Friday, September 16, 2011

Blogging the Diagnostic Essay

Justin Rogers-Cooper

I am teaching two Liberal Arts Learning Community "cluster courses" this semester. I still have yet to link one to the Community 2.0 Wiki, but I will (I promise). For the first week of both classes, like others I spent my computer lab hours with my students setting up Blogger and Twitter accounts. The blogger accounts were mostly easy (my Language and Human Rights class had already set up their accounts with my colleague and team teacher, Dr. Maria Jerskey. Thanks Maria!).

The Twitter gave me problems in both classes -- most of the students, but not all, got a screen that said "Cannot Do This Right Now. Try Again Later." Apparently, by "later" it seems Twitter meant much later. Most students had to wait at least a day, including me, since I was trying to set up a Twitter ID specific to my classes. All of these tasks appear to fall into the category of "applying," based on Jason and Ximena's blog.

I would thus like to move on from the social networking tales and relate what I believe was the real innovation (for me) of the week: turning the English 101 Diagnostic essay into a "live blogging" workshop.


The main goal of the traditional English Diagnostic essay is to get a snapshot of incoming student skills and abilities. The Diagnostic is considered to be one of the required English 101 essays assigned throughout the year. I have always found it a poor measure of what happens in the semester, and rather tedious to evaluate. My reasons for this are because:

(a) Knowledge, Terms, and Time. The Diagnostic measures not only what students may or may not "know" about writing a college essay on their first day of class, but also how quickly they are able to understand the directions and the terms of the directions on the Diagnostic itself. Problematically, what they think I mean by "argument" and "supporting claims" and "using the passage" may not be what I had in mind. The Diagnostic is also supposed to last (I think) 90 minutes, so that the students have time to write enough (the goal for the semester is to write 600 word essays).

So, in essence, I have 15 minutes early in the semester (usually the first week) to explain what goes into a college essay, and then give them a short passage to read, and then have them develop an argument and supporting paragraphs. In my mind, this sets students up to mostly "fail" the Diagnostic. It makes it very easy for instructors to find skills to improve and techniques to address -- but I'm not sure that what instructors are measuring actually corresponds to anything meaningful. We're asking them to show their ignorance so we can point it out to them. I believe I can measure something "else" and I believe my teaching time is more effectively spent doing just that. I'll get to it in a moment.

(b) Disconnection and Scaffolding. My other issue with the Diagnostic is that it's disconnected from their first essay assignment and not typically a good bridge to future student writing. This could be my fault, and of course I take responsibility for it, but no one else has told me to do anything different, either. Typically, in the past I have assigned directions for an argumentative essay (much like a midterm or exit exam) combined with a 250-300 word passage from a mainstream news publication like Time magazine or the New York Times. I usually have problems with the composition and content of such excerpts, but before this year I had never explored the idea of simply jettsioning them from the package of acceptable first day texts.

Whatever the passage, students read it and take notes on it for creating their own argument. One I used in the past was about how industrial meat production and consumption is the leading cause of catastrophic climate change and chaotic weather (more than transportation, etc). After reading it, students write as much as they can within the structure of the essay as they imagine it and as I try to explain it (or not) in 15 minutes. Then they turn it in, I evaluate it, I write them a letter explaining what techniques and skills to work on, and then the next class I introduce the first 'real' essay assignment. I realized coming into this semester that repeating this exercise would be a waste of time for me and my students.

Resolution: The Diagnostic would be scaffolded (bridged, connected, staged) into the first essay assignment. Defense: See above.

Resolution: I would run the Diagnostic like a workshop, and offer guidance to the students. Defense: The essays that I emphasize and prize highest in my ENG 101 classes are always the ones where we go through the writing process: discussing, noting, drafting, peer reviewing, reflecting, composing, and then, finally, handing in. I want the Diagnostic to reflect what students will actually do in my class: talk with me about their writing, in "real" time. I want to have time to explain the basics of college-level argumentation before the Diagnostic, and perhaps some other useful technique (for both classes, we added "summary" to the techniques I wanted them to know first).

For me, then, the Diagnostic would offer an opportunity to immediately learn "how" students were learning and applying techniques of writing. What it would measure would be, yes, whether or not they could generate anything like 600 words from reading a quick passage; but it would also measure their learning process: could they incorporate suggestions? Could they learn the basics of argumentation and then write an argument? Could they learn the basics of summary then summarize? The Diagnostic would then tell me what they could do, not what they didn't "know."

Bloom's: I could be wrong, but I believe that what I was expecting here was:

understanding - Did they understand the passage? Did they understand the Assignment? Did they understand the passage from the text?

applying - After learning how thesis statements work, could they write a simple one? Could they defend it?

analyzing - To the extent that they had to offer their own arguments and analyze a passage from a text, I think students had to say what things "meant" and why. Is that analysis for Bloom? I'll need to review.
creating - It might be overly ambitious to say this, but they did create a draft (oops, Diagnostic) for me to evaluate.

During the Diagnostic class, I gave students the directions and passage on my blogger page. While the Diagnostic went on and I went around answering questions and giving students feedback, I would return to the blogger page and update it with my replies to students questions. I was trying to distribute feedback, support, and ideas during the Diagnostic itself. I told the students to "refresh" their screens after I published an update. I told them to ignore the update if it didn't apply to them.


Based on minimal expectations and my sense of experimentation, I thought the Diagnostic workshop went very well. The students were much more invested in their work. Many of them were serious and wanted to know if their arguments could work. There was an immediate sense of confidence among many. They realized that they could adjust to college-level expectations very quickly. They also appreciated the fact that their time was spent working on an assignment that would be due anyway (for a peer review on the 21rst, and as a final draft on Oct. 3). I also got to engage with all the students one on one, and learn about what was stopping them and what was motivating them.

Most of the students were able to produce at least one double-spaced type written page. I confess that this probably is shorter than 600 words. But ALL of the students produced workable thesis statements of various qualities, and almost all of the students were able to link these ideas to supporting paragraphs. I tried to give them very clear instructions about how thesis statements sound (and I confess I set up a fairly telegraphed structure for them to follow, and one we can deepen and revise as the semester unfolds).

I'm also happy that I'll spend my time this weekend evaluating drafts that will be returned with valuable comments.


I believe this experiment increased student confidence, measured something valuable, and will return the time of investment of myself and the students.

The link to my Language and Human Rights blog is here:

If you scroll down you can see my "live updates" from my updates as the workshop progressed.


  1. It's amazing to me how often we have to take the circuitous route to simplicity. Very cool that you were able to integrate the diagnostic as a real and meaningful activity for you and your students. Also I like the informal modelling you are doing with spur of the moment revision and editing by adding to your blog while in class.

  2. I agree with the scaffolding of the so-called "Diagnostic" (some of our colleagues even grade it!) I do something similar for ENG099.

    After checking your blog:

    1. What I really liked is how you use your own class blog for commentary as they write, particularly because it is less intrusive (and less ephemeral) than saying things out loud as they write. Good idea.

    2. It's interesting that you chose the third person for instructions--it feels unbloggy (hey, if Shakespeare could make up words, so can I).

    After checking you student blogs:

    Do you think the students (or the teachers) could benefit from tagging what posts are for what class?