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

This blog is the second 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. Building on last week’s post, Kat shares some initial results from the IRB-approved study of the pilot.

To recap, St. Norbert College revamped its writing placement procedures to an informed self-placement process. (See Part I  for more details.) We pick up in this second installation after students completed the advisement survey, and after their results were reviewed by our placement team (myself and two other writing faculty, who were paid a stipend for their labor).

In the first year of the ISP pilot (Spring 2021), I met with 37 students on Zoom, all of whom had under-placed themselves, selecting College Writing when the placement team thought they would be better off in a Writing Intensive (WI) course. In every case, students wanted more information about the differences between the two courses, and I explained that if they enrolled in College Writing, they would also need to take a WI course afterwards to satisfy the Core requirement. After conversations that ranged from 8-18 minutes, every single student agreed that they had indeed under-placed themselves by initially selecting College Writing, and they enrolled in a WI course instead.

woman chewing a pencil looking at laptop
While some of the Zoom students reported feeling nervous before the Zoom call with me, 100% of them felt positively about the call afterwards. Image by Van Jasek @jeshoots, Unsplash.

I received IRB approval to track the students who went through the piloted ISP process, and at the end of the Fall 2021 semester, students were surveyed to share their perceptions about the placement process and how they fared in their College Writing or WI courses. The initial results from this survey are robust and I’m still digging through responses, but I can share some information below specific to the students who completed a conversation with me on Zoom. Of the 37 Zoom students, 17 took the survey, and 100% of those surveyed indicated that their writing course was “the right fit” for them.

The students were also surveyed about how the Zoom calls went, and a few of their qualitative responses are found below:

  • “I think it was a valuable opportunity to get a better understanding of the two classifications and what would be the best fit for me. I feel that it is better to have it explained from a real person rather than reading descriptions over a computer.”
  • “[The Zoom call] was very nice, calming, and relaxed. We discussed how I was fit for the writing intensive courses, and it made me feel less nervous about my schedule and less doubtful about my abilities.”
  • “I felt really good leaving the meeting and felt well informed of my options.”
  • “The meeting as a whole convinced me to change my selection. Being able to hear in person the difference between the two courses is what really swayed me.”

As expected, there were also some challenges/difficulties in this process. Overall, we found that students, when given the agency to self-select a writing course, tend to under-place themselves. In all cases, it took a quick Zoom conversation with an experienced faculty member (me) to convince the students that they were, in fact, ready for a WI class. I learned that while giving students the agency to choose their own placement was valuable for students, combining this independence with the opportunity to gut-check their choice with someone with more knowledge (whether institutional or disciplinary) was appreciated.

As such, we made some adjustments to the process in our second year of the ISP study. For the 2021-22 academic year, we moved from Likert scale-style questions in our survey to multiple choice questions that give students a running “score” behind-the-scenes. We rearranged the courses to list WI first, before College Writing, to see if this change would help students from under-placing themselves at all. And, in its second-year version, we explicitly indicate that if students enroll College Writing, they will be required to enroll in a (second) WI course afterwards. After students complete the survey, I have also made a few changes to my own processes, emailing students who have under-placed themselves earlier and giving them a chance to Zoom with me to discuss their options.

Next steps: The end-of-semester survey results are being triangulated with data from our Office of Institutional Effectiveness that collected final grades from both College Writing and WI courses in Fall 2021. Initial results show that regardless of course selection, there is a 98.2% pass rate overall. But when compared with the survey question (for the 145 students who took the survey but who did NOT Zoom with me) about whether their course selection was “the right fit,” only 79.3% of students agreed that they had selected the “best” writing course for their abilities: 12.4% thought their class was too easy, and 8.3% reported that their class was too challenging. And initial qualitative responses for these figures notes that some students felt uninformed about their choices (despite the survey information they read); some felt that their advisor didn’t know enough to help them make their course selection; some reported frustration that their past experiences in high school should have allowed them to test out of any writing requirement altogether.

pie chart showing studnets who thought the course was a good fit (79.3%), was too easy (12.4%) or was too challenging (8.3%)
Figure 1. Placement “fit” for students who did NOT attend a Zoom meeting (n = 145).

Long story short: All parties involved, whether incoming student or writing program administrator or faculty advisor or academic advising staff, need to be on the same page with regard to writing courses/content and the skills needed to be successful in writing-focused classes.

This ISP pilot brings to the surface many questions regarding long-held traditional views about college readiness; student agency; post-Covid college enrollment trends; and student-, faculty-, and staff-held beliefs about critical reading and writing. More work needs to be done to learn about how this placement process might contribute both to the growing enrollment of diverse incoming students and to St. Norbert College’s overall equity, diversity, and inclusion plan. There’s so much more I could say about this pilot, but suffice it to say that the biggest takeaway for me was the confirmation that we need more transparent communication throughout every step of the writing placement process. When EVERYONE is better informed, the informed self-placement is an option that is win-win-win situation (for incoming students, writing teachers, and institutional staff).


Vasek, J. (@jeshoots). (2018). Untitled [photograph]. Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/-2vD8lIhdnw


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