The Effects of Placement Writing Exams on Writing Self-Efficacy
Introduction and Background
There are many things that a high school student must do in order to prepare for college. They must participate in extracurricular activities, receive the best grades, be able to attain letters of recommendation, and also pass the SAT/ACT examinations with high scores and pass placement exams. One of the things a student preparing to attend college, specifically a UC, must also do is meet the Entry Level Writing Requirement. They are able to do this in many ways, but one of the most common ways is by taking the Analytical Writing Placement Examination (AWPE, 2015). They are formulated by the university’s faculty members who are on board in this program and they go through a process in order to decide which examination will best be fit to test the incoming college students (AWPE, 2015). When student’s receive their scores, they are told whether or not they have met the university’s writing level requirement, and if they have not they are then told they must take a remedial course in order to meet that requirement. Here at the University of California, Davis campus, students who do not meet this requirement are forced to take the workload courses which are offered by Sacramento City College. The fact that this course is not even offered by the UC Davis campus itself I believe causes an internal problem. More often than not it seems student’s are wrongly placed into these courses solely because of the placement exams not reflecting the student’s actual writing capability. Does this have some form of subsequent effect of the students’ confidence level’s and writing self-efficacy to some degree?
It is important to analyze the factors that come along with taking a placement exam and also the subsequent events that take place after receiving the scores of said placement exam. These exams are timed and are aimed to judge a students writing capabilities in response to a selected prompt, one in which maybe they have never even been familiar with the topic at all in their own personal experience. According to Anne Balay and Karl Nelson’s research Placing Students in Writing Classes, the SAT and ACT have different aims in their assessments. The ACT test is developed in order to judge how college ready a high school student is and how competent they may be in order to study at the college level. The SAT Test Is more for the colleges and universities as the scores are what “help colleges make student selection decisions” (Balay & Nelson, 2012). Taking into account the aims of these examinations, student’s have a lot of weight on their shoulders when preparing for college. Not only do they have to work hard to receive their grades in high school and participate in extracurricular activities, but they need to learn how to score high on these tests. In other words, their own competence an knowledge will only be able to get them so far, but to actually prove it they need to know the structure of the exam and how to take it into order to receive a proficient grade or higher. Students must do this in order to prove they have what it takes to work at the college level and be selected by the universities based on their placement score.
One related research that focuses on self-efficacy and its connection in achievement in writing was conducted by Frank Pajares, Ph.D. from Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Defined by Psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives” (Bandura, 1994). Pajares works a lot with Bandura’s research in order to conduct his own. Bandura has pointed out that there are many factors that can affect one’s self efficacy and that in turn it determines how that person will perceive subsequent life events and how they choose to handle them. Pajares works to focus on these self-efficacy beliefs being played and influenced critically by the student’s academic motivation and their success and failure in school (Pajares, 2003). It seems logical that a student’s success and failure would play a critical role in their confidence and self-efficacy level especially based on the scores they receive. For example, students receive grades which are a letter or number report, and they tend to be defined by the school as either advanced, proficient, average, or failing. Being placed into categories such as these can affect a student’s awareness of themselves and in turn may define themselves by where they stand in accordance with their peers around them. It is obvious to assume that the higher grades will boost one’s self-efficacy and the lower grades will do the latter, and Pajares supports this in his research as it being one of the “most influential sources” (Pajares, 2003). There are many sources and reason’s behind the effects on self-efficacy, but the fact that standardization of scores is one of the most influential sources means that maybe there is something that the school system can do in order to change this. Also, in Balay and Nelson’s work they found similar results, specifically with relation to writing successes and failures in correlation with self-efficacy levels; the stronger scores are more prevalent in students with higher self-efficacy and students that have weaker scores are not as confident in their own capabilities.
Placement exams as noted previously serve as a sorting mechanism. In research within psychology, high school students tend to do better using a mechanism known as mainstreaming, which is an inclusive method when sorting students into classrooms. Students who are not as capable as another will still be placed in the same classroom together, whereas using a method known as tracking sorts out students by their academic capabilities (Siegler, DeLoache, & Eisenberg, 2003). It seems that the writing placement examinations are based on tracking methods: students who test high are sorted into the university level writing courses and students who score lower are sorted into the remedial courses. These remedial courses have no credit towards their GPA at the UC Davis campus and are only taken in order to meet that requirement to finally take the course offered by the UC.
