A young woman came to Elizabeth Steinson in distress. Bright, charming
and ambitious, she had landed her dream job at a pharmaceutical company,
but her employer was asking to see proof of her degree. She didnt
have it, because she hadnt passed the University Writing Test, which
The Test is intended to help students by identifying weaknesses in their
writing skills, but to be of value, it needs to be written as soon as
possible after they enter university.
All students are required to take the Test, or its equivalent, as a requirement
for graduation. Many postpone writing it until theyre nearly finished
their degree. That isnt a problem if they pass, but many fail the
Although it varies from department to department, the failure rate can
be around 30 per cent, sometimes higher a heartbreaking blow for
students expecting to graduate.
Some take the test repeatedly, as many as five or six times ignoring
advice to take corrective action. Some simply dont graduate.
We dont know what happens to them, said Steinson sadly.
I get phone calls But you have to do something! My
parents are coming from overseas for the convocation ceremony! By
then, it is much too late to do anything about it.
As a result, the policy governing the Test is about to change. Instead
of being able to postpone it until just before they graduate, students
will have to have written it before they complete their first 30 credits.
Only two attempts will be allowed, after which they take a placement test
and appropriate corrective courses, for which they will get academic credit.
The information sent to students has always made it clear that the Test
isnt to be taken lightly: The sooner remedial measures are
taken, the sooner a passing grade can be awarded. Furthermore, the benefits
of improved writing skills can begin to have a positive effect on course
The university offers credit courses in English as a second language (ESL)
and a series of composition courses offered by the Departments of English
and Études françaises, as well as support from peer helpers
in Counselling and Development.
However, Steinson says that students are not taking advantage of the help
that is available in part, because they may not be aware of the
weaknesses in their writing.
Students tell me, I cant have failed! Im a really
good student, but when I read them back their paper, they stop me
and agree that they made a lot of mistakes.
She feels that in many cases, competence in English is not being reinforced
by rigorous marking of essay assignments. Professors with large classes
are often obliged to give multiple-choice tests. She asked one teacher
whether he assigns essays, and he said he did, but he just marks them
by looking for keywords, words and phrases taken from his lectures.
In the Test, students are asked to write a short essay of 300 to 500 words
on one of four or five topics. These are carefully chosen to focus on
writing ability rather than demonstrations of special knowledge.
Most Quebec students will have already had to write an exit exam as they
left CEGEP. That test is a little more complex than Concordias
test, Steinson said, but as a Vanier College teacher pointed out recently
in an essay in The Gazette, the grading is generous. When Steinson asked
another CEGEP teacher about it, she was told, Well, we want to get
them out [of the CEGEP system].
Concordia is one of the few universities that requires a test of language
competency, Steinson said, but she feels that more needs to be done to
identify the problem earlier and guide students to the benefits of elective
composition courses. The Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science has
already taken action; new students were told this fall they had to take
the Test in their first term.
The scheduled dates for the UWT next term are Jan. 18, Mar. 1 and May
For more information about the University Writing Test, visit to http://relish.concordia.ca/uwt/.