Assessing the Assessment: Directed Self-Placement for Writing

After two decades and two revisions, the Directed Self-Placement (DSP) process is once again being asked a hard question: is it supporting all students in becoming successful college writers? In a collaborative effort to answer this question, our research team is listening to the many voices that play a role in the DSP process—students, advisors, and instructors—as well as data past and present. Our team includes Tessa Tinkle (SCW Director), who first implemented the DSP at Sweetland in 1998, Colleen Lapere (SCW Chief Administrator), Naomi Silver (SCW Associate Director), and graduate students Jason Godfrey, Anil Menon, Andrew Moos, Laura Romaine, and Michelle Sprouse.

The DSP process impacts most incoming students at the University, including those in LSA, Architecture, Stamps School of Art & Design, Kinesiology, Nursing, Ross Business School, and the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. The process begins with students writing an essay in response to a reading and answering questions about their past writing experiences. Then, when they meet with their first-year advisors, they see the recommendation the DSP program generated: either a first-year writing requirement course or an ungraded transitional writing course. Unlike traditional models that place students according to a test score, the DSP gives students agency over their own placement—students may choose not to follow the recommendation. The DSP treats students as the experts of their own learning and lives, and respects their desire for support through additional coursework, or their priority of a fast track to degree.

To test the equity and benefits of the DSP process, we need to answer foundational questions: Is the DSP making recommendations that are helping students? How are students choosing their courses, making their decisions? How do instructors use the DSP essay? How do advisors use the DSP questions? Does the DSP process have a disparate impact on specific racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups?

These questions have taken our DSP research in exciting new directions. 

We are tracking student success through first-year writing courses, upper-level writing courses, and graduation. We are discovering what student choices, what courses, what trends, are helping and hurting students. 

Through student demographic data, we’re finding not only who is struggling in their writing careers at Michigan, but precisely where in the process some of these inequities emerge. Research in education has shown a concerning pattern of marginalized populations being put at a disadvantage throughout their college careers. Our research enables us to see where the system is failing some students: specifically, an essay prompt that asks for an unfamiliar genre, a reading that requires a particular American cultural context to understand, a course enrollment decision that is difficult to make without the advice of college-educated parents.

Advisors, who are an enormously important part of the course decision process for incoming students, have not been consulted in past research on DSP. For the first time, the benefit of their experience and expertise in the crucial moments of student decision making are guiding our assessment. Thank you, Newnan Advising Center!

Feedback from students, instructors, and advisors is revealing more about the unique experiences of transfer students and English language learners. Our current structures could do more to accommodate their specific needs in the program.

New ways to use the DSP data and essays are emerging in conversations with the English Department Writing Program. The rhetorical patterns of incoming student writing can help inform instructors, and in-class use of the DSP essays and questionnaires offer excellent prospects for students to reflect on how they are learning to write and what works best for them. 

By the end of this two-year project, we hope to maximize the DSP’s potential to be an equitable, inclusive, and helpful educational tool for first-year writing students. 

Laura Romaine
Graduate Student Research Assistant, Sweetland Center for Writing; PhD Candidate, English Language and Literature; Graduate Student Instructor, English Department Writing Program