I received a score of “Needs Work” on my portfolio. What does that mean?

A portfolio score of Needs Work (NW) means exactly what it says: at least two faculty members who read your portfolio believe that your writing needs some work. Usually, the comments that your readers made on your score sheets will indicate exactly what they want you to work on—it could be something specific, like your ability to construct thesis-driven arguments, or something more general, like your ability to use standard written English.

In practice, this means that you’ll need to concentrate on developing your writing over the course of your junior year. Dr. George Cusack, the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), will help you in that process. And, when your writing shows sufficient progress, he’s the one that will clear you for a Pass on your portfolio.

Please keep in mind that a NW score is not a judgment of your overall abilities as a scholar. It’s not a measure of your intelligence, your talent, or whether you belong at Carleton. It’s not even really a measure of your general ability as a writer. Rather, it’s a very specifically calibrated measure of certain writing skills that are essential for effective academic writing.

There’s a reason we call this score “Needs Work” and not “Failure”: the only message the college is trying to send through the NW score is that your writing skills need to develop a bit before senior comps and graduation. We think of the score as an offer of help from the college to better prepare you for the academic challenges ahead, and we hope you take it in that spirit.

What happens now that I’ve received a NW Score?

Before you file for graduation — and ideally before the end of your junior year—you’ll need to change your portfolio score from “Needs Work” to “Pass.”

In order to do that, you’ll need to do three basic things:

  1. Meet with Dr. George Cusack, the WAC Director, and create a writing plan
  2. Submit all of the writing assignments you complete in all of your Carleton classes, from now until you pass your portfolio requirement
  3. Write a short reflective essay at the end of each term to demonstrate that you’re thinking about your writing and working towards the goals in your writing plan

The nuts and bolts of this process are explained a bit more thoroughly in the “Brief Guide to Completing a Needs Work Portfolio.”

Do I have to do all of that? Can’t I just revise the essays in my portfolio?

No, you can’t just revise and resubmit your portfolio, and yes, you really do have to go through the whole process.

The issue here isn’t that the portfolio as a whole or the individual essays in it are flawed. The issue is that, based on your portfolio, your faculty readers believe that you need to improve certain writing skills. Going back and revising the portfolio itself, now that you have their feedback, won’t really demonstrate development — it will just demonstrate that you can respond to feedback on a specific document (this is an important writing skill in itself, but not the only skill you’ll need). To significantly improve your writing skills, you need to work on new pieces of writing.

Besides, this process is meant to be forward-looking, and it’s not meant to take up a great deal of your time. We know that your classes keep you busy, and so the most efficient way to proceed is to focus on writing that you’re already producing for your classes, rather than trying to revise old assignments just to meet this requirement.

I’ll be on academic leave or OCS in Fall Term, am I still required to meet with Dr. Cusack and submit work to the Moodle site?

Students on academic leave are not required to participate in the portfolio revision process at all until they return to active enrollment. If you expect to be on leave at any point in your junior year, please notify Dr. Cusack as soon as possible, and if possible let him know when you plan to return to campus.

Students on OCS are required to submit work from their classes to the Moodle site and write a reflective essay at the end of the term, though the deadlines for this may be more flexible for students on programs without easy internet access.

If you will be on OCS in the fall, please contact Dr. Cusack as soon as you receive your score notification, and if at all possible arrange to meet in person before you depart for your OCS program. If this isn’t possible, you can arrange to meet when you return to campus, but it’s best to get this process going as soon as you can.

How does this process end and what happens when it’s over?

At the end of each term, Dr. Cusack will review all of the work you submitted to the Moodle site that term (particularly the reflective essay), and weigh it against the goals in your writing plan. If he feels that you have sufficiently addressed your writing goals, then he will clear you for a Pass.

At that point, the Registrar will change your portfolio score from “Needs Work” to “Pass,” and your portfolio requirement is complete.

Once you receive a score of Pass, there will be no indication on your academic record that your score was ever anything else.

How long does this process take?

That depends on two things: how much writing you do over the course of each term, and how much effort you put into that writing (including the reflective essay you write for your portfolio).

That said, most students who receive a Needs Work score complete the portfolio requirement by the end of their junior year, and it’s entirely possible to complete it after a single term, if your fall courses require a great deal of writing and your skills improve significantly as a result of that practice.

Does the Needs Work score appear on my transcript? Who can see it?

Writing portfolio scores do not appear on your transcript, and the only people at Carleton who have access to them are administrators who can see your advising records. That includes your advisor, the Dean’s office, the Registrar, and the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum. It does not include individual course instructors or any staff members you might interact with (the Fellowships Office, potential on-campus employers, the Writing Center, etc.).

