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Needs Assessment

Instructional problem

Nowadays, more and more international students who are at undergraduate level want to come to America to seek further education opportunities. They are required to take TOEFL test to prove their English competency. The TOEFL ibt(Internet based test)has four test sections--listening comprehension, reading, speaking and writing (take a TOEFL ibt tour [1]). The writing tasks include independent writing and integrated writing. Independent writing section is a hard part of many international students. The help they need are

  • Knowledge--knowing more about the writing task requirement
  • A new set of skills--writing competency and techniques in composing an 300-word essay on appointed topic
  • A change of attitude--realizing that with better understanding of test requirements and certain amount of pre-test practice, they can get decent score on the writing part of the test
  • Specific internet based test-taking strategies

Major issues that characterize the instructional problem

  • Personal experience
As an international student and test-taker,I have taken TOEFL ibt test for three times before I finally got a score that I felt satisfied with. Each time I took the test, my independent writing task score had increased. Through my personal test-preparation and test-taking experience, I have gradually learned that writing skills, writing strategies and test-taking strategies are all very important for achieving a high score on the writing section.
  • Literature review
"Language assessment prior to and since Carroll’s (e.g., 1975) widely cited skills model has conventionally defined writing as one of four basic, integrated language skills. Writing differs from the other three skills (i.e., reading, listening, and speaking) in many obvious but important ways. For instance, writing is primarily a productive endeavor, involving the utilization of numerous subcomponents and unique types of skill and knowledge." (Cumming,Kantor,Powers,Santos, & Taylor,2000) This indicate that for writing assessment requires test takers to acquire certain amount of writing skills and techniques.
"Planning has a place in all of the cognitive models. The implication is that most writing requires thought and reflection rather than impromptu reactions." (Cumming,Kantor,Powers,Santos, & Taylor,2000) Planning belongs to the category of writing strategy and is proved to be highly useful for outlining essay structure and guiding test takers to finish the writing assessment in a very organized and efficient fashion.
1737 independent TOEFL essays written by different cultural groups have been collected analyzed in Frase et al's study (1999). The results showed that "TOEFL independent writing topic differences affected some essay variables, but these effects were generally felt equally by the different language groups. Discriminant analysis suggest three features that might distinguish the performance of different language groups—directness, expressiveness, and academic stance."(Frase,Faletti,Ginther, & Grant,1999) This indicates that it is not necessary that international students feel fearful in front of vast amount of writing task prompts, because all writing task prompts are academic oriented and ask for certain writing patterns. Test takers don't have to prepare many types of writing structures for various topics. Instead, they need only to prepare limited amount of writing patterns for structuring the independent writing task.
Taylor et al (1998) found that "After controlling for language ability, the researchers found no meaningful relationship between level of computer familiarity and level of performance on computerized language tasks among TOEFL examinees who had completed the computer tutorial". This research result can lead to TOEFL test takers who are not confident in their computer skills to focus more on improving their writing skills rather than worrying too much about their computer skills.

Sources of information

  • TOEFL® 2000 Speaking Framework: A Working Paper

By F.A. Butler, D. Eignor, S. Jones, T. McNamara, and B.K. Suomi (2000) TOEFL® Monograph No. MS-20 [2]

  • Computer Analysis of the TOEFL test of Written English

By L. Frase, J. Faletti, A Ginther, and L.Grant (1999) TOEFL Research Report No. RR-98-42, TOEFL-RR-64 [3]

  • The Relationship Between Computer Familiarity and Performance on Computer-Based TOEFL Test Tasks

By C. Taylor, J. Jamieson, D. Eignor, and I. Kirsch (1998) TOEFL Research Report No. RR-61 [4]

Possible instructional solutions

According to this mini course, the information and instruction based on test takers' needs will be addressed, which include

  • Comprehensive and clearer information on test requirements of TOEFL ibt independent writing task
  • Writing skills needed for composing an independent writing piece within 30-minute time limitation
  • Independent writing topics and writing samples
  • Specific test taking strategies

Instructional Model:Cognitive Apprenticeships

  • Content: Teach tacit, heuristic knowledge as well as textbook knowledge.

The tacit, heuristic knowledge in this course is mainly in lesson five Lesson Five: Test taking strategies, where test-taking strategies from different sources are collected. "Textbook knowledge" in this course is the files from ETS (Educational Testing Service)official, who is the TOEFL test maker.

  • Situated learning: Teach knowledge and skills in contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be useful in real life.

