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PROFICIENCY HANDBOOK


    History of the Examination(top)
    In his address to the Old Dominion University faculty on August 24, 1977, President Alfred B. Rollins, Jr., noted that in colleges and universities throughout the country, the administration and faculty were disturbed because graduates were unable to write clearly and correctly. President Rollins said emphatically that a high level of writing proficiency must be a requirement for a bachelor's degree at this University, and he appointed a task force to study the problem and make recommendations for improving the writing ability of the University's graduates.

     

    The Task Force on Writing Problems submitted its recommendations to President Rollins in December 1977, proposing an entrance exam for freshman English placement, a writing proficiency examination as a requirement for a bachelor's degree, and the formation of the Writing Center to oversee the testing and to provide basic writing instruction. These recommendations were approved, and implementation of the program began in Fall 1978.

     

    What is the Exit Examination of Writing Proficiency?(top)
    The Exit Examination of Writing Proficiency is a three-hour writing test. Passing this test is a requirement for graduation from Old Dominion University. The writing requirement was implemented in 1978 to ensure that all graduates are prepared to write competently at a professional level.

     

    When should I take the Exam?(top)

    You are eligible to take the Exit Examination of Writing Proficiency after you have completed 58 semester hours, after you have passed the Writing Sample Placement Test, which all students are required to take before or during their first semester at Old Dominion University, and after you have successfully completed freshman composition (English 110C). Taking the Exit Exam early in your junior year is ideal. If you should need to repeat the exam, you will have time to do so before you graduate.

     

    When is the Exam given?(top)

    The examination usually is given on the third Saturday of every month except December. Registration takes place one month before the exam. See the Schedule of Classes and the University Events Calendar for dates, times and locations of the exams and registration sessions.

     

    How do I register for the Exam?(top)
    Students who attend classes at the Norfolk campus can attend a 45-minute registration and orientation session or register online at the Writing Center homepage. TELETECHNET students can register online or contact their Site Directors, who have hard-copy registration forms - Note: to keyboard (vs. handwrite) the exam, TELETECHNET students must make arrangements with their Site and submit a hard-copy registration form. 

     

    Upon registering, you are given the topics in advance so that you may select the two topics that you prefer and become familiar with the relevant issues before the exam.  At the orientation session, you will learn about preparing for the exam and writing a successful essay. You will also have an opportunity to ask questions. We strongly recommend that students review the Exit Exam Handbook online to learn more about preparing for the exam and writing a successful essay, as well as to view examples of passing and failing essays.

     

    Can I take the Exam again if I don't pass?(top)
    You may repeat the examination after an eight-week waiting period. During this waiting period, you can call the Writing Center (683-4112) to make an appointment to review your exam with a counselor. TELETECHNET students may call 1-800-968-2638 and ask to be connected with the Writing Center to set up a telephone conference. You may also wish to take a writing workshop or work with a writing tutor.

     

    Are any special accommodations available?(top)
    Students who have physical or learning disabilities should contact the Office of Disability Services to file documentation and to make arrangements for reasonable accommodations for taking the Exit Exam of Writing Proficiency. Students who for religious reasons cannot take an examination on Saturday should call the Exit Exam Coordinator.

     

    What is the best way to pass this exam the first time I take it?(top)
    The best way to pass the exam the first time is to take it seriously. Realize that the writing standard for the Exit Exam is the same standard that you will face as a professional person. Choose topics that you have knowledge of and interest in, and then prepare for the exam. When you take the exam, be sure that you focus your essay on the question that you receive, not on a hypothetical question that you had anticipated or about which you perhaps had written a practice paper. No matter how well it is written, an essay which does not directly address the question will fail.

     

    Do not summarize the article or write about the topic in broad, general terms. Specific details and examples are necessary for adequate development.

     

    Some students think that writing a short, simple, formally correct (but superficial) essay in five-paragraph theme style is the best way to pass the exam with minimum effort. This is not true. Exit Exam graders must judge whether the writer has presented sufficient evidence to support the thesis; therefore, the short, simple, undeveloped essay will fail.

