The English department is, at its core, a one-year program in developmental writing. Accordingly, the course of instruction focuses on preparing students for success in writing at the postsecondary level, and on continually assessing their readiness for the same. The year in English begins with a one quarter course in creative nonfiction, with an emphasis on the personal essay. In this course, students are asked to write from meaningful experiences in their own lives, in the hopes of getting them both excited about their own writing and feeling increasingly empowered and qualified to write at the college level. Our second and third quarters then feature courses in critical reasoning and research respectively; these two courses most closely mirror the structure and expectations of first-year writing at USAFA. In the final quarter we turn our attention to literary studies, and more broadly consider the roles of writing, reading, and aesthetic appreciation in the formation of leaders and officers of character. Each quarter, students compete 2-3 major writing assignments, accounting for roughly 40% of a student’s final course grade. Each course also features a number of “process-based” assignments leading up to each essay’s completion. These assignments range in form and complexity–from worksheets and “practice” thesis statements to full and ostensibly “final’ drafts–and are typically graded for completion and effort. More importantly, however, they offer our instructors an occasion for assessment, as we are able to intervene within a student’s writing process and offer them formative feedback as they write, rather than withholding feedback until the essay’s completion, and thus conflating forward looking feedback with the work’s formal evaluation. In making this distinction between “forward-looking” and “evaluative” feedback we follow the latest research in writing instruction, most notably the emphasis therein to provide both formative and summative means of assessment.
The English Department assesses student writing in five key areas: rhetorical situation (writing with a sense of task, audience and purpose), content (depth and originality of insight), organization (on the essay, paragraph, and sentence level), style and mechanics. Each major assignment features a specific rubric defining each area for the particular task at hand, and characterizing different performance levels for the same. Students receive these rubrics at the beginning of the course, and instructors use them to evaluate final essays for a grade. At the beginning of each course students are also assigned a “baseline” diagnostic essay, which mirrors in miniature the final major writing assignment of the quarter. This assignment is graded only for completion, as we have not yet taught the students what we want their essay to do. Apart from the grade, instructors “score” these essays in each area on the assignment rubric, assigning number values as follows: 5=Exceptional; 4=Above Average; 3=Average; 2=Needs Work; 1=Insufficient.
Similar to the mathematics and science programs, at the beginning of the year, all students take a diagnostic exam in reading comprehension and vocabulary, which is normed against a national standard in developmental reading. The bottom 30% of scorers on this exam will then be enrolled throughout the year in a one quarter, co-requisite course in reading and study skills, which emphasizes comprehension, vocabulary, and reading rate. At the end of this course students then re-take a version of the initial diagnostic exam, to assess and demonstrate their progress.