Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Summer research yields new online English test, insight into college writing preparedness

A rite of passage for most first-year college English students is the traditional test to assess the student’s skills with the language. At the beginning of the semester, students taking the test might read over a collection of sentences and indicate whether each sentence is grammatically correct.

This summer, a Randolph professor and student set out to make a better test for those purposes.

Bunny Goodjohn, director of the writing program, said that the College has been using an online English skills assessment test that was free and worked well—when it worked at all.

“The idea was brilliant, but the execution was patchy,” Goodjohn said. Often, the website that hosted the test stopped working. “So I wanted to see if I could come up with an equivalent that would give us the same results but that would be more reliable, and something that we could tailor to our own needs.”

Goodjohn and Lauren Dowdle ’13 decided to work on the idea during the Summer Research Program.

As part of their research, Dowdle studied trends in students’ preparation for college-level English courses. She collected journal articles about the topic, and she also analyzed statistics about SAT scores.

Average SAT scores have usually risen in recent years, but Dowdle discovered that a high SAT verbal score does not always mean someone can write at the college level. Through further research, including more than 30 interviews, she learned that many students feel like high school writing courses did not prepare them for what college courses required. “Many students aren’t prepared for the expectations of their professors,” she said. “In high school, grammar is not covered as much. I heard that a lot in my interviews.”

Goodjohn said that Dowdle’s research shows a disconnect between what high schools prepare students for and what college professors expect.

Goodjohn focused her research on finding a way to recreate an online English assessment test. With help from Randolph College Information Technology, she found a way to administer the test online with SurveyMonkey.com. That platform has proven more reliable, she said.

Several Randolph English professors plan to start using Goodjohn’s assessment test this fall. Currently, the test uses the same questions as the free test formerly used by the College, but Goodjohn plans to rewrite them so that each sentence related to Randolph College, reflecting the College’s culture, history, and traditions.