     

    How should I prepare for the exam?(top)
    Reading about your topics and talking about the issues are good ways to prepare for the exam. You should also write about your topics. Fill a page (or two or three) with what you already know about your topic. Determine what is important about the topic and what you might like to know more about. In this way, you will begin to become familiar with the issues. Then make up your own questions about the topics and write responses to those questions. Writing about your topics will help you to understand key terms and concepts and will give you practice constructing a coherent, well-developed essay. However, do not lock yourself into a one-track-mind approach. The actual exam question may be different from the question(s) you made up and practiced answering.

     

    You should also prepare a proof list of writing problems you have had previously. Go over your past papers and do some research on your writing abilities. What were the problems? Did you have to look up any points of grammar, or did you have to consult a friend for help with proofreading? Remember, on the day of the Exit Exam, you are on your own. Take time to review points of grammar, mechanics, and usage with which you have had difficulty in the past.

     

    On the day of the Exit Exam, after you have written your essay, go over it methodically several times, checking for the problems your research showed would be likely to occur in your writing. The most common mechanical errors are comma splices, run-on sentences, fragments, pronoun-antecedent or subject-verb agreement errors, comma and apostrophe errors, and spelling errors.

     

    What happens when I come to take the exam?(top)
    On the day of the exam, you will receive a brief magazine or newspaper article and a question relating to EACH of the two topics you selected. Occasionally, a topic will give you a choice of two questions, but your essay should answer only one of the questions.

     

    The article accompanying your question may serve one of many purposes. It may provide background information about the topic; it may provide a solution to a problem and ask whether you agree or disagree; it may be a description of a problem, a situation, or a philosophy relating to the topic; it may be a statistical chart or editorial cartoon; it may provide a more explicit definition or explanation of the topic or of the question. Remember, however, that if you use information from the article provided or from any other book or article (statistics, examples, or ideas), informal attribution to the source is necessary (e.g., The Virginian-Pilot).

     

    In writing your essay, you are NOT expected to use information provided in the article unless the question specifically asks you to do so. For example, if the question asks if you agree or disagree with the author of the article, you will, of course, need to base your position on information from the article.

     

    Even with the three-hour limit, you should allow yourself ample prewriting time, including time to think about your answer and to organize your essay. Once you have written a basic draft, you should take time to read it through and ask yourself if you have addressed the question directly and developed your ideas adequately, presenting enough examples, details, or evidence to convince your reader why you have answered the question the way you have. When you are satisfied with your draft, spend time proofreading.

     

    For handwritten essays, generally, it is not necessary or advisable to recopy the draft. The copying process consumes valuable time, and copying errors often appear in the final copy. Graders understand that you are writing under pressure and will not penalize you for a scratched-out word or paragraph as long as the writing is legible and the corrections are neat. You may use correction fluid or erasable pen.  For keyboarded essays, cutting and pasting functions can be performed with the right click of the mouse.

     

    What are the Exit Exam questions like?(top)
    Exit Exam questions are not of any single type. Questions often begin with "should." Should a certain action be taken? Should a particular program be implemented? Should the government act to accomplish some good or prevent some harm? Sometimes, however, questions are phrased differently: Are you in favor of a particular policy? In all these instances, you are being asked to take a stand on the issue and to support your stand with specific reasons, details, examples, personal experience, or other evidence.

     

    Another kind of question asks for your analysis of causes or effects. Why does a particular phenomenon occur? What will be the effects on the people, the environment, or the economy? What would be the consequences of taking a certain action? How would a certain action (by the government, school board, community or business leaders) affect others? Here you should be specific in your discussion of the causes or effects, offering your reader adequate explanations.

     

    Sometimes you are asked to offer solutions to a problem. For instance, what should be done about some problem in the community or society at large? What solutions could you suggest? What steps should or could be taken?

     

    Some questions invite you to evaluate your personal experience. In this instance, you may offer a chronology of events, drawing conclusions about your experience in some situation. Student writers sometimes try to avoid using the first-person pronoun I, yet personal experience questions can hardly be answered without it. Saying "this writer believes" or "one thinks" leads to awkward statements. Avoid such expressions, and use I when it is appropriate.

     

    What is most important as you consider the essay questions is that you understand what you are being asked so that you can answer the question directly. Avoiding the question or writing around it will lead to a failing essay.