Furthermore, once you complete the portfolio process, your score will change from “Needs Work” to “Pass,” and there will be no indication, even in your advising records, that you ever had a Needs Work score. Thus, a Pass received through this revision process is no different than a Pass received through the portfolio itself.

What happens if I don’t complete the process by the end of my senior year?

Technically, you must complete the portfolio requirement in order to file for graduation. So, if you don’t complete the process, you don’t graduate.

That should obviously serve as an incentive to take the process seriously, but it’s worth keeping in mind that in the entire history of the portfolio program, only a handful of students have failed to graduate because they didn’t meet the portfolio requirement. Again, this process isn’t meant to be a barrier between you and graduation; it’s meant to help you develop the skills you need to graduate.

Do I need to take additional writing-rich (WR) courses during my junior year to pass the portfolio requirement?

This isn’t required, but you may want to consider taking one or more WR courses, especially if your 300-level major courses don’t include much writing. WR courses generally offer more writing instruction and more opportunities to practice your writing skills, and so taking one or more might speed up the process of passing your portfolio requirement.

Where can I get help with my writing?

As a Needs Work student, you’re welcome to meet with Dr. George Cusack, the WAC Director at any time to get feedback on a specific piece of writing or to generally discuss how you can improve as a writer. His office is in Room 124 Weitz Center, and his office hours each term will be posted on the Moodle site.

You can also get assistance from the Writing Center on 4th floor Libe. ESL/ELL students, in particular, might want to meet with Melanie Cashin, the Assistant Director of the Writing Center and the Coordinator for ESL Writing. You can schedule an appointment with Melanie or one of the writing consultants on the Writing Center website.

Finally, you should speak to your major advisor about your portfolio and ask if they have any recommendations. Communicating with your advisor is particularly important if your major requires a lot of technical or field-specific writing (e.g. programs, proofs, problem sets) that might be hard for tutors and instructors outside your major field to read and give you useful feedback. In most cases, your advisor will have access to the work you submit to the Needs Work Moodle site, which will make it easy to sit down with them and discuss it. If you’re struggling with a particular skill in your major classes or unsure how to meet your portfolio requirement through your major courses, your advisor can help.

What happens if I don’t follow the steps described above?

If you don’t schedule your initial meeting with Dr. Cusack, submit work according to the timeline described in the guide, or write your reflective essay each term, the WAC office will place a hold on your enrollment, meaning you won’t be able to enroll in new classes until you make up the missing steps. We’d really rather not do that, though, so please keep on top of things.

What happens if my classes don’t have any writing assignments?

If a class genuinely has no writing of any kind, then there’s nothing for you to submit. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that most Carleton classes have some writing in them, even if it isn’t a traditional essay. Short assignments, journals, lab reports, essay exams, problem sets, and anything else that requires you to present your ideas in textual form count as writing, and you should submit them to the Moodle site.

I wrote a few things for my class, but I’m not really happy with them or I don’t think they’re particularly relevant to my portfolio. Do I still need to submit them?

Yes, please submit every writing assignment from every class. Even if a given assignment doesn’t directly address your writing goals, it can show that you’re developing as a writer in other ways, which can only help you. If you feel that the writing you completed in a particular class really doesn’t accurately reflect your abilities as a writer, then you’ll have an opportunity to explain that in your reflective essay. You should also keep in mind that submitting a given piece of writing can never hurt you or set you back in the portfolio process. So, you’re better off submitting everything and letting the WAC Director decide what’s relevant and irrelevant.

The writing I do for my major classes generally doesn’t include traditional essays and most of it is too technical for someone outside my field to read. What should I do?

Seriously, submit all of your writing, even pieces that aren’t “traditional essays.” The major purpose of the portfolio requirement is to help you develop the writing skills you’ll need in your major, so it only makes sense to submit the writing you complete for your major coursework. The WAC Director well do their best to translate the concerns your portfolio readers expressed into the writing skills your major instructors actually want you to have, and if they’re unable to do that themself, they’ll consult with faculty members in your major department.

Should I submit assignments that I write collaboratively with other students?

Yes, but if at all possible you should include a note (just a sentence or two on the essay itself or in your reflective essay) indicating how you personally contributed to that assignment.

Should I submit assignments that aren’t written in English?

Yes, please do, especially if your major will regularly require you to write in a language other than English (this includes computer code). If Dr. Cusack cannot read a significant portion of your writing in a given term, he’ll seek out the assistance of a faculty member who can.

I have an assignment that I think counts as writing, but it’s in a format that I can’t upload to Moodle. How should I submit it?

Writing assignments in non-traditional forms (e.g. multimedia pieces, oral performances, physical objects, web pages, etc.) can most certainly count toward your portfolio requirement. If you have an assignment that you’re unsure how to upload, you should contact Dr. Cusack.