Eng­lish pro­fessor Chris Gal­lagher encour­ages his stu­dents to think of them­selves as cura­tors of an exhibit at a gallery or a museum.

But instead of col­lecting Dalis, Picassos or Van Goghs, they’re picking out their best writing—from ana­lyt­ical essays to pro­fes­sional documents—and reflecting on the process they used to create the work. They’re com­piling E-​​portfolios through which they’ll show­case their progress as writers—and facil­i­tate Gallagher’s research on the devel­op­ment of under­grad­uate writers at Northeastern.

I think of an E-​​portfolio as an exhibit where a stu­dent writer curates and offers a reflec­tion on what each piece taught him about writing and what he accom­plished,” says Gal­lagher. “From a research per­spec­tive, we’re exam­ining the quality of writing as well as the process.”

Gal­lagher, whose schol­ar­ship focuses on the his­tory of com­po­si­tion and assess­ment, is leading a pilot study involving eight writing instruc­tors and roughly 350 stu­dents. The ulti­mate goal of the project is to improve stu­dent writing while devel­oping a reli­able assess­ment tool for the University.

Before joining the North­eastern fac­ulty, Gal­lagher taught Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­sity of Nebraska, where he led an eval­u­a­tion of the state’s K-​​12 assess­ment system. More recently, Gal­lagher has turned his atten­tion to post­sec­ondary writing assess­ment, pub­lishing in the journal Writing Pro­gram Admin­is­tra­tion, and in a forth­coming issue of Col­lege English.

For this pilot study, Gal­lagher and his col­leagues are using the E-​​portfolios to examine spe­cific markers of progress—how, for example, do stu­dents’ abil­i­ties to use sources evolve between their intro­duc­tory and advanced writing course?

Researchers have com­piled study after study on the progress of the youngest of writers, but there are only a handful of long-​​term studies on the mat­u­ra­tion process of college-​​level writers, says Gallagher.

Part of the chal­lenge,” says Gal­lagher, “is fig­uring out how to develop reli­able assess­ments where you can trust the results while remaining focused on actu­ally teaching stu­dents how to be better writers.”

Gal­lagher says the E-​​portfolios are a useful way to cap­ture writing over time and for mul­tiple pur­poses and audi­ences. And because their port­fo­lios are posted online, stu­dents are more likely to get the kind of wide­spread feed­back they need to hone their writing skills.

That, in turn, serves the bottom-​​line goal of the writing pro­gram: To pre­pare stu­dents to suc­ceed in their lives and careers by making them better writers.

Regard­less of pro­fes­sion, “It would be tough for any col­lege grad to suc­ceed in the real world without good writing skills,” Gal­lagher says. “There are very few non-​​writers in the world these days.”