     

    Some sample questions and examination essays are included on the Writing Center homepage.

     

    Who will grade my exam?(top)
    Graders are full- and part-time University faculty members. All graders participate in an intensive orientation and training session, and their evaluations are monitored for each exam session. Exit Exam graders will read each essay and evaluate it according to the Exit Exam evaluation form. Grades will be Pass or Repeat. Each essay will be evaluated by at least two graders. If the two graders disagree, a third grader will review the paper.

     

    Graders understand that writing an essay in three hours is quite different from writing an essay over a longer period of time. Even writers of the best Exit Exams would make changes if they had more time. Therefore, the competency standards for rating an Exit Exam differ somewhat from those used to evaluate a paper written over a period of weeks. In an Exit Exam, a few careless errors are tolerable (but no more than two or three minor errors per hundred words).

     

    How will my exam be graded?(top)
    The first criterion for evaluation is a CLEARLY STATED OBJECTIVE which answers the question and is the controlling force throughout the paper. Usually you will want to state your objective (thesis) in the introduction. Make sure your thesis statement addresses the specific examination question you have been given. An essay which does not address the specific question will fail.

     

    Here are some sample theses:

    • Vague, broad: The new voter registration legislation is awful.
    • Too restrictive: The new voter registration legislation will be implemented in August.
    • Good: The new voter registration legislation presents a threat to the civil rights of minority groups.

    PRESENTATION OF SUPPORTING EVIDENCE is the second criterion graders use to evaluate an exam. Your thesis or main point must be adequately supported with specific details, examples, your personal experience, or other evidence. Your readers need to know how you arrived at your thesis.

     

    For instance, suppose you were asked if ODU should have a football team. Your answer would be yes or no (probably with certain qualifications or conditions), but your readers would want to know more than that; they would want to know why you hold that position. There are several kinds of supporting evidence which would explain your position to your readers.

     

    You could invoke financial concerns. You might cite facts which would support having a team: the University is large enough to support a team; the metropolitan area is large enough; benefactors are willing to endow the University with large sums of money to get the team started; the University would gain much free publicity. Or you could cite facts showing why the University should not have a team: budget restraints make it unlikely that the University could allocate adequate funds for a first-rate team; students and community at present do not adequately support the championship sailing and field hockey teams; the money should be spent in other ways.

     

    You might appeal to the reader's emotions as you explain your position. You might write about how much fun students, faculty, administrators, and the community would have during the football season. Or you might write about the prestige the University would gain. If you opposed football for ODU, you might write about the lifelong injuries players can sustain, about overbearing coaches, or about practice sessions that detract from study time.

     

    The following are strategies commonly used in developing support for a thesis:

    • Story or Anecdote --You might cite cases, real or hypothetical, about bribes and corruption in football or about the positive effects the discipline of the game has on young men.
    • Statistics --Numbers suggest precision and accuracy. You might point out that the baseball team captured the conference championship and earned a trip to the NCAA tournament, yet it receives very little recognition locally. Why would a fledgling football team get much support?
    • Eyewitness --You might tell about your (or someone else's) experience at a game in a way that explained why you did or did not support a team for ODU.
    • Proverbs or Quotes --Illustrate in specific terms the common wisdom of a proverb or quote in the context of the problem you are writing about. "It takes money to make money" is one way you might justify ODU's up-front costs to fund a football team. Be careful, however, to avoid those expressions that have been overused to the point that they are almost meaningless or "clichés."
    • Precedent --What has been done in the past? What has happened at other universities with fledgling football programs? How did other sports teams at ODU get started?
    • Experts -- What do successful coaches and managers say about starting a team?

    The above are suggestions for introducing evidence which would support and explain your thesis. However, there is no formula for presenting support for your ideas, and the above suggestions are only suggestions. What is important for you to remember is that vague, unsupported generalizations about your topic will not lead to a passing exam.

     

    Remember that if you use information from the article or another source, you must give credit to the original author. While some cultures permit writers to use expert opinions without providing documentation, standard written English does not allow quoting or paraphrasing others without giving appropriate attribution.

