Online Directed Self-Placement


This is not a module primarily about Directed Self-Placement.  It’s a module on Online Directed Self-Placement.  If you’re interested in Directed Self-Placement (DSP), take a look at Roger Gilles and Dan Royer’s excellent McGraw-Hill Teaching Resources module by going to “Why Placement”, go to their own resource page , or read their book, Directed Self-Placement: Principles and Practices.  For a quick explanation, click here.

In the attempt to put DSP online, though, many of the issues naturally resurface that occur in face-to-face DSP:   how to communicate the realities of first-year writing, how to coach or guide so that students see who they are as readers and writers, how to ensure the greatest success for the greatest number of students.  On the other hand, putting DSP online can help us think about a whole other set of issues beyond DSP:  communicating the nature of a writing program with a wider audience, creating virtual environments conducive to learning, creating the right balance between face-to-face interactions and virtual interactions, testing out theories of virtual rhetoric.

Online DSP is relatively new.  The first school to implement DSP online that I know of is the University of Colorado, Boulder—in the spring of 2002.  Inquiries through the wpa listserv netted me only four writing programs who actively use online DSP.  For this reason, the most important service I thought I could provide was to share detailed information about the way these programs work.  Click on links to schools below to see their DSP program descriptions and other information provided by the writing program administrators (WPAs) at these institutions, along with varying displays of their online DSP sites.  In addition, there is a series of questions  that I submitted to each program director or DSP administrator so that you can see, at a glance, the experience that various programs have had with online DSP.  I am very grateful to all of them for going out of their way to provide useful information about their DSP programs.  Click on each school to explore its DSP program.  If an e-mail address is listed, the director or coordinator will be happy to answer questions about his/her particular DSP program.

Daniel Webster College. Alexandria Peary, Director, Writing Program and Associate Professor.

Illinois State University.  Claire Lamonica,  Assistant Director, Center for Teaching, Learning & Technolgy.  Formerly, Associate Director, Writing Programs (1998-2006).

University of Colorado-Boulder.  Lonni Pearce.  First-Year Coordinator, Program for Writing and Rhetoric.  Also Patty Malesh:

Governors State University.  Becky Nugent.  Writing Coordinator in the Office of Student Development.    

Seton Hall University.   Ed Jones, Director, Basic Skills Program, English Department.

            As you read through the various sites, you will discover quite a range in approaches both to directed self-placement itself and to the process of putting it online.  To some extent the differences have to do with how the DSP program creators conceived of DSP, and to some extent the differences have to do with differing technological strategies or resources.  Some sites have a very pared-down approach, asking just a few questions on a couple of screens.  Others become very elaborate, requiring students to take online grammar quizzes or write in response to a brief reading.  Some programs require relatively little time and effort after they are set up, while others are designed to involve the WPA in potentially time-consuming advising.  Most see only advantages to putting DSP online, while others see some drawbacks due to time commitments from the WPA or, potentially, the loss of the personal connection.  Some programs like Seton Hall University’s were created entirely by the WPA, whereas others involved heavy investment of the school’s programmers.  One advantage is undebatable:  Putting DSP online makes it possible to collect data that would have been extraordinarily time-consuming if not impossible to gather before.  Used in conjunction with other datasets, the online data is potentially useful for program evaluation, assessment of student needs and attitudes, and assessment of trends in the student body over time.

Regardless of the range of ways that online DSP can look, none of the directors mentioned, as a disadvantage, that students who placed themselves did less well than students placed conventionally.  However, I know of no documentation of changes in student success when a program went from DSP to online DSP, and in three of the five cases presented on this site, the programs began DSP in an online version, so there was nothing to compare anyway.  However, at SHU we ran a pilot in which 220 students placed themselves and the remaining several hundred students were placed using the old system--the Accuplacer battery of computer-scored essays, sentence-skill test, and reading test.  This pilot provides some evidence related to student success and attitude.  When I compared the two student groups—those who were placed using online DSP and those who were placed using Accuplacer—the difference in their GPA was statistically completely insignificant. This analysis would suggest that online DSP can reproduce the success of a regular placement system—even when 25% fewer students chose the 6-credit version of College English I than would have been placed there using the old placement method.  Besides, as Royer and Gilles point out, success can be defined in a variety of ways not limited to grades and pass/fail rates.  Student attitude, as measured by an end-of-term survey was gratifying, since 90% gave the online placement process some sort of positive rating (80% rated it positively or very positively) and only 5% gave a negative rating. 


Questions to Start Discussion

Even with the apparent success of online DSP at these five institutions, the fact remains that there appears to be no empirical studies comparing face-to-face DSP with online DSP.  Given that we are at the early stages of DSP—and the very early stages of online DSP—it would make sense to identify issues that should at least theoretically be examined and to consider them carefully when moving to an online DSP approach.  The first five questions below continue issues related to DSP itself; the remainder focus on issues related to putting DSP online.

1.      The complexity of decision-making.  Some DSP administrators have questioned the model of DSP offered by Royer and Gilles.  They suggest an approach that involves greater opportunity for student writing and self-reflection (Liewecki-Wilson, Sommers, and Tassoni) or more extended interaction between student and placement counselors (Bedore and Rossen-Knill).  How can the process of DSP give students an enhanced picture of their own needs and give placement counselors an enhanced understanding of students’ abilities and priorities?  Does creating an immediate context for reflection—having students write an essay and reflect on their confidence, read a college-level student essay, or take a grammar quiz—inform incoming students about the nature of the challenge of first-year writing classes at their institution?  Specifically, do they help students who may come from schools of vastly different levels of academic rigor?