Much research has been done on how different factors play into self-efficacy and how self-efficacy itself affects one’s true capabilities. However, what I am interested in finding out is how much of a role a placement writing exam affects a student’s writing capabilities in their first year college experience. Does the score reflect how they work that following year in a negative way, does it reflect their actual writing skill, and does the score and placement affect how the student perceives themselves?
Participants in this study included two first year college student volunteers who attend the UC Davis campus. These students have each been enrolled in the Workload 57 course offered as a result of not passing the AWPE. Participant 1 is a Psychology major and participant 2 is a Biological Sciences major. They both came from relatively small high schools in which they both explained they knew a majority if not all of their classmates.
To conduct this study, the information gathered was based solely on interviews with the participants. These interview questions were designed to determine the student’s state of self-efficacy before taking the placement exams and also after the placement exam. The participants were asked about their own beliefs in their writing skills during high school in order to set a ground level of their own academic perception. They were then asked questions that would sum up their beliefs in writing skills after being placed into the remedial courses in order to see if their writing self-efficacy had been affected. Interviews were set up with each participant with the same questions so there would not be any bias created towards one or the other.
Before each interview, I received consent from both of the participants to audio record their responses and make their responses viewable to the public. Their names, however, will remain anonymous and labeled as Participant 1 and Participant 2.
Interview Questions and Responses:
|Question||Participant 1 Response||Participant 2 Response|
|1. In high school, how would you rate your writing skills on a scale from 1-10?||I would rate them at a 9.||I would say between a 7 or 8.|
|2. Can you explain why you gave yourself this rating?||I believe I had proficient writing skills. I loved writing during high school because it came so easily to me. I always had one of the highest grades in my English and writing classes and my teachers said my writing was brilliant, I never received any negative remarks or comments towards my writing skills.||Uhm, I wouldn’t give myself an extremely high score only because I don’t think anyone is perfect. I give myself the rating because I had A’s in almost all of my essays and I was bored in what my class was teaching in high school, so I don’t believe there was anything much for me to improve on, especially with the advice my English teachers would give me. I always received good scores but never comments on how to improve my writing.|
|3. Were you confident in your writing?||Extremely confident, my writing assignments were always easy to me and I feel that I always got my point across or hit the purpose of the assignment spot on||I was confident only because I knew I could get something done when I needed to. Writing was easy for me, I never truly struggled with it.|
|4. Do you feel that you met the requirements set by your writing and or English teachers?||Yes||Yes
|5. How did you feel preparing for the college entrance exams.||I was very stressed out only because I felt the need to get accepted to every school I applied to, or else it would signify that I was missing something. But I think that while preparing I felt that I had what I needed in order to achieve that set goal, so I felt confident and ready at the same time.||I felt anxious. I think it was only because my parents made it clear that I needed to attend college in order to have a better life, so I was really relying on these exams to get me into the schools I needed to get to. Preparing for college exams was stressful because it felt more complicated, like I needed to know how to take the exam, not really so much of portraying what I knew.|
|6. How did you feel preparing for the writing portion?||I felt extremely confident with the writing portion because I would ace the timed writing portions my teachers would give me, and also because I loved writing I didn’t think it was something I really needed much prep for.||I was only worried about the timing, I can write a good essay, but being timed was very stressful and I think practicing for it only stressed me out even more.|
|7. After taking the placement writing exam, how did you feel?||Well, after taking the placement exam I didn’t know what to feel. I went in feeling great and confident, but at the same time I wasn’t so sure if I met the goal of the prompt.||I felt like I expected to feel after any placement exam, anxious and eager to get my score back only because I wasn’t sure how I did. I thought I had done well but I couldn’t be exactly sure of it.|
|8. After receiving your score, how would rate your writing self-efficacy as compared to your first rating you gave earlier?||I would give myself a 5. I definitely did not expect the score I had received, quite frankly I was very disappointed in myself.||As I had expected I did not do too well so with that I would give myself a 3 or 4.|
|9. Do you think your score truly reflected your writing capabilities?||No.||No.|
|10. Why not?||Because I had amazing scores and comments about my writing in high school. My scores kind of made me feel like I had been lied to throughout high school about my writing and I was just given the good grade, not the grade I deserved.||I knew that my skills were okay, but not bad enough to not pass the entrance exam. The fact that it was timed really makes me believe that the score does not reflect my capabilities because who can truly base someone’s fullest writing abilities based off of one timed exam?|
|11. Were you placed in the remedial course offered at your university?||Yeah, I was placed in the workload class that didn’t count towards my grades.||Yes.|