     

    The third criterion graders use to evaluate essays is CLARITY: SENTENCE STRUCTURE AND WORD CHOICE. Sentences must be clear so that readers can follow your thinking. Convoluted, ungrammatical sentences like the following confuse readers:

    1.       Depending on whether the person was a first, second, third or only child placed the person in a different perspective. * The writer probably wants to emphasize that the child's position in the family is important, but the sentence is not well constructed.

    A possible revision might read thusly:

    "The person's birth order--first, second, third, or only child--gives him or her a different perspective."

    *All sample sentences are quotations from actual Exit Exams.

    2.       By presenting this explanation in detail, some of the stress felt by the employees up to this point should be reduced by the confidence that they will be adequately trained to conquer the computer.

    This sentence begins with a dangling modifier. We don't know who has presented "this explanation in detail," but we do know that such an action must have been accomplished by a person or a group of persons. As written, the sentence says that "some of the stress" (the subject of the sentence) is presenting the explanation.

    To correct this sentence, do the following. First, put the proper agent (whoever presented the explanation) in the subject position. Second, consider breaking up the sentence. Note how these two changes improve expression. "By presenting this explanation in detail, managers were able to reduce some of the stress felt by the employees. The adequately trained employees were then confident they could conquer the computer."

    3.       At the times when this was done, students in the class had at least once evaluated all other students' papers written on the prescribed topic whereby each student's paper had stapled to it every student's evaluation and suggestion.

    In this sentence, the writer loses control, and the reader has a difficult time understanding the main ideas because of problems with word order and wordiness. A clearer version of the sentence might read, "When peer editing was used, students in the class had evaluated all other students' papers at least once, so each student's paper had the other students' evaluations and suggestions stapled to it."

    4.       When the students finished the peer editing, you had to take the paper back and make corrections according to what they suggested the writer do to improve their papers after reading the evaluations and suggestions.

    Here again is an out-of-control sentence, this time due to problems with word placement and pronoun shifts. A more direct sentence might read, "When the students finished the peer editing, they had to take their papers back and make corrections according to their editors' evaluations and suggestions."

    The writers of the above sentences probably felt unsure of them. When you feel unsure, stop. Ask yourself, "What am I really trying to say?" Then try to say it as simply as possible. Remember, if you have a little trouble with a sentence, your readers will probably have a great deal of difficulty with it. Don't be surprised if it takes two or three sentences to explain what you had been trying to pack into one.

     

    While some sentence problems result from complexity, i.e., trying to jam too many ideas into one sentence, others come from stringing too many short, simple sentences one after another. An adequately written paper uses sentences of enough length and complexity to hold the reader's attention and joins them appropriately to show the relationship between ideas. A paragraph composed of numerous short sentences sounds immature, more like a list of ideas than the writing of a college graduate.

     

    For example: The lottery would be a form of revenue for the state. Virginia could tax the money earned from the lottery. They would earn interest on the money, which would help the state tremendously. Virginia would need less assistance from the United States Federal Government.

     

    These sentences and the ideas they are communicating need to be linked. The ideas are relevant, but a rewrite is needed to give emphasis to the most important ideas. The overuse of short, unconnected sentences interferes with the coherence or flow of the writing and, consequently, with the reader's comprehension of the ideas the writer is trying to communicate.

     

    Sometimes students taking the Exit Exam intentionally use simple, short sentences because they lack confidence in their ability to punctuate longer sentences correctly. However, a paper with a few minor punctuation errors is more likely to pass than an incoherent, disjointed paper.

     

    Poor word choice can also interfere with the clarity of an essay. Be sure that you understand the meanings of the words you are using; consult a dictionary to check the word you plan to use. Don't try to be fancy or to write in an artificially elevated style. If you consult a thesaurus, be certain the words you take from it mean exactly what you intend them to mean. Often words chosen from a thesaurus carry inappropriate shades of meaning.

    1.       What is immoral is terminating a life when that life could have been prevented primitively. (Here the writer misuses both prevented and primitively.)

    2.       In his art, Joseph Beauys implements material that had a bearing on his life. (Here the writer avoids the correct and appropriate everyday word uses and
    chooses instead implements, a word with a different meaning.)

    3.       Tighter controls need to be enforced throughout the world and more preventive measures need to be implicated into the system. (Here the writer misuses
    implicate.)

