From the category archives:

Developmental Writing

Writing in the Classroom, Not Lecturing

by Dr Davis on November 26, 2011

Dr. Lee Skallerup @CollegeReadyWriting discusses her approach to having the students work on their projects in class in Get Busy Doing.

As I said on the post, I’ve been doing this approach in writing for years, at least twenty-one.

In fact, I vividly remember the day twenty years ago when I was called into the dean’s office because a student (rather than coming to me or the chair) went to another professor in another department who went to the dean (rather than coming to me or the chair) to complain about my in-class work–after having first gotten the student transferred out of my “joke” of a class.

I explained the pedagogical ramifications to my dean, who let me go with commendations.

I called the professor and discussed his lack of professionalism. He said the student told him that the student had already talked to me. I told him that was between him and the lying student, but that he didn’t talk to me before he talked to the dean. I was not impressed with the professor and I let him know it. (As an aside that amazes me as confrontation is not my normal style.)

The problems associated with this style of teaching are not always as easily worked out as that experience would imply. For example:

Computer availability issues
Computer classrooms help facilitate research during class time. But what happens when only one of the three classrooms you are assigned has computers, as is true for me this semester?

Yes, many of my students have laptops (now that I am no longer at the CC and have moved to a SLAC), but not all of them do. I can’t require that they do work in class on computers if I don’t provide computers. And I can’t provide computers. If even two of my students in a given class do not have or do not bring their computers, I would have a situation that could not be worked around.

Since I am teaching three sections of the same writing-intensive course (fyc), I do not want to have one class working on their writing in class and the other two reading the book and working on discussions in groups.

Lest you think that this is a rare problem and I must teach in some backwoods shack, let me state for the record that my university was the first to have a college newspaper on the iPad and this was not an accident. We work with, and some would say for, Apple, AT&T, Google, and various other major players in the tech field. We have an entire library floor, the main floor, that is primarily devoted to computer stations, with computers. (This is usually fairly full, so I can’t just pop over and take over twenty seats with my class.)

Yet the English department has only three computer labs on campus. And there aren’t any other computer labs I can sign up for with an entire class.

At least I know that my students will have access to computers, even if it isn’t during my class.


Shout Out Asking for Help

by Dr Davis on August 5, 2011

Got an email from a colleague who is working with at-risk students at her college on reading and writing strategies. Does anyone have a book or article they have found particularly helpful to recommend to her?


Peer Coaching

by Dr Davis on May 5, 2011

You Can Teach Writing has an interesting post, Formal Assessment by Proxy, on peer coaching.

Along with a definition and description, Aragoni includes discussions of when peer coaching will work well and when it will fail.

One of the successful hints is that there should be minimal reading.

The questions are short, focused. Even students who read poorly can learn the drill by hearing the questions a few times.

I would not have thought of that one, even though I am used to reading the essays to my students to make sure that they “get” them.

One of the failing techniques I also would not have thought of.

Infrequent use. Like all writing strategies, peer coaching has to be done often enough that students memorize it so they don’t have to consult their notes.

I recommend the whole article, which was recommended by Dr. Lee Skallerup of College Reading Writing.


Notes on Sources from #fycchat

by Dr Davis on April 20, 2011

These are some tweets I found helpful from last week’s fycchat. Wednesdays at 9 pm EST.

I think this chat has evolved to how to make research more meaningful. It’s a good thing.

One thing I make an effort to show is how much time and effort go into the peer reviewed article: 3-5 years. They don’t believe me.

I’ve found once students understand how much time goes into writing a peer-review essay, they take it more seriously.

I have a lesson with multiple sources on the same topic-whoever gets the peer-rev can answer the most ?’s

“Study of First Year Students’ Research Papers Finds Little Evidence that they Understand Sources”

At my school fyc is 2 sems. Second sem ends w/ research paper. I like that method better.

Why the Research Paper Isn’t Working

I’m moving away from research papers to researched arguments on local topics that matter to students

When I have them find sources, they have to explain how/why they are going to use it in their essay.

Sources only matter to students if they understand how we build credibility by entering into convo w/source authors.

I actually take the time to talk about the difference btw peer-reviewed vs newspaper/mag vs It’s pretty effective.