|12. How did you feel about your capabilities when being placed in this course?||I felt like I wasn’t good enough. The course made me feel like I wasn’t good enough mainly because it showed that my skills were not yet at the university writing level so I had to take a course offered not even by the university I was attending but a community college.||I think I felt like my capabilities were not up to par and that they really needed to be worked on if I wanted to achieve at the university level. I was upset that I wasn’t where I thought I was, but I also seen this as a learning opportunity that I never had in high school since apparently my courses previously didn’t prep me well enough.|
|13. During the course and the time of completing the assignments, do you think you were properly placed?||Definitely not. Immediately I was assigned a quick write in class so that the instructor could evaluate where we stood in our writing skills. When she gave me my score and prompt back, she asked why I was even taking the class and why I was not already enrolled in the university’s writing course.||Somewhat yes and no. Yes because I believe in continual improvement, that you can always improve somewhere. No because there were times in the course where I was bored and did not feel challenged enough.|
|14. Where would you rank yourself amongst your peers in the class?||I would put myself at the top of the class only because when we had peer review days, my classmates would ask how I write so well or they would come to me specifically for help||I was amongst the higher grades in the class|
|15. Do you feel that the score you received on the placement exam affected your writing skills in anyway?||I definitely felt less confident when it came to starting my papers. I didn’t have such a direct or confident head on approach like I usually did with writing. I felt very hesitant and was constantly double guessing myself and doubting my capabilities ad the way I wrote my paper because I felt it was never going to be good enough.||I think that the score I received made me not able to believe in my writing in a way. I would write down my paper but I felt I would be a very harsh critic when revising them. I guess it affected me in that bad manner but at the same time helped me to be very careful with my writing process.|
|16. Did the placement of the workload course affect your college academic plan?||Yes, it definitely did, especially since it did not count towards my GPA. I received an A in the class, but it didn’t do anything for my grade. I was also taking a pre-calc course at the time that did not count towards my grade so the fact that I received good grades but I couldn’t reflect them put me at an all time low for my starting GPA. Not only was I a quarter behind for my writing courses, but I was also behind my fellow peers by means of GPA ranking||Yeah it did. Instead of being at the same level as my friends I was a quarter behind. After taking the workload class I still could not get into the UWP course because it was all filled up. I think If I had been able to initially take the UWP course I would be on track in my academic plan.|
|17. Do you think learning is a fixed or a malleable trait?||I would say fixed.||I think it is a malleable trait, because I know that the harder I work and the more practice I put in the better a student I can become.|
After thoroughly analyzing the data of the responses, I have gained several insights. From my two participants, I received responses that were from different viewpoints which made my work a little easier to analyze. It seemed as though participant 1 was very set on the fact that they were not as skilled as they had initially thought, whereas participant 2 seemed to have a general understanding of where their writing skills were at. I think the question during the interview that really reflected this was the question at the end, “Do you think learning is a fixed or malleable trait?” Each participant answered with a different response, making each of their experiences and personalities unique in themselves. Being a fixed learner essentially signifies that you believe you either have the knowledge or you do not, where as being a malleable type of learner, one acknowledges that one can shape their own knowledge and experience (Siegler, DeLoache, & Eisenberg, 2003). Beliefs of these two traits affects how students react to situations and approach them, which may be the reason these two participants came from different viewpoints of their writing skills. Having these different outlooks play a significant role in each of their lives. As stated, they may approach situations differently. For example, Participant 1 being a fixed learner may signify that they are very hesitant when it comes to addressing activities in regards to the knowledge of the skills they already have. Since they rated their comprehension skills lower after taking the placement exam, they may be less confident, as stated by Siegler, DeLoache, and Eisenberg. Participant 2 on the other hand, according to research, would be more confident and eager to approach the same activity regardless of the score they received and they would still have a more positive outlook on the situation based on being a malleable learner.
When it came to addressing the participants writing self-efficacy prior to taking the placement exam, it appears they both had high levels in their writing beliefs. Participant 2 may have rated their score a little lower than Participant 1, but they were both still up in the higher range. After analyzing their responses to questions two through six, I gained more of an insight to the reasons behind their high writing self-efficacy levels. It seems that since they received high grades on their examinations, they had high levels of writing self-efficacy. Their previous high school teacher’s had a lot of faith in both of their writing competency levels and appraised them both much for their work. Although I did seem to find it odd that though the teachers loved their work, their never gave continuous remarks on how to further improve their work.