    LOGICAL CONSISTENCY is the fourth criterion graders use in evaluating Exit Exams. Ideas expressed in the essay must be logical, and the organization of the essay must suit the content, rather than being mechanically imposed on it. Consider the logic of the following paragraph.

     

    The lottery would help redistribute income. If someone in the middle class won, they would move to the upper class. It would help a lot of people move from the lower class to the upper class. Some of these people could use the money for higher education.

     

    This argument is not logical. It relies on unsupported generalizations to create a pseudo-argument which does not stand up to scrutiny. A lottery does not enrich enough people (certainly not "a lot") to cause substantial redistribution of income. Furthermore, windfall money is not a determinant of class.

     

    Another problem with logic occurs when writers first discover what they think about the subject at the end of the essay. Sometimes a writer begins taking one stand on a question and ends taking the opposite. This kind of contradiction leads to a failing exam.

     

    There is always a risk factor involved with any birth control methods in common use today. Even though the risk of using some of the other methods may be less than the "pill," the effectiveness varies. With current usage and proper physical examination, the "pill" is by far the best preventive method aside from sterilization. With this knowledge, I feel that it should not be banned from the markets...

     

    The writer goes on to discuss different types of birth control and the attendant risks.

     

    Therefore, taking into consideration the risk involved in other methods and the risk involved in the usage of the pill, then it would seem that all forms of birth control methods should be removed from the market.

     

    Read your paper carefully for logic and organization. Try to imagine another person reading your paper. Would your logic and organization be clear to someone else?

     

    REASONABLE FREEDOM FROM MECHANICAL ERRORS is the final criterion of evaluation. Since even the best writers sometimes make minor mistakes in grammar and spelling, the graders will not expect you to be absolutely perfect in either one. Roughly, two or three minor errors for every 100 words would be tolerable. However, you must have a good general grasp of both grammar and spelling in order to write well.

     

    The most common sentence errors are fragments, run-ons, dangling modifiers, and misplaced modifiers. Commas are the most commonly misused marks of punctuation. Apostrophes are frequently omitted in possessives. Subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement errors are also problems. Another problem with pronouns has to do with clear reference. For instance, your readers must know what the pronouns it and this are referring to. Consult a grammar handbook for complete explanations.

     

    If English is not your native language, you should proofread carefully for errors in your use of verbs, noun forms and articles, and word forms. Non-native speakers sometimes drop word endings such as "-s" and "-ed" that are necessary for proper usage. For example, the following sentence contains a subject-verb agreement error.

     

    The student like the program.

    This writer means

    The students like the program. OR

    The student likes the program. OR

    The student liked the program.

     

    Word form errors often occur with words such as "economic" and "economical." Although both words are adjectives, their meanings differ. Take a good English dictionary with you to the exam; it can help you check word forms and parts of speech, as well as spelling.

     

    The use of a dictionary or language dictionary during the exam is acceptable. Bring one and take time to use it during your final proofreading. Be especially careful with word endings. Often words ending in -st (such as scientist, dentist, artist, test) are misspelled. Some students write scientist for both the singular and the plural (note: one scientist, two scientists). Check your dictionary also for frequently misused words such as affect/effect, obtain/attain, than/then.

     

    It is also important to be consistent in point of view. Do not switch from third to second person (from he/she to you). Some writers use the pronoun you carelessly. They use it to mean 1) you--the reader, 2) us--all of us, all people, everybody, and 3) you--a particular group of people in the audience, perhaps drivers of automobiles in a paper on the use of seatbelts. When you are inclined to use the second-person pronoun you, ask yourself whom you really mean. Is it everyone, all people? In general, it is best to avoid using you altogether unless you are giving directions.

     

    If you are relating a personal experience to illustrate a point, the first person I is entirely appropriate. Often writers try to avoid the use of I. They rely on expressions, such as "This writer thinks...," "It is thought that...," and "One thinks that...." Such expressions can lead the writer into a syntactic muddle that could easily be avoided. When you are speaking for yourself, use I. But, of course, there is no need to preface every sentence with "I think." The reader knows that the essay is yours; simply write what you think, using I when you must, but not needlessly.