Assessing student writing

The MASUS procedure (Measuring the Academic Skills of University Students): a diagnostic assessment of student writing

Janet Jones and Helen Bonanno
University of Sydney

Discipline Area

Across all discipline areas

Key assessment issue addressed

Criterion-referenced assessment of students' writing.

The initiative

In 1993 the Learning Centre was commissioned by the University of Sydney to design a diagnostic instrument to measure students' academic writing. The instrument requires students write a short essay or other genre based on some disciplinary content. It assesses the student's ability to write about a given body of knowledge in a reasoned and critical way, together with their ability use the language resources appropriate for the required task. Their writing is rated from 4 (excellent) to 1 (inadequate) on each of 4 main criteria:

  1. Use of the source material
  2. Structure and development of the text
  3. Academic writing style appropriate for the task
  4. Grammatical correctness

Each of these criteria is further broken down into sub-criteria, representing a complex spectrum of perspectives on the student's writing. Research involving linguistic analysis of a large corpus of student writing from different disciplines formed the basis of the descriptors of the instrument.

MASUS is designed to be used by academic departments as an integral component of their courses and to provide a systematic framework for follow-up support for those students identified as needing it. Since 1993 MASUS has been used in the University of Sydney with a number of departments, with over 7000 students (mainly first years) participating. It has also been adapted for use in other universities in Australia and in the UK. Early research sought to validate the instrument , to check rater reliability and to analyse the relationship between students' MASUS results and a range of other variables such as HSC English and language background. More recent research, conducted longitudinally using one cohort, has examined the relationship of students' MASUS results to progression through their degree, to selection procedures, and to choice of HSC school subjects.

The reason for the initiative's effectiveness

It has provided students with diagnostic information on their writing upon which they can act and has assisted staff to integrate into their course a systematic approach to the development and assessment of writing.

Further details

Janet Jones
Head, Learning Centre
University of Sydney

Helen Bonanno
Learning Centre
University of Sydney


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