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November 22, 2001 University Writing Test gets a stronger mandate



by Barbara Black

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 didn’t have it, because she hadn’t passed the University Writing Test, which Steinson administers.

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 they’re nearly finished their degree. That isn’t a problem if they pass, but many fail the Test.

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 don’t graduate.

“We don’t 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 isn’t 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 work.”

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 can’t have failed! I’m 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 Concordia’s 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 10.

For more information about the University Writing Test, visit to http://relish.concordia.ca/uwt/.