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Using DSP Essays in the Classroom


Connecting assessment to instruction is one of the guiding principles of the University of Michigan’s DSP process. Simulating college-level writing to help students make an effective self-placement decision is a key function of the DSP essay. However, equally important is the opportunity it provides for instructors to help students build a bridge between high school and college writing.

The DSP instructions promise students that their writing instructors will receive their essays and use them to identify areas of writing strength and weakness. When instructors do not fulfill this promise, some students experience disappointment and frustration. It is therefore important that all first-year writing instructors find ways to integrate these essays into their in-class activities, assignments, and/or conferences or office hours. Specifically noting activities or assignments involving the DSP essay on your syllabus helps affirm for students that their writing is being read and put to use in the classroom.

The following are just a sampling of the ways instructors from first-year writing courses have used the DSP essay in their classes (included in the DSP Instructor Guide .pdf).

Diagnostic Uses

  • Read the essays before classes begin to assess student learning needs and prioritize topics for individual and group instruction.
  • Ask students to re‐read their essays at the beginning of class and write a “self‐diagnosis” of their strengths and needs as a writer, based upon their re-reading.

Goal Setting

  • Have students develop a list of three specific writing‐related goals, based on strengths and weaknesses identified in their DSP Essays. Then have students free write and/or discuss ways they intend to implement a plan to achieve these goals.

Engaging in the Writing Process

  • Ask students to recall their experience of writing the DSP essay and write reflectively about it. Encourage use of particular adjectives: frustrating, straightforward, illuminating, etc. Ask: "Based on this experience, how do you plan to approach assignments for this course and other courses?"
  • Have the students list on the board problems they encountered as well as successes they experienced while writing the essays. Discuss as a class.

Workshop / Peer Review Practice

  • Have students read and comment on sample DSP essays from volunteers in the class. Conduct a full‐class discussion of the essays and lead a workshop to model expectations for peer review.

Office Hours or Conferencing

  • Use the DSP essays as a vehicle to schedule brief one‐to-one conversations or office hours with students early in the term.
  • Use the DSP essay as a point of departure to compare expectations, discuss goals for the semester, and examine students’ strengths and weaknesses as writers.

Teaching Audience Awareness

  • Have students describe or write about the 'imagined audience' for their essays when teaching on rhetoric/audience. Have them revise the essays for different audiences, or discuss how they might go about doing so.

Evaluating Summarizing Skills

  • Have students identify in their essays where they summarized arguments from the article. Ask: "How do you distinguish summary from analysis?"
  • Ask students to read their summary sections aloud in pairs, and discuss how they might revise to be more comprehensive or appropriate.

Teaching Thesis and Evaluation

  • In pairs, have students identify their thesis statements and work to refine them.
  • Have students create a 'reverse outline' of their essay, listing their argument's main points. Ask: "What might you change, add, subtract, or reorganize?"

Teaching Nuance and Complexity

  • Using the DSP Rubric, ask students to consider the implications of the category "Nuance & Complexity." Discuss what it means to acknowledge other perspectives and to avoid sweeping generalizations, in the interest of making nuanced and complex assertions in academic writing.

Teaching Evidence and Quotation

  • In groups, have students list the evidence used in the article to support the claims. Then ask students to look at their own essays, alone or in groups, to identify the evidence they used in support of the assertions they made. Discuss the differences.
  • Have students read their essays and identify places where they integrated material from the article into their writing, distinguishing instances of direct quotation, paraphrase, and summary. Ask them to consider the effectiveness of each instance.

Gaining Experience with Rubrics

  • Have students brainstorm a list of qualities of "good college writing." Compare these to the DSP rubric and discuss in class.
  • Use the DSP rubric to have students evaluate each other's DSP essays. Then have them consider how to use this feedback for goal‐setting.

Mid-Term or End-of-Term Assessment

  • At the midpoint or end of the semester, ask students to self‐assess their development by having them re‐read their DSP Essay and compare it to a recent course paper. Ask them to write about how their writing has changed.
  • Have students revisit the essays and write a letter to themselves, pointing out how they might approach the task differently, or describing improvements they’ve noticed, or issues that remain.
  • Include the DSP essays in a portfolio of coursework, along with reflective pieces on their writing development from the DSP essay until now.