In existence for more than 30 years, the Upper Division Writing Skills requirement aims to guarantee successful student writing and can be satisfied two ways at California State University, Fresno.
First enforced in the fall semester of 1979, the Upper Division Writing Skills (UDWS) requirement was designed to meet the California State University (CSU) system’s Graduation Writing Assessment Requirement (GWAR), created to ensure that all CSU students graduate with the capacity to write at an advanced level.
“The goal is just to ensure that anybody who graduates from Fresno State is a skilled writer across the board, no matter what major they were in,” said Susan Currie Sivek, assistant professor in the mass communication and journalism department.
Last year, Sivek became a member of the Writing Competency Subcommittee, which establishes the standards of writing expected of students at Fresno State. This includes evaluating the writing components of general education classes, as well as reviewing syllabi of new courses to ascertain whether or not they meet the UDWS requirement and merit a “W” designation.
For a course to satisfy the UDWS requirement, it must comply with eight standards outlined by the Writing Competency Subcommittee and be approved by the university’s Academic Senate and President in 2008. These standards include a minimum writing requirement of 5,000 words to be fulfilled in at least five different tasks, faculty feedback to students regarding their writing and assessment based on substance and form.
Potential W-courses are not brought before the subcommittee often. It only happened once last year, though the issue is the quality of the classes offered, Sivek said.
“I think the main concern isn’t so much the quantity of the courses, although certainly we want students to have options,” Sivek said. “The question is more, what’s being taught within the courses and are students getting what they need out of them?”
Business administration major Kevin Perkins thinks so.
“I felt more confident in my writing,” Perkins said after taking BA 105W, Business Communication.
Perkins said the class seemed easy to him, though he never fully understood the UDWS requirement.
In the brief “Do Students Learn What Faculty Teach?” Fresno State’s Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning (IRAP) office found that 69 percent of upper-division faculty emphasize effective writing in their courses. The study also concluded that 73 percent of students answered quite a bit or very much as to the extent that their college experience contributed to their knowledge in writing clearly and effectively.
The spring 2010 Class Schedule lists 19 W-courses, including English 160W, Writing Workshop.
Ruth Jenkins taught the class off and on for more than 20 years and said there are noticeable improvements in students’ writing, and in their abilities to articulate in their writing by the end of the course.
During a semester in Writing Workshop, Jenkins said students are asked to complete a series of writings, which include describing concepts connected to their majors and critiquing genres. The last project for students is a case study of themselves as writers using the materials they’ve produced in the class.
Overall, Jenkins said, the course and the requirement are not just about simple correctness, but about thoughtful writing that demonstrates an idea or purpose.
“You can have a perfectly punctuated, grammatically correct paper, but it says nothing,” Jenkins said. “We try to balance teaching how to think, how to develop ideas, as well as mastering conventions of the language.”
The capacity to write effectively was ranked one of the most valuable characteristics of a Fresno State graduate in the brief “Educational Goals: What’s Most Important?” by IRAP director Christina Leimer.
“Across academic ranks, the full-time faculty believes that the most important educational goals for undergraduates are developing the ability to think critically, mastering knowledge in a discipline, the ability to write effectively and preparing for employment,” the report read.
The study examined responses to the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) Faculty Survey conducted in spring 2005.
The Upper Division Writing Exam (UDWE) is another way students can satisfy the UDWS requirement. The UDWE is given five times per year through the Testing Services office. Registration averages: 350 in January, 300 in March, 275 in June, 150 in August and 350 in October. Yearly, the average number of students taking the exam ranged from 1,400 to 1,500 for the past five years, said Linda Ensch, the coordinator of testing services.
The UDWE is comprised of two essay questions, written and scored by the English department, and a multiple-choice section offered through the testing company ACT. The passing score for the exam is 114, which is a configuration of scores from all three portions and based on the equation: (ACT x 1.22) + ((Essay A + Essay B) x 2.5). The 40-minute multiple-choice section is comprised of 72 questions. Students are given 45 minutes to answer each essay question, which are scored by two different faculty readers on a six-point scale.
Students can take the exam a maximum of two times. Those who don’t pass the exam, Ensch said, can appeal. One unit of credit is offered for passing the UDWE and most students take it, according to Ensch.
There is a $30 registration fee to take the exam. Ensch said this money is used to pay proctors and associates who administer the test, as well as essay readers and to purchase essay booklets. Likewise, Ensch said, the fee pays for a $12 charge from the testing company to score every multiple-choice test.
“To be totally honest, the $30 is not covering it anymore,” Ensch said.
According to a report on the UDWS requirement by Fresno State’s IRAP office, based on data collected between fall 2002 and fall 2007, 64 percent of students passed the UDWE, while 92 percent passed a W-course. A total of 5,837 students took the UDWE of which 43 percent failed the exam, 39 percent then retook the exam a second time. Conversely, 13,862 students took only a W-course of which 86 percent passed on their first attempt and 6 percent failed.
“I actually would like to see the numbers go up,” Ensch said. “I think some students don’t realize that [the UDWE] is there for them.”
Perkins said he had no idea the exam existed, though as a business administration major the UDWE does not satisfy the writing requirement. However, for mass communication and journalism major Kristin Berquist, the exam was crucial.
As a print journalism student, Berquist said she’s taken many classes geared towards writing and estimated she’s written over 50 articles in her time at Fresno State. She spent two semesters in an independent study course writing for local publications, as well as a member of The Collegian staff last fall, along with the author of this article. After she was misinformed by a professor that a class would substitute for the W-course, Berquist opted to take the UDWE.
“I was going to enter my last semester and I thought everything was taken care of for graduation,” Berquist said. “It would’ve been really horrible to have to add an extra semester for one class to fulfill that requirement.”
Berquist passed the exam, though like Perkins, she said she never fully knew what the requirement was.
Coordinator of Evaluations Beverly Kirkland said she doesn’t get many questions regarding the UDWS requirement.
However, she said, it is absent on a lot of degree applications, and a reason students don’t graduate.
“It’s quite often a deficiency and one of the problems that students face is waiting until the last minute to either take the exam and not pass, or to take the class and not pass,” Kirkland said. “If they took it when it was intended, in their junior year, it would’ve already been dealt with, and it wouldn’t be the reason that they’re not graduating.”