purpose of a one semester, freshman college writing class after all? If our time, and thus our measurement instrument, is narrowed to one semester, maybe we should break up the cognitive trait we intend to measure into smaller chunks, since the whole construct can never be reliably captured in a semester with four major assignments. It’s like we’re trying to measure several miles with four yardsticks. If we’re only going to get one (or two at most) semesters(s), maybe we should adjust the use of our narrowed instrument accordingly, by using it on more, smaller, varied tasks. Then instead of measuring miles with yardsticks we’ll at least be measuring yards with rulers.