I call our research paper a Scholarly Personal Narrative. You tell a personal story with scholarly research layered in

This also transitions nicely to multimedia projects. RT @mday666: moving away from research papers to researched arguments

Yes, I do that (talk about peer rvwed versus popular) too. Although perhaps not as clearly as you do. Maybe a game? “CBS” “JAMA” Most right wins.

Reminding my students that they “use research” all the time is important. In a conversation, if you wanted to make a point you often bring in outside voices of experts or examples you saw in other media.

We do a documentary film Lots of times students find things doing that and revise those into their research papers

Yes, exactly. This is what I do in my Writing with Video course–integrate writing and video

Embedding writing associates in discipline courses can address melding discipline, research, & writing

I notice students in our Rhetoric and PW major, though, won’t do research unless “research” is in the name of the assignment.

I think they mostly arent ready to be discipline writers. They are ready to read in discipline and write back to us.

Maybe I’m the odd-one out, but I don’t think we necessarily need “discipline writing.” A good writer figures out how to insert +her/his self into the rhetoric of any given field by knowing their role as a writer, their audience, and the form.

FYC is time to learn to read/write about arguments. Later, students can see what’s missing in their field & research it.

My theory: student probs w/ writing are often probs w/ analytical thinking. Memorization has not prepared them.

Agreed, and integrating sources is a massive test of critical thinking skills.

If you can read like a writer, you can write in any discipline where you’ve learned the content enough

I think it’s very hard for those who don’t regularly write to be writing teachers. It’s easy to forget

They’re in college. End of story. It’s not supposed to be easy.

My teacher in grad Rhet/Comp class told us to write down quotes that confused us and then dissect them in writing.

Students are so use to rules that they forget the social dimension of writing.

Remember: tweetchat. If I use tweetchat, then I don’t have to type #fycchat each time. VERY useful.


Developing a New Approach to Developmental

by Dr Davis on April 18, 2011

Perhaps we need to trash developmental and start over. (For the record, I teach and love teaching developmental. I was hired to do this job and I enjoy it. I have taught developmental since I began my teaching career 27 years ago.)

Community College Dean has been thinking about this and wrote a post that I think has significant thoughtful suggestions.

At the League for Innovation conference a few weeks ago, some folks from the Community College Research Center presented some pretty compelling research that suggested several things. First, it found zero predictive validity in the placement tests that sentence students to developmental classes. Students who simply disregarded the placement and went directly into college-level courses did just as well as students who did as they were told. We’ve found something similar on my own campus. Last year, in an attempt to see if our “cut scores” were right, I asked the IR office and a math professor to see if there was a natural cliff in the placement test scores that would suggest the right levels for placing students into the various levels of developmental math. I had assumed that higher scores on the test would correlate with higher pass rates, and that the gently-slanting line would turn vertical at some discrete point. We could put the cutoff at that point, and thereby maximize the effectiveness of our program.

It didn’t work. Not only was there no discrete dropoff; there was no correlation at all between test scores and course performance. None. Zero. The placement test offered precisely zero predictive power.

Second, the CCRC found that the single strongest predictor of student success that’s actually under the college’s control — so I’m ignoring gender and income of student, since we take all comers — is length of sequence. The shorter the sequence, the better they do. The worst thing you can do, from a student success perspective, is to address perceived student deficits by adding more layers of remediation. If anything, you need to prune levels. Each new level provides a new ‘exit point’ — the goal should be to minimize the exit points.

I’m excited about these findings, since they explain a few things and suggest an actual path for action.

I think this would be something my own college could do, track success rates, and see what it means to be developmental at our school. If we have some other way of organizing, perhaps we could help it work for our students better.

My alma mater has “dropped” the two developmental courses and has a single sequence by which previously labeled developmental classes take a year-long freshman comp first semester course. This gives the teacher and the students time to ramp up the writing and helps the students feel it is worthwhile by giving college level credit for it.

Yes, there are some students who would not survive with this approach and our students at the CC may be among them, but I think it is worth considering.


Tip 50: Take Time.

by Dr Davis on April 14, 2011

Dr. Lee Skallerup and I are often on the same page. Sometimes it seems we are going through things at the same time.

