National Writing Project

Using Grounded Theory in Writing Assessment

By: Todd Migliaccio, Dan Melzer
Publication: The WAC Journal
Date: July 17, 2012

Summary: The current format of writing assessment often leaves teachers and graders frustrated by its simplified and standardized nature. Authors Todd Migliaccio and Dan Melzer offer a possible solution through the grounded theory approach, a research methodology that emphasizes dialogue, context, and a relationship between analysis and theory building, and discuss how it can be used by instructors.



In What We Really Value: Beyond Rubrics in Teaching and Assessing Writing, Bob Broad (2003) argues, "Very rarely do rubrics emerge from an open and systematic inquiry into a writing program's values" (p. 12). This may be especially true of the rubrics and writing assessment activities of departments, since it is often a single individual or a small committee that is charged with writing assessment. Broad encourages those tasked with writing assessment to "discover, document, and negotiate their evaluative landscape before they move to standardize and simplify it. . . ." (p. 126). In What We Really Value, Broad cites the qualitative methodology of grounded theory as a useful approach to writing assessment and builds on grounded theory in his own approach. In "Grounded Theory: A Critical Research Methodology," Joyce Magnatto Neff (1998) also argues for the value of grounded theory as a way to research writing. Magnatto Neff feels grounded theory "is a promising methodology for composition studies" because it doesn't require us to simplify the complex acts of writing and teaching (p. 126).

Brian Huot (2002) states that "many writing teachers . . . feel frustrated by, cut off from, and otherwise uninterested in the subject of writing assessment" (p. 81). This can be doubly true for faculty members in the disciplines, especially if writing assessment is a top-down task. A grounded theory approach is one way to work against this feeling of being cut off from writing assessment. We feel that grounded theory is promising not just for the writing assessment conducted by compositionists but also for writing assessment across the curriculum. In this article we discuss the grounded theory approach, provide an example of the use of grounded theory in a writing assessment activity for a sociology department at a large state university, and review some principles of the grounded theory approach that we believe could be useful for writing specialists who are working with departments across disciplines and for instructors in the disciplines who have been tasked with writing assessment for their department. As a research methodology that emphasizes dialogue, context, and a relationship between analysis and theory building, grounded theory aligns with interpretive, constructivist trends in writing assessment (Broad, 2002; Guba & Lincoln, 1989; Huot, 2002), and it can be presented to departments across disciplines as an alternative to the more traditional, positivist approach of formulating a rubric, scoring essays, and writing up a report to gather dust in an administrator's file cabinet.

Copyright © 2011 Plymouth State University. Reprinted with permission.
Migliaccio, Todd and Dan Melzer. 2011. "Using Grounded Theory in Writing Assessment." The WAC Journal 22: 79–89.

Read more articles from this issue of The WAC Journal.

About the Authors
Todd Migliaccio is associate professor of Sociology at California State University, Sacramento.
Dan Melzer is associate professor of English and University Reading and Writing Coordinator at California State University, Sacramento.

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