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June 28, 2007

Making Pitt Work: Freshman essay readers

To some, a summer reading list might include a trashy, beach-worthy novel or the latest bestseller.

Laura Dice’s list for summer evenings is a bit different. While the works on her list are shorter and perhaps more redundant than most, they’re also more important.

As assistant dean and director of freshman programs in the School of Arts and Sciences, Dice leads the team that reads each and every essay written by incoming Pitt freshmen as part of their placement testing. The task has been part of her summer schedule for decades.

It started with a summer fellowship to run the placement readings that Dice accepted when she was a graduate student at Pitt in the 1980s. “I’ve done it ever since,” she said, adding that today’s sessions are much less grueling than when she started.

Back then, every incoming freshman had to take a placement test, which meant a team of about 20 readers would start reading essays around 4 p.m., continuing well into the wee hours of the night in order to return them to advisers the next morning so students could be scheduled for the proper classes. “We were dealing with thousands of essays,” Dice said. “It got pretty funny by 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning,” she admitted.

Jennifer Lee, a lecturer and associate director of composition, read as a graduate student and returned this year after a hiatus of about eight years. “It’s much more fun than it used to be,” Lee said, recalling the late nights. “You’d get so punchy you couldn’t look at one more diagnostic essay.”

“Your eyeballs would drop out by the end,” confirmed Barbara Mellix, an A&S assistant dean and director of academic advising who also spent long nights as a reader years ago.

While the process at Pitt remains largely unchanged — students have 90 minutes to read and respond to a passage as a way of demonstrating their writing ability — today’s readers have a lighter load. In 2001, the requirements were changed to place students who scored 600 or more on the verbal portion of their SAT tests automatically into Pitt’s freshman Seminar in Composition, cutting the number of essays to be read in half.

In the past two academic years, about 55 percent of each freshman class in A&S achieved SAT scores sufficient to exempt them from the essay requirement. Last fall, that left 1,174 essays to be written and read out of 2,587 incoming A&S freshmen, Dice said.

In addition, writing sessions are distributed more widely throughout the summer, easing the pressure for today’s smaller team of readers.

Freshmen now do their placement testing when they come to campus for PittStart orientation sessions — some 20 of which are scheduled throughout the summer, in comparison to only five sessions when Dice began as a reader.

A pilot program is in the works to allow students to do their placement testing online, Mellix said. Three PittStart groups scheduled to visit the campus in August will be given a window of time to log onto CourseWeb in advance and do their writing and math placement testing online.

Online placement testing already is being done successfully in Pitt’s engineering school and at other universities, Mellix said, adding that students have been asking for the option.

Cheating typically isn’t an issue, she said. Test-takers already have been accepted to the University and are being assessed only so they can be placed into the right freshman courses. There would be no advantage to cheating one’s way into a class a student wasn’t prepared to handle. “Serious college students are not messing around,” Mellix said. “They want to know what their placement is. They want to be successful.”

While the online assignment will use a different passage, the current test has students read an excerpt on advertising taken from “The Culture of Narcissism” by Christopher Lasch, then describe and comment on an advertisement they’ve seen in light of Lasch’s arguments.

All placement tests are read by at least two readers who have taught composition at Pitt — a mix of graduate students, non-tenured and part-time faculty. If their assessments don’t jibe, the essay is handed off to a third reader to resolve the split decision.

“Sometimes it’s very difficult to determine,” Dice said. A student might turn in a very well written essay but misunderstand the whole passage. Or, an essay might have all sorts of mechanical errors but contain very intelligent ideas. In these situations, the readers’ teaching experience comes into play — they are familiar with what’s taught and what can be expected of typical freshmen. Collaboration and discussion among readers also is encouraged if there are pros and cons to be addressed before making a recommendation. The goal is to place the student in the proper class so he or she can thrive and get a good start at the University.

“It’s a very personalized process,” Dice said. “We really do read every essay.”