My students are working on a research paper, the overview of controversy essay. In this paper the students must look at both sides of a single issue and present those two sides in a fair and even-handed way. I tell them I don’t want to know which side they support when I read this paper.

One thing that is consistently an issue, of course, is the time the students spend working on the paper.

When we begin the writing process, I tell my students it is going to take us a lot of time to write a good paper. It is why I introduce it in pieces and we do part of the drafting far ahead of the due date for the paper. I tell them that part of the reason for that is it gives them time to think about their topic a lot before they actually have to write the paper to turn in.

I had a lot of failures for plagiarism on this round of drafts. Even though the student worked on the papers and we practiced paraphrasing, they still kept the author’s words, without the requisite quotation marks. When they came in for their one-on-one conferences with me (possible only because so many have dropped), most of us have spent the whole fifteen minutes revising a single plagiarism. I tell them it takes time and they have to prepare for that.

They know that, but they haven’t done it.

Dr. Skallerup found time to be an issue for both success and failure.

I also pointed out the one important factor in their success: time. They took the time to work on their essays. The time and effort paid off, but they needed to understand that if they wanted to continue being successful in their essay writing, they needed to give themselves the time.

Learn what is the most difficult part of the writing process and start early enough to get that part done without panicking or rushing. Look at your schedule for the semester, and rather than blocking out the weekend before the essay is due, block off the one two weeks before it is due. Even if you’re not actively writing, at least plan to start thinking/reading/free writing/outlining on the topic.

Perhaps if we discuss more, as Dr. Skallerup has in her classes, how much time our work takes, they might see that we too take time and, when we don’t, that our work suffers. Modeling, after all, is one of my preferred and most successful methods of educating.


Alumni as Audience

by Dr Davis on April 8, 2011

I really like the idea presented by Cary Moskovitz of Duke University in her Chronicle of Higher Education article “Reader Experts Help Students Bring the Write Stuff.”

Even when an instructor can successfully role-play, students who have rarely composed papers for anyone other than their teachers and professors often struggle to write with any other audience in mind.

…When professors include their courses in the [Thompson Writing Program] project, their students can get comments on drafts of papers from an alumnus or employee who has relevant experience in the field, like the Coast Guard commander or the wildlife expert.

Readers are provided with instructions and examples for giving feedback in which they comment on their reactions to the students’ draft as “consumers” of the text rather than as editors or evaluators.

Nearly 300 alumni and employees have volunteered as readers, and 350 students have participated in more than 40 courses. Several courses have become regulars in the program.

This would be SOOOOO cool! It would take a lot of work to get it off the ground, but I think it would be incredibly helpful to students. I think it would be especially helpful to students at the CC level, because then they could see that their writing will impact their future and their future jobs. But I can see why it would be easier with a strong alumni group like Duke University has.

I’m going to start talking this idea up. I think it could really make a difference, even to developmental writers. Or, perhaps, especially to developmental writers.



by Dr Davis on April 6, 2011

The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing seemed appropriate and related to tonight’s tweetchat for #fycchat.

No wonder that new ways to handle the paper load, advances in efficiency in the production of response, have a long history in the teaching of college composition. The use of lay readers (called “reading assistants” at Vassar before they were phased out in 1908) may be one of the earliest, but it was only a harbinger. Here is a short list of shortcuts, with date of earliest record I can find in the post-WWII literature.

Mark only the presence of problem, leaving it up to the student to locate and correct it (1940)

Use a projector to respond to student writing in class (1942)

Use a checklist, or rubberstamped scale of criteria (1950)

Hold one-on-one conferences to respond (1946)

Have fellow students read and respond to papers (1950)

Hold one-on-two or one-on-three conferences to respond (1956)

Record comments on audiotape (1958)

Respond only to praiseworthy accomplishments (1964)

Have students evaluate their own essays (1964)

Respond only to a limited number of criteria (1965)

Have students use computerized grammar, spelling, or style checkers (1981)

Add comments to the student’s digital text with word-processing footnotes or hypertext frames (1983)

What brought me there, though, was the cartoon.


