How can I initially gauge students’ writing proficiency?
You may want to consider using a diagnostic pre-assessment to identify common writing problems among your students. You can give your class an un-graded writing assignment early in the semester and use it to diagnose areas of weakness in student writing. A quick read-through of student writing should illuminate common writing problems (e.g., missing thesis, lack of evidence, poor sentence structure, subject-verb disagreement). If the problems cluster in a few clearly defined areas, you might choose to address them in class.
If the problems you glean from the diagnostic pre-assessment are not ones you can or wish to address in class, you can direct students to appropriate resources like Academic Development, the Intercultural Communication Center’s Writing Clinic for non-native English speakers, or an on-line writing tutor.
If your course already includes a lot of writing (e.g., weekly writing assignments), here is an example of how you might use your existing assignments as diagnostics. Some faculty colleagues use the first few assignments to gauge students’ writing proficiency and provide a lot of feedback to guide students’ further writing in the course. Because they use these early assignments as diagnostics, the faculty members may decide not to count them in the final grade, weigh them less in the final grade, or allow students to drop a few of the grades on these assignments.