Asee peer logo

Assessing Student Writing Competencies in Environmental Engineering Courses

Download Paper |


2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Pedagogy and Innovation

Tagged Division

Environmental Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.205.1 - 24.205.12



Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors

author page

Philip J. Parker P.E. University of Wisconsin, Platteville


Ben Bocher University of Wisconsin, Platteville

visit author page

Over the past ten years, Ben’s work in environmental engineering has focused on anaerobic biotechnologies. His projects have included studying the effects of anaerobic digester configuration on methane production rates, examining digestion of secondary residuals from brewery wastewater to enhance bioenergy generation, investigating the relationship between microbial community structure and digester performance, and co-digestion of solid wastes. He received his Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Marquette University (2012) and his B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis (2006). The desire join the faculty at Platteville can best be summed up in the word accompany—Ben feels quite blessed to be able to accompany students as they become engineers. His work with the Milwaukee Water Council oversaw the founding of student chapters, and he has been involved with Engineers Without Borders. He began teaching in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin – Platteville in the fall of 2012. When he is not working on engineering-related work, he enjoys being outside, especially with his two little girls and wife or running.

visit author page


Austin Polebitski University of Wisconsin Platteville

visit author page

Dr. Polebitski completed his undergraduate studies in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Seattle University while working for King County’s Solid Waste Division. He completed his Masters and Doctorate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington under the guidance of Dr. Richard Palmer. His doctoral research focused on the links between urban residential water use, changing urban landscapes, and climate change. He began teaching at the University of Wisconsin Platteville in January 2013. His research interests include urban and rural water use, water resource system management, the use of forecasting tools in short and long term decision making, and the impacts climate change will have on statewide natural resources. He is an active member of ASCE-EWRI, AWRA, and the International Conference on Engineering and Ecohydrology for Fish Passage.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Assessing Student Writing Competencies in Environmental Engineering CoursesStudents enrolled in the environmental engineering program at the University of X are requiredto complete a large number of diverse writing assignments. They complete ten laboratorycourses, many of which require weekly lab reports. Senior-level courses are focused on design,and students prepare many technical design reports in these courses. Moreover, given theundergraduate-only nature of the university, all student writing is assessed by faculty members.The traditional model for grading student writing is to mark up the writing with corrections andsuggestions for improvements and assign a grade between 0 and 100.Despite the extensive practice students receive and despite the frequent, thorough, and well-intentioned critical feedback they obtain on their writing, student writing effectiveness asmeasured using the rubric for Senior Design reports is often very poor. As a result, some facultymembers have questioned the current assessment method to evaluate student writing. Thecurrent method is very time consuming; provides no motivation to students to continuouslyimprove; and simply is not working for our students. Consequently, the objective of this study isto answer the question: “how can more valuable input that improves student writing be providedin a manner that is time-efficient for faculty?” One potential solution is writing competency-based grading (WCBG).The theory behind WCBG is that rather than assigning individual grades on individual writingassignments, a grade is assigned at the end of the semester based on the number of writingcompetencies a student has achieved. In the new WCBG model, three levels of writingcompetencies are outlined. Examples of low-level competencies include “no spelling errors” and“no sentence fragments.” Upper level competencies include “thoroughness and conciseness areproperly balanced” and “care taken to choose the ‘best’ word.” The final paper will describeeach of these levels in full detail, as well as the details of assigning the final semester grade.Advantages of WCBG include:  Student writing improves (i.e. a decrease in the number of poor writing assignments, which is especially noticeable as the semester progresses).  Students are provided with focused feedback on ways to improve their writing.  The bar is raised on student writing in a fair, transparent, and defendable way.  Faculty workload is reduced due to improved writing by mid-semester.  The campus Writing Center can provide more focused instruction if students seek help in individual problem areas.Disadvantages include  Grading student writing is still time-consuming.  Although some criteria are objective (e.g., grammar and punctuation), many upper level criteria are subjective (e.g., tone and accounting for audience), leading to variations between faculty.  Variations also appear among faculty members based on biases concerning the relative importance of certain competencies  First-time users of the rubric face a learning curve.  Instructor writing skill, and thus the ability to evaluate student writing effectiveness, varies from instructor to instructor.  Some students are discouraged upon receiving a grade of 0 (i.e. they did not even satisfy the Level 1 competencies) even after investing many hours in preparing the document.WCBG has recently been piloted four times in two different courses (a junior-level FluidMechanics course and a senior-level Hydrology course) by three different faculty members atUniversity of X. Assessment measures to be reported include instructor reflections, studentattitudes, and student performance.

Parker, P. J., & Bocher, B., & Polebitski, A. (2014, June), Assessing Student Writing Competencies in Environmental Engineering Courses Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20096

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2014 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015