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Formative Evaluation in the Writing Center

This entry is informed by my research, and I post it in the hope that a) many fellows browsing this site will grant these succinct words a minute of their attention, and b) that if anyone finds formative assessment compelling and wishes to research it more for 87, he/she has a good place to begin. 

In any case: The Writing Center may present itself as a nonjudgmental place—q.v. North (1984), “We pass no judgment, at least as far as the student is concerned” (53)—but throughout the consultation a fellow will inevitably make scores of judgments. In fact, after every appointment, fellows list their major judgments in their consultation reports when they (the fellows) answer the questions, “What did the student identify as the key problem to address? Was there any relevant feedback from his or her professor? How did your assessment mesh with these?” The evaluations fellows make in this box obviously aren’t the absolute, often quantitative evaluations made by professors by way of a grade. These assessments regard what the fellow thought the student should examine and what areas could be most improved on. This binary is known in academic pedagogy theory as formative and summative evaluation.

What exactly is formative evaluation? Unfortunately, despite having its origins almost a half century ago and its proven usefulness in many different subjects and levels, formative evaluation is not completely understood across academia in general. Here are two definitions, but take these in a fairly high-sodium sense because, as Stables (2006) puts it, “there is a certain ‘fuzziness’ about the definition of formative assessment” (2) (citing Yorke 2003, p. 478):

  • Formative evaluation in general: “A collection of appropriate evidence during the construction and trying out of a new curriculum in such a way that the curriculum can be based on this evidence” (Bloom 117).
  • With respect to process writing: “formative assessment is a recursive remedial processes in which feedback, whether it be generated by the learner, a peer reviewer, or tutor intervention, is used to reduce the distance between the learner’s output and that which is expected in a particular context” (Stables 2).

What does this mean in the Writing Center? Ideally, you’ll act as a practice audience. Respond to a draft not as an authority but as an experienced reader. Invite the student to critique themselves, to come up with ideas on her/his own. Judge without being judgmental. Be direct without being directive. In short, the concept of formative assessment doesn’t bring many new strategies to the table; it frames what we do in the Writing Center in a new light.

I also provide further reading not for casual interest but in the event that anyone else might be interested in pursuing this topic further. I’d like to leave the community with a firm idea of how intrinsic formative evaluation is to our, and any, writing center. As Barlow et al. put it, “an inquiry into student writing must necessarily be formative. It must provide information about what to do next and what to examine next as much or more than it provides conclusive information” (59).

Further Reading: Black, Paul, and Dylan Wiliam. “Developing the Theory of Formative Assessment.” Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability 21.1 (2009): 5-31. Law, Joe, and Christina Murphy. “Formative Assessment and the Paradigms of Writing Center Practice.” The Clearing House 71.2 (1997): 106-08. Stables, Paul. “Appropriate Formative Assessment in a Collectionist Culture.” Reflections on English Language Teaching 5.1 (2006): 65-78. Sherven, Kena N. “Worlds Collide: Integrating Writing Center Best Practices into a First Year Composition Classroom.” Thesis. Indiana University, 2010. IUPUIScholarWorks Repository. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Web.