Instructor teaches students learn the writing skills by using real TOEFL writings. In this mini course, instructors will use explanations and analysis based on sample TOEFL independent writing pieces to show students the characteristics of a TOEFL writing.

  • Modeling and explaining: Show how a process unfolds and explain why it happens that way.

The sequence of this writing course is from "knowing about the test requirements", "structure of the writing", "content of the writing", "revising" to "test-taking strategies". This sequence is a "simple-to-complex" sequence. Learners will learn from a "what it is" to "how it should be done" fashion.

  • Coaching: Observe learners as they try to complete tasks and provide assistance as needed.

Instructor provides assignments at the end of each lesson, on the purpose of requiring learners to employ what they have learned in the lesson to their own writing to develop further understanding towards the knowledge and the skills have been instructed.

  • Articulation: Have learners think about their actions and justify their decisions and strategies.

There are peer discussion required in activities and assignments sections in the course lessons, asking learners to

  • Reflection: Have learners assess their own performance.

There is "reflection" section in each lesson that can help learners to think about what they have learned and to reflect upon their learning performance in each lesson.

  • Exploration: Encourage learners to test out their own strategies.

From lesson two to lesson five, assignments that ask learners to employ the knowledge and skills on TOEFL independent writing are provided.

  • Sequence: Present instruction sequenced from simple to complex, with increasing diversity and global knowledge before local knowledge and skills.

The content of the mini course sequenced in a simple-to-complex manner, and both global and local knowledge are provided.


The Cognitive Apprenticeships instructional model is from Collins, A (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship and instructional technology. In L.Idol & B.F.Jones(Eds.),Educational values and cognitive instruction: Implications for reform.

Learner profile

  • Backgrounds
International students at undergraduate or graduate academic level who speak English as a foreign language, planning to apply for American universities to seek further education opportunities. Thus they need to take TOEFL test and report their scores to the schools when they apply.
  • English competencies
Participants in this mini course should be have at least an intermediate command of English language, grasping above 4000 English vocabulary.
  • Expectations and motivations
Test takers who want to understand TOEFL ibt writing’s requirement better in order to meet the test requirements to get good score on the writing section, who not only want to improve their writing skills but also want to acquire knowledge on test taking strategies.

Context analysis

This mini course can be independently completed online. All the text and sources in this course are in electronic forms. Participants can control their own learning pace and participate in discussion areas to ask questions and discuss thoughts.Instructor will communicate with learners on discussion space to provide related support.

Mission statement

After finishing this mini course on TOEFL independent writing task instruction,

  • Learners will get clearer information and a comprehensive understanding on TOEFL ibt independent writing task requirements
  • Learners will develop a new set of writing skills accustomed to achieve a decent score on TOEFL ibt independent writing task
  • Learners will acquire a series of test-taking strategies
  • Learners will experience some attitudinal changes towards the TOEFL writing test and gain more confidence in English writing

Performance Objectives

  • Lesson one: Intro to TOEFL ibt Independent Writing
  1. Given a comprehensive explanation on TOEFL ibt Independent Writing test requirements, students will be able to states what the independent writing test requirements are.
  2. After reading theindependent writing rubrics, students will be albe to identify how the writings will be evaluated.
  • Lesson two: The Structure of ibt Independent Writing
  1. Given a sample ibt writing piece and a comprehensive analysis on the writing structure, students will learn the structure pattern of an independent writing task.
  2. Students will be able to identify the structure pattern of three given independent writing pieces.
  • Lesson three: The Content of ibt Independent Writing
  1. Given comprehensive instruction and examples on how to form main ideas in an independent writing piece, students will learn how to generate main points for a writing topic.
  2. Given comprehensive instruction and examples on how to develop supporting ideas to support main ideas in an independent writing piece, students will be able to generate supporting ideas by themselves for supporting main ideas.
  • Lesson four: Getting started and Revising progress
  1. Given comprehensive instruction and information on how to revise a draft writing, students will demonstrate knowledge on revising strategies often used under test environment.
  2. Students will be able to write and revise a draft by using the revising methods being taught in this lesson
  • Lesson five: Test-taking strategies
  1. Given instruction of test-taking strategies, students will be able to identify different types of test-taking strategies that can be applied when taking the TOEFL writing test.
  2. Students will be able to employ the strategies being taught in this lesson into their own pre-test practice flexibly and effectively.

Curriculum Map

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