Re: A Tech Writing Test

Subject: Re: A Tech Writing Test
From: sanders_j -at- TBOSCH -dot- DNET -dot- GE -dot- COM
Date: Wed, 15 Sep 1993 15:52:47 EDT

Hi All,

>I recently received a mailing from Educational Testing Services about a new
>they are developing for Tech Writing.
>My concern, however, is this test is designed to be ALL multiple choice.
>The areas to be covered are
>Theory and Practice of Tech Writing
>Purpose, content, and organizational patterns of common types of technical
>Elements of various technical reports
>Technical Editing
-->Barry Maid
-->bmmaid -at- ualr

First Reaction: YUCK!
Second Thoughtful Reaction: Wince!

This sort of thing is almost entirely useless except to show how much a person
knows about the history and theory of a discipline, and will elicit no
accurate description of how skilled that person is in developing technical
communication. A high score on this test, based on the description of tested
topics, tells me that the person taking it is proficient in editing symbols,
some usability tests, and knows what technical documents looks like. What
about skill with multimedia presentations? How about indexing ability?
Does this test tell us if the person can put together a 300 page reference
manual in three months, from structure to production? Or if they can quickly
learn the latest software tools? What are common technical documents? I don't
think I've ever seen two user manuals setup the same way, even from the same

Technical writing and technical communication are processes, not ends. You
can't multiple choice something like index styles or document types, because
right away you're arbitrarily assigning labels to things that are very
diverse. Probably the best measure of a technical communicator is an example
of their work. That's it. Except for a trial run, there isn't any other way
I can think of. How can you tell if that person is good at meeting schedules,
or budgeting their time across the five projects you've given them? What if
they're computer-phobes? A test like that isn't going to tell you.

What if the person just doesn't test well? Like someone who is a good
problem solver, but needs time to work things out in a low-pressure situation.
This sort of person is going to do poorly on a test that requires answering
200 questions at 1 question a minute. But put them into a job that requires
meticulous planning, and they'll excell.

Tests of this sort are the empirical plague of the modern academic world.
Sum up your knowledge of the Middle Ages in four questions about the War
of Roses? Indeed!

-John Sanders-

PS Completely off the topic, and entirely inappropriate to the list: any
Saturn owners out there? I'm thinking of buying one. Comment personally,
of course. Replies greatly appreciated.

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