Cursus Scriptorum: Writing With Honors

The Scholars Online Writing Program

Writing, more than any other academic subject, is a highly idiosyncratic process that confronts every student with unique challenges and needs. No two students learn in quite the same way; no two writers — even two very good ones — will wind up writing the same way. The process of writing is about adapting one’s own arsenal of writing tools to a certain set of objective rules, but also using those tools to form one’s own personal voice. That reality is what drove Paul Christiansen and Bruce McMenomy to develop Cursus Scriptorum: Writing With Honors, beginning in 2013.

We’ve had several rather successful writing programs at Scholars Online before, but all of them presupposed a more or less fixed starting line, and required a fixed set of activities for all students. Such an approach assumes that students are all beginning at a certain level. For good or ill, that turned out not to be the case much of the time. Students entered with wildly different skills, and wildly different kinds of skills. Cursus Scriptorum brings writing instruction into line with our overriding focus on mastery, rather than mere completion of a process.

We did this by casting it into the format of a game. We believe that there is nothing else quite like it in education. In practical terms, what it means is that to move on, a student has to demonstrate mastery in each of a number of specific areas, but all of those are marks that a student can achieve at his or her own pace.

After five years, the course is still a work in progress. Some areas of it have been more fully developed than others, because that’s where our students have been. Nevertheless, in theory it should be able to accommodate a student from the higher elementary grades (fourth grade might be a practical cutoff for a bright and talented student) through graduate school, and provide realistic levels of challenge and more than adequate feedback at every stage.

Because we see such varied abilities among our students, and because it is very possible that an otherwise high-level student might need some very specific and focused work in one or two low-level areas, the game shapes its challenges around student performance. All students work independently and asynchronously; the goal of the process is to master each step along the way. There are no class times, there are no grades, and there is no credit for the course: the learning is its own reward, and will pay off in any other class the student is taking. Students may even submit work they have produced for other courses, either before or after turning it in to another teacher, provided that teacher has given approval.

Work is submitted through the Scholars Online Moodle; corrections are posted there as well. As each cluster of skills is mastered, a student climbs the ladder, following the model of the Roman Cursus Honorum, the sequence of offices a citizen on the rise would pursue in the late Roman Republic, beginning simply as a citizen, and going up through the ranks of soldier, tribune, prefect, quaestor, aedile, praetor, and consul. The game has even created a place for the irregular but spectacularly prestigious office of censor, though nobody has achieved it yet. That would require the publication of an article in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. We’re still hoping to see it, but we’re not holding our breath. Still, that’s a sign of how far we’re willing to go with a student.

Each piece of written work is hand-scored by a teacher, who will provide (often rather extensive) comments as well, explaining why a comma here might be wrong, or a different phrasing might be better there; from that process emerges a set of over two dozen specific scores for each paper, measuring performance in each of a number of areas — grammar in the strict sense (word form and syntax), mechanics (proper use of punctuation, capitalization, and so on), usage (the correct and idiomatic deployment of words), and spelling. These distinct scores allow the student to identify and focus on trouble spots to achieve real mastery rather than just a broad-brush overall general competence on the average. Those scores are also combined to give students an overall assessment of progress. Everything — all the scores, the comments, and even the misspelled words — are accumulated in a database, from which they can be recovered and evaluated.

Normally a student will begin by writing grammatically correct and rationally structured sentences and paragraphs, and, when those are under control, will move on to the production of essays of increasing length. Along the way, scoring categories that weren’t required at the earlier stages are added to the mix, so that students can learn to avoid fallacious reasoning and to support arguments with adequate facts, and eventually to present their arguments in a way that is not only honest but elegant and persuasive. Each level demands more and more; each level accordingly rewards students with the points to advance further.

There is no better way to learn to write — arguably there is no other way — than by writing. Real progress is only achieved by doing it a lot and getting productive feedback from others and, eventually, from oneself. In the long run, we hope that the game will promote a mindset of analytic self-evaluation as a key to solving and mastering any set of complex skills, while learning to do by doing.

© Copyright 2014, 2018 by Bruce McMenomy and Paul Christiansen. Permission to download or print this material is granted solely to members of Scholars Online currently enrolled in Cursus Scriptorum or prospective students & families, for personal study. All other use or redistribution constitutes violation of copyright.