Second, when preparing for the placement exams the participants both had an anxious or nervous type of feeling, as that should be. However, their anxiety seemed to stem from the reasons behind getting into the university of their choice, not specifically from how they felt about their writing skills. Participant 2 expressed how they were stressed because they felt the need to know how to take the exam itself, not only express their knowledge. This was very interesting especially since in another article (SAT/ACT) they had expressed the significance of knowing how to take the college entrance exam over actually learning material (The Executive Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English, 2005). I would assume that since this was a stress factor that affected Participant 2 it is also a stress factor that affects other students. This added stress may also inhibit their writing skills on the day of the exam because they have more to worry about and more on their mind than just the test material. This finding can also signify how the placement exams do not truly reflect the student’s writing capabilities, as even both participant’s responded they did not believe the exams reflected their capabilities.
When it came to assessing the participants’ writing self-efficacy levels after the placement exams, they both rated their levels much lower than they had initially believed. Both student’s received low scores that did not meet the entry level writing requirement, however one asked that I not mention their score, so I cannot do so either for the other participant. So it is evident that based on the score they received, it changed their perception of their writing capabilities just as their grades in high school had initially determined their perception of their capabilities. This finding is significant in the fact that a single score can truly determine how one sees themselves, so that begs to question, is this how society really functions? This expresses that some confidence and self-determination levels are stemmed from a score and standardization, that a score defines who one is without acknowledgment of what the score has not recorded.
In further assessment, the participants were asked how they did and how they felt being placed in the remedial workload class in order to determine if the placement affected their further writing capabilities. Question 12 emphasized on this aspect and it appears that both participants felt significantly low about themselves, that the way they seen themselves was not good enough. Participant 2 seemed more optimistic however, and I believe it had to do with the fact they view learning as a malleable trait. It seemed that the fact of the course not being offered by the actual university really affected Participant 1. And I believe this is true in many cases, if one is attending a university but not even taking courses offered by it, what is even the point then to be at the university? This seemed to be the attitude I received while interviewing Participant 1. However, what was interesting was that when asked about their belief of where they stood in the class, they still ranked themselves amongst the top students. This reflects back to my question if the placement scores really reflect their true capabilities. If the participants both felt that they were ranked amongst the top of the class, then did they really need to be placed into the remedial course? This is a question that can later be looked upon through more research. It is still significant enough to acknowledge this because though the students were not confident in their writing skills and expressed in question 15 that their placement exam scores had made them more hesitant or doubtful in their writing, they still went on to express that their writing skills were ranked at the top of the class. A question that may further expand our understanding of why this is so would be if the student felt that they were at the top of the class, then did they feel they were ranked there due to their already attained skills or was it through skills they may have gained through the workload 57 course? Perhaps one could ask this question in a longitudinal study during week one of their course and then follow up to ask the question during week 10. The answer to this question and possibly other follow-ups could help explain how the placement tests may not do the best job of placing students where they should be.
Even though the students had good writing skills according to their remedial course grades they were not confident in themselves and their writing self-efficacy mainly because of their placement in regards to the placement exam scores. It seems that according to the research conducted through my interviews, the placement exam score played a big role on their writing self-efficacy levels after taking it and their first year writing experience. Initially both participants had high self-efficacy levels, but later they dropped significantly solely because of the score. Regardless if their professor had appraised their writing in their remedial course they still felt the need to express that they were doubtful of their writing skills. I think this research is helpful because it addresses mental health as well. If a score is a determining factor of how a student views themselves and the score is not accurate of their true capabilities, then why suffer their confidence levels just to use the tracking method in college courses? Why should the universities risk the mental health of their students when these placement exams are not proving to be accurate? Perhaps this research could influence one to analyze how helpful the workload courses are to everyone, or even if students should be allowed to test their writing capabilities through several writing exams rather than just one placement exam in order to prove their actual writing competency level.
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Siegler, R. S., DeLoache, J. S., & Eisenberg, N. (2003). How children develop. New York: Worth.
The Executive Committee of the National Council of Teachers of English. (2005). The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests. The Impact of the SAT and ACT Timed Writing Tests. Retrieved May 24, 2016, from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Positions/SAT-ACT-tf-report.pdf