Online Directed Self-Placement at Illinois State University-Normal


lllinois State University in Normal, IL,  is a large state school with approximately 3000 students in its freshman class. Directed self-placement began at Illinois State University in 2003 as an online system.  Students place themselves during their required campus visit the summer before their freshmen year.  Most do not have a problem coming to campus because they are in state.  Having students complete the process while they are on campus allows immediate access to and feedback from academic advisors who are present at the time.  The advisors do not recommend placements, but they can answer questions about the courses and about the placement process.  The very few students who do not visit campus during the summer complete the placement process and register for their classes during the weekend before classes start.  

DSP originated as a result of the academic senate’s decision to restrict the previous placement process, which involved the collection and scoring of writing samples—to entering freshmen with an ACT-English subscore of 20 or below.  This decision led the English Department to seek a campus visit from a team of Writing Program Evaluators from the Council of Writing Program Administrators.  The evaluators recommended that the University move to a program of Directed Self-Placement, and the department, the Writing Program, and the Writing Committee all concurred with that recommendation. 


Since ISU is a fairly technology-rich learning environment, it was thought that going online would be relatively easy and in keeping with the institutional mission.  Going online also eliminated the need for Writing Program Administrators to be on campus meeting with groups of students over the summer. Online Directed Self-Placement began as a pilot project and continued when there were no objections from the academic senate.  Writing samples are now collected during the first week of class for purposes of program assessment.

The Writing Program conducted two pilots or “test runs” of Directed Self-Placement before settling on the process that is not in place.  The first was conducted in January 2003 and consisted of a set of questions answered by students who had already been placed using the old placement system.  The questions were based on those used by another university in the state that was already using directed self-placement.  When the Illinois State University Assessment Office conducted a statistical analysis of the results, however, it determined that none of the questions had any validity in terms of placing students in the same way that the previous placement system had placed them.   At that point, it was decided to run a second pilot—during the summer—using a set of questions based on NEAP findings regarding the kinds of experiences that promote proficient writers. 


While the second pilot was in progress, the Writing Program Administrators attended a WPA Conference at Grand Valley State University and discussed their work with Dan Royer and Roger Gilles.  Royer and Gilles suggested that, in trying to determine whether DSP placed students as they would have been placed under the old system, the program was asking the wrong question.  The real question is not, “Does this system place students where the old system would have placed them,” but “does this system allow students to select a writing course in which they can and will be successful?”   


Having decided to use this latter as a guiding question, the Writing Program again changed the DSP process, eliminating the questions and providing more information about (a) the course options and expectations and (b) the kinds of writers who might most benefit from the different options.  This is the system that remains in place today.


Once the system was set up, the actual implementation went more smoothly than anticipated.  The students were happy where they were, and the instructors who taught over the change noticed the difference right away.  Equally important, student success rates have not declined as a result of online directed self-placement.  (Success is defined as “earning a C or better in the course.”) 


Resource for Exploring Online DSP at the University of Illinois-Normal

Screen shots of online DSP Page 1, Page 2, Page 3.  (Move cursor over image to make zoom icon appear.)