Piloting Informed Self-Placement at St. Norbert College: Part I, by Kat O’Meara

This blog is the first in a short series entitled “Adapting to New Pedagogical Situations in the Continuing Covid Era” that the SLAC-WPA is publishing on its blog in spring 2022. It details the informed self-placement procedures that are being piloted at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin, in response to an array of COVID-related challenges and the College’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (EDIB) push for more inclusive and anti-racist processes. In this first post, Dr. Kat O’Meara, WAC director, shares the exigency for the pilot and its framework.

The exigency to establish a new writing placement process arose out of a perfect storm situation at my institution, St. Norbert College, a SLAC in De Pere, WI. Leading up to Fall 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic upended traditional writing placement processes (e.g., the budget line normally earmarked to pay writing faculty to read and score placement essays was slashed; SNC did away with the ACT score as a requirement for enrollment; and, like everyone else, all college procedures had to be migrated online). In addition, after the murder of George Floyd, antiracist/inclusive pedagogies and policies were at the forefront of my institution’s consciousness, and SNC was looking for ways to recognize and realize more equitable approaches to their work. And, as luck would have it, I was SNC’s newly-hired WAC Director who was enculturating to my position and looking to lend any expertise that was needed.

Thus, I was contacted by our Director of Academic Advisement to assist with strengthening and streamlining the writing placement processes for incoming students. Directed and informed self-placement (DSP/ISP) has been touted as having “the potential to supplant placement practices that have long privileged White, middle-class students, fostering more equitable writing assessment that advances social justice” (Toth, 2019). Blakesley (2002) notes that a DSP approach brings students into the conversation about their own skills and expertise—a move that destabilizes and interrogates traditional power structures of the academy. He continues, “The simple act of providing students some stake in exercising personal agency in such an explicit way can begin the process of achieving that more noble goal of higher education: to prepare a citizenry to write its own future by deliberating on its past” (Blakesley, 2002, p. 29).

Student agency is also a key factor in Moos and Van Zanen’s (2019) study, which also notes the importance of paying attention to local context. A singular site’s distinct lived experiences and situatedness are key factors in pursuing placement processes tailored to specific student needs and to institutional contexts and constraints. I also felt as though we should establish a process that prioritized student voice/agency as much as possible.  Thus, I recommended an informed self-placement process described below, taking a cue from Bedore and Rossen-Knill (2004) by advocating for a more “dialogic model” (p. 56) in which students have a more integral role in the decision-making process.

Three students sit in front of a laptop reaching toward it.
Today’s college students value having agency to make informed decisions. Taking part in their own writing placement process is seen as an inclusive, equitable strategy. Image by John Schnobrich, Unsplash.

The Process: The writing placement is part of a larger advisement survey (seen HERE in its second-year version; scroll down to the “Writing Placement” section). Some highlights:

  • Students read detailed descriptions about both our course options, the Writing Intensive (WI) course that is required for our Core Curriculum, and the College Writing course that serves as an unofficial prerequisite writing-focused (but not intensive) course that students take to “brush up” on their skills.
  • They also completed a survey where they reported their levels of confidence and past experiences with writing-related skills (e.g., finding and evaluating academic texts, writing multi-paragraph essays, citing sources using direct quotes and paraphrases, editing and proofreading).
  • Students then had the option to upload a writing sample, and finally they self-selected one of the two possible courses (a WI course, or the College Writing course).

Once I received the survey results from incoming students, their profiles were processed, weighing their survey responses with other available factors like their high school GPA; transcripts that shared English course grades; and any incoming credits from dual credit, AP, IB, or community college courses. At SNC, we use a program called Slate, which was incredibly helpful in streamlining all of the onboarding stuff that students needed to complete, keeping everything in one place. Luckily, my WAC budget was reinstated for the 2020-21 academic year, and so I was able to pay two other writing faculty to be on our placement team. We met a few times to review specific cases where I thought students may have over- or under-placed themselves. The students whom we thought needed more direction were asked to schedule a Zoom meeting with me to review their survey responses and chat about which class they thought would be best for them.

In the next post, I’ll share some initial results from this ISP pilot, including:

  • What happened in the Zoom meetings with students in Spring 2021,
  • How students fared in their writing courses in the Fall 2021 semester, and
  • The perceptions students had about the placement process (and whether they thought they chose their writing courses wisely).

Stay tuned!


Bedore, P., and Rossen-Knill, D. F. (2004). Informed self-placement: Is a choice offered a choice received? WPA: Writing Program Administration 28(1-2), pp. 55-78.

Blakesley, D. (2002). Directed self-placement in the university. WPA: Writing Program Administration 25(3), pp. 9-40.

Schnobrich, J. (2018). Untitled [photograph]. Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/2FPjlAyMQTA

Toth, C. (2019). Directed self-placement at two-year colleges: A kairotic moment. The Journal of Writing Assessment 12(1).

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