Online Directed Self-Placement at Seton Hall University


Seton Hall University, a medium-sized diocesan Catholic university, had long used a writing sample, holistically scored by its own faculty, to place its students into College English I classes or a variety of “basic skills” classes. More recently the basic skills choice was changed to a “jumbo” course, a six-credit version of College English I, three credits of which do not count toward graduation.  Faculty scoring ended several years ago when—lulled by the promises of efficient and reliable scoring from Accuplacer, an online service used to place millions of students each year—we allowed machines to score our students’ essays, even as we noted some anomalous results.


Up to this point, the English Department had been able to set its own course. However, when the College Board revamped the SAT to include a writing sample, the English Department experienced some pressure to adopt the writing portion of the SAT as a way of cutting costs, presumably without sacrificing quality. At this juncture, there were several factors that led the basic skills director (me, Ed Jones) to propose to the English Department that we consider DSP: (1) comments on the WPA listserv raised the possibility of validity problems in the new SAT exam, (2) knowing about the importance of psychological factors in student success, I was predisposed to bring students into the decision-making process; (3) DSP was clearly successful at a range of institutions,  and (4) the University had become disenchanted with the current online testing service because of the restrictions that Accuplacer placed on students’ taking the tests off-site.


Having the students take a DSP survey online would solve another problem:  the Dean of Freshman Studies did not want students to have to focus on placement testing during orientation, which occurred in June.  Students who lived at some distance from Seton Hall could not afford to come to the school on a separate occasion just to take a placement test or do online DSP.  Putting DSP online solved this problem.  Our site uses a combination of the web and a survey I created using an online survey-creation website.


However, I was concerned about the elimination of the one-on-one conversations with students that seemed an important part of the placement process as envisioned by Royer and Gilles. For this reason, I built in the possibility of phone conversation in cases where students’ placement seemed questionable. I also wanted students to learn what it meant to read and write on the college level in a more concrete way than I had seen in most other DSP programs. I chose a strategy adopted by Belmont University, as explained in Royer and Gilles book.  I picked a medium-hard passage from the current anthology and asked students to respond to the central argument that it made by writing a brief essay. After students wrote, they rated their confidence in accomplishing this task.


Once students took the online survey, three experienced faculty skimmed the surveys to see if the students’ decision made sense.  In cases where it did not, a conversation with the student was required before a final placement decision was made.  The tone of the conversation was to respectfully raise questions for the student, based on the survey, but to affirm that the student ultimately would make the choice.


Students were given a diagnostic test the first day of class.  While it was not designed primarily as a placement tool, teachers were encouraged to approach students if their writing seemed particularly strong or weak to give them an opportunity to switch.


Resources for Exploring Online DSP at Seton Hall University

Online DSP website

Advisement built into the DSP process