Do Students Really Know?

by Dr Davis on April 5, 2011

In a discussion of why students are failing to engage in their undergraduate education, Thomas H. Benton wrote:

[S]tudents recognize that most of the teachers with whom they have more personal contact—graduate students, adjuncts, and other part-timers—are not well regarded by their institutions. Their lack of income, benefits, and job security are an insidious advertisement for the low status of some kinds of learning. Moreover, transient faculty members can’t help your career, since they may not be around next year and their recommendations carry little weight.

I think this is an interesting observation for several reasons.

My first thought when reading this was to question whether students really know which of their professors are full-time, part-time, grad students, etc. I think that some of them might know the graduate students, but I also think that most undergraduate students don’t have any conception of the concept of professor as anything other than full-time. I know I didn’t. And even when I was in college, there were adjuncts.

As a long-time adjunct and first-year full-timer (in my second incarnation in that category), I am also interested in the idea that references can’t be procured from professors who are transient. I had not ever thought of that as an issue, but perhaps that is because I have been transient so long. I do know that I am looking for a student from a college I used to adjunct for to give him a book I had promised him. But I don’t know where he is now or how to get in touch with him. Since I am no longer on the faculty there, they are far less forthcoming about details of students.

It is true that the college where I spent my undergraduate years, a small liberal arts college, does still employ–some thirty years later–a few of the professors whom I had as an undergraduate. Most have retired, but even some of those are teaching part-time. So if I needed references from those professors, I could still obtain them.

I wonder, though, how many of my community college students will even think of professors as references. I have only had two requests in my nine years of teaching at a community college for references. I agreed to both. Only one reference had to be written and the other person’s folks never contacted me.

Perhaps the concept of “professor as reference” could be used in developmental writing classes particularly to encourage student engagement and involvement.”

Do your students know the status of their instructors?


Can Tech Teach?

by Dr Davis on March 19, 2011

My question, a burning question, is whether or not technology, even “adaptive” technology, can teach a student who does not have the basic reading and writing skills needed to succeed at college.

Here’s what I am talking about, from Inside Higher Ed:

new technologies to help usher students through to a degree, education technology companies are seeing a ripe market of potential buyers for new e-learning products — in particular, software aimed at high school graduates who lack the basic reading, writing, and math skills to succeed at the college level.

Most companies are offering variations on a theme: “adaptive” technology that learns the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and tailors its tutorials to address their needs. Unlike a traditional sequence of instructions in a learning exercise, adaptive software adjusts to how well a student appears to understand different concepts. If a student struggles to learn a skill when it is presented one way, the software will detect her confusion and present it another way. The model is highly individualized instruction, without the many instructors that would be needed to adapt to each student’s needs the old-fashioned way.

“It is similar to what Google and Netflix and other web applications are using, where they measure activity that user is doing and bringing back the data … based upon actions that you’ve taken,” says David Liu, Knewton’s chief operating officer. “Not only do we data mine all [your] activities as a student, but we also begin to understand some of the tendencies you have and compare you to cohorts that we have using the system.”

It is not a burning question because I would be out of a job if those students could use software that would help them learn. I wouldn’t. Even the companies producing this software aren’t saying that teachers would go away.

Most of the companies, after all, say their products are intended as a supplement to live counseling and instruction, not a replacement. In developmental education especially, the “blended” model — which promotes heavy instructor attention no matter how smart the software is — is still the best way to improve learning…

It’s important, though, because if it would work, why aren’t we using it like crazy? Why aren’t we doing whatever it takes to at least get the students who want to go to college up to par?

I started last semester and this semester with 75 students. Those students come, primarily, from inner city schools, a few years past high school, without reading and writing skills that will help them succeed. Often with little in terms of background education. Many times they are parents and holding down jobs while going to school.

But when the semester ends, I have half the students I started with, 40 at the most, and some of those who stuck with the class for most of the semester gave up at the end.

What is going on? How do I help them? Would a software program allow them to feel that they are making progress? Would a software program help them see where the tiny steps they are taking are moving them on the path of succeeding in higher education?

I don’t know. But I want to do something to help them. I am going to be looking into this a lot more.

Does anyone who reads here have experience with any of the programs mentioned in the article? Are they helpful?

I realize many of my students don’t have the computer skills needed for these programs. That’s a part of what I work on in my classroom. I’m prioritizing what I think will help my students most. If this will help my students, I will add it too.

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