2.      Institutional setting.  Is DSP just not a good fit at certain institutions?  Generally, it has been tried at non-elite four-year schools.  Faculty from two-year schools I’ve talked to have dismissed DSP out-of-hand.  Yet see Liewicki-Wilson, Sommers, and Tassoni and Fallon.  In what ways may classism and racism influence administrators’ perspectives on students abilities to make good decisions for themselves?  Do students place themselves differently depending on whether the basic writing course counts toward graduation?

3.      The role of self-efficacy (or, more generally, self-beliefs).  Although self-efficacy theory provided an important underpinning for Royer and Gilles in their rationale for DSP, the implications of this have not all been teased out.  I’ve seen a student with a 620 verbal SAT score place herself in a basic writing course because she could not write as well as her friends.  To what extent do students’ beliefs about their writing differ from their actual abilities?  What kinds of students are more apt to misjudge their abilities?  What consequences are there to classroom dynamics and student success when students place themselves as much by self-beliefs as by actual ability?

4.      The usefulness of the profile questions designed to help students choose between courses for well-prepared and basic writers.  All DSP programs, online or otherwise, have students reflect on a series of questions about their writing and reading experiences, yet to my knowledge no empirical evidence has been reported about whether there are meaningful correlations between any of these questions and student placement or student success in first-year writing courses.  Are there significant correlations?  What types of questions really help students reflect on their abilities and needs?  Would students find it useful to reflect on their high school academic habits, their priorities, the academic standing of their high school, their confidence in succeeding in new environments?

5.      Extrapolation of DSP principles.  Can student decision-making be extended beyond self-placement to decisions made within the basic writing course or when to exit it?

6.      Face-to-face vs. online interaction.  In their seminal CCC article on DSP, Royer and Gilles open with a lengthy narrative of their information session with incoming freshmen.  What happens when face-to-face interaction disappears?  What happens when the faculty member who can answer students’ questions is just a series of words on a website or, at best, an online video presentation?  Does online interaction, which requires more comfort with reading, disadvantage weak readers who most need guidance?

7.      Home atmosphere vs. school atmosphere.  The face-to-face experience happens in a school setting, with other students, in the school the incoming freshman has chosen and is aspiring to do well at.  Whatever distractions would normally be present in the home environment must, to some large extent, be mitigated by the focus created by being in the new school setting.  What effect does this change of setting have on how seriously students take the placement process or on how well they can concentrate?

8.      Role of technology in reducing or enhancing communication.  Since Seton Hall’s online DSP survey is among the five presented in this website, I don’t mind saying that they generally provide a straightforward translation of in-person materials to the Ethernet.  Is this translation comprehensible?  Yes.  Thoughtful?  Yes.  But does it take advantage of the technology that makes eighteen-year-olds spend hours online?  Not really.  A quick look at resources such as those listed below will convince anyone that there is much more we can do to communicate effectively with incoming freshmen.  What kinds of web design might better communicate your values? The importance of placement? An impression that your writing program (and writing) is dynamic and engaging?

9.      Meeting stakeholder priorities.  The impetus to try online DSP on three of the five campuses was pressure exerted from outside the writing program itself:  the need to free up time for an administrator, for example, or a change in campus politics.  What goals do you wish to meet by putting DSP online?  Which entities on campus have a stake in the placement system?  How can the WPA proactively engage those entities so that developing an online DSP program meets the needs of all?  Certainly some of the programs here have worked collaboratively to the benefit of all.

10.   The directedness of directed self-placement.  How much does putting the process online lead to students’ being more apt to “blow off” the DSP process?  How important is it to make sure students consider all the information that WPAs think is important for them to consider?  Put another way, how directed should DSP be?  And how does direction change when it is put online?  On a campus-wide level, to what extent do other entities advise students?  How should advisement, or coordination of advisement, be built into the system that a WPA develops? 


Other Resources for Online Directed Self-Placement


Web Resource for DSP

Royer, Daniel, and Roger Gilles.  “Why Placement.”  McGraw-Hill Teaching Composition.

Royer, Daniel, and Roger Gilles.  “Directed Self-Placement.”


Print Resources for DSP

Bedore, Pamela, and Deborah F. Rossen-Knill.  “Informed Self-Placement: Is a Choice Offered a Choice Received?”  Writing Program Administration.  28.1/2 (2004): 55-78.

Blakesley, David, Erin J. Harvey, and Erica Reynolds. “Southern Illinois University Carbondale as an Institutional Model: The English 100/101 Stretch and Directed Self-Placement Program.” Directed Self-Placement: Principles and Practices. Eds. D. J. Royer and R. Gilles. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2003. 207-242.

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia, Jeff Sommers, and John Paul Tassoni. “Rhetoric and the Writer’s Profile: Problematizing Directed Self-Placement.” Assessing Writing 7 (2000): 165-183.

Royer, D. J., and R. Gilles. “Directed Self-Placement: An Attitude of Orientation.” College Composition and Communication 50.1 (1998): 54-70.

---, eds. Directed Self-Placement: Principles and Practices. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2003.


Web Resources for Online Teaching and Web Design

“Distance Learning Best Practices Debate” (see section on The Future of Immediacy and Instructional Research)


“Online Pedagogy: Theories & Best Practices”

“TLT/Seven Principles Library”

“Usability of Websites for Teenagers”