Students who address the ideas in the passage adequately without error patterns or problems with coherence are placed in the 3-credit Seminar in Composition. Those who show several patterns of error, difficulty with conventions of writing or other problems may be assigned an additional 1-credit Composition Tutorial.

Those with greater syntactic and coherence problems who show weak development of their writing will be assigned to the 3-credit Workshop in Composition or its companion workshop for those for whom English is a second language. The weakest students, who may demonstrate problems reading and understanding the passage, have issues with developing their ideas or show significant patterns of error or incoherence, are assigned to the 6-credit Intensive Composition course.

“We want to put them in the place where they’re going to get whatever they need to be able to write at a college level,” Dice said.

Looking at some recent statistics, 73 percent of the students who took the placement testing in early June were assigned to the Seminar in Composition course, 19 percent were deemed to need the extra tutorial, 5 percent were placed in the Workshop in Composition and 3 percent into the 6-credit intensive course.

Dice said the calls her readers make typically are right on the mark. Otherwise, “it would be chaos for the composition department,” she said. Instructors re-test students during the first week of class to evaluate whether they’ve been placed correctly. “Very few get moved,” Dice said.

The reading sessions themselves are informal events. Dice schedules a group of six-eight readers who gather in Thaw Hall around 5:30 p.m. over snacks or pizza and soda, then settle in for about three hours of reading. Before they arrive, Dice has collected the freshly written essays and assembles them into packets of seven or eight.

Each reader takes a packet. After marks for all the essays are entered on a “first reader” score sheet, the packet goes into a central pile for a second reading by the next available reader.

As a bonus, there’s a chocolate bar awaiting the first and second readers of a packet who match up exactly on every essay. It’s a rare occurrence to match perfectly, Dice said, adding that the most frequent splits come in deciding whether to place a student in the seminar in composition or to add the 1-credit composition tutorial.

The reading itself is based on a holistic approach, aiming not to skewer students for poor spelling or minor punctuation errors, but to judge their overall skill level.

“It is a learning process,” she said, adding that she always schedules some more experienced readers at each session to consult with newcomers. “We try to have someone at every reading who’s taught a range of composition courses,” she said.

Dice reads while she oversees the process, encouraging questions and collaboration between newer readers and more experienced ones, or even an out-loud reading if a particular essay is making for a tough decision.

While the decisions being made are serious, there is fun involved. The current passage prompts plenty of essays on the heavily marketed Axe deodorant or male enhancement products, she said.

There always are comical misspellings or other errors — Dice recalls one essay in which the writer mistakenly used the word “consummation” rather than “consumption” throughout the essay, leading to a rather amusing reading.

Deciphering handwriting also can be a challenge. The essays written on campus are done longhand, blue-book style, forcing readers to do the best they can when there’s particularly poor penmanship.

And though it’s less grueling to read for only a few hours a night, the process still can be boring. “It can be formulaic after reading five or ten essays on Axe body spray,” Dice admits.

While other universities use different procedures for freshman writing placement, Pitt readers find the University’s method valuable to them as teachers as well as to the students.

“We talk about teaching while we’re doing this,” said Jennifer Lee, who recently rejoined the reading team.

Solo classroom teaching can be an isolating experience, but reading essays together gives the opportunity to ask for feedback from other teachers, she said. “It’s a nice reality check.”

A first-time reader this year, adjunct faculty member Bill Kirchner said he was curious to find out firsthand how students get placed in his class. “These are going to be my students potentially,” he said.

In his reading, he’s found that some students don’t say much, but say it eloquently. “There are a few with well developed analytical skills and facility with language. But others show little depth of analysis or insight, although their writing skills are competent,” he said, adding that his discovery will serve as a reminder to pay attention to those aspects in teaching his classes this fall.

“It’s a large decision based on a small sample,” Kirchner said. “But it’s nice to see how the decisions are arrived at.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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