Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Instructor: Dudley Reynolds
Art History
Assessment Tool:
Writing Checklist to Assess Pre-Course Writing Skills


I was a consultant to an Art History professor at a large, urban university in the United States. The professor was concerned about the quality of writing in a large, introductory survey course that he was teaching. I had three goals: (1) to develop a class profile of the students as writers, (2) to develop an individual profile of each student as a writer for the writing center staff, who could then prioritize and target each student’s needs, and (3) to create a checklist that highlighted the characteristics of effective, rather than ineffective, writing.


I developed a 13-item checklist that articulated the characteristics of effective writing in three main areas: ideas, rhetorical control, and language use. The checklist format was chosen because it was faster to use than a rubric, and speed was important because more than 100 students were enrolled in the course. Students completed a diagnostic writing assignment at the beginning of the second class meeting; this assignment was similar in form to the first in the course’s series of sequenced writing assignments. These writing assignments were then evaluated using the checklist.


For the class profile, I aggregated the number of checks for each characteristic on the checklist; this information indicated which characteristics the class as a whole was likely to demonstrate in the writing assignments. For the individual profiles, the checklists were shared with the writing center staff, who were able to target specific issues more easily with students.


Creating a diagnostic writing assignment that matches a course assignment in form, but not necessarily in content, is a useful exercise for helping us separate writing demands from content demands. The checklist format is most appropriate for low-stakes uses because it can be used quickly, but gives less information than a rubric that further differentiates performance levels and provides qualitative comments.

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