This semester our National Writing Project site, the Morehead Writing Project, embarked on a new adventure. We created a Writing Studio by drafting five English Education students to serve as Peer Writers, or writing tutors, and provided support in the form of a learning community. In our pilot semester we worked with three developmental writing classes. At our institution students who score between 14 and 17 on the ACT are placed in these classes. Morehead State University offered 14 sections of this class during the Fall semester so we worked with just over 20% of the developmental writing students enrolled in English 099.
While we will not be able to determine the impact of our pilot program on retention and success until the semester is over, I am giddy about the results we have already determined. I know for the powers-that-be the ultimate success will be judged by how many students stay in school to complete a degree, but we expect to see that our three sections will have higher retention for the semester as well as a higher degree of success (earning a C or better) than other sections both for this semester and historically. How much higher we cannot know until December, but the results of a recent survey administered to the developmental students working with the Writing Studio demonstrates to me that we have had an impact in important ways.
Many developmental writing students come into the class with a negative attitude – toward writing in general, their writing in specific, and the very idea of taking this writing class. They do not want to take this class and resist the idea that they can learn to be a better writer based on their previous experience. They also come in lacking confidence in their ability to write. This trifecta of doom – a negative attitude toward writing, low confidence, and lack of ability – creates a cycle of failure that can prevent students from achieving success in college and their profession. Our goal for the Writing Studio is to break that cycle of failure.
We think we have succeeded with a number of our students as 63% of the students in our pilot study reported a change in one or more areas of attitude, confidence, or competence and another 16% reported a small change in one or more areas. We are so excited to see the students’ self-awareness increase and even more important to see that they have grown as a result of our work together. We think this is a very big deal because we know as experienced developmental writing teachers that attitude has to change before anything else can change. If students don’t believe in their own ability to change then they won’t change their behaviors or thinking. However, discovering how they have grown is even more exciting for us.
According to our survey results, 55% percent of the students reported that they now like or love writing and another 39% indicated they neither like nor dislike it. Overall, 94% do not dislike writing after working with the Writing Studio for 10 weeks. It is human nature to spend less time on an activity that you dislike and so this change in attitude will play an important role in the students’ future success. We doubt that we can make every student love writing, but believe this move away from the hate and dislike of writing is important.
Low confidence is widespread in developmental writing. Most students were apprehensive during their middle and high school careers and then placement into a developmental writing class only confirmed their existing belief. However, at the end of the Writing Studio, 37% of our students reported that they were confident about their writing ability and 44% reported that they were neither confident nor apprehensive with a total of 81% indicating that they were not apprehensive about writing. Over and over again, students noted on their surveys that they were “more confident” than at the beginning of the class. Studies have shown that students with high writing apprehension are less likely to spend much time writing and persevere through difficult writing assignments, so improving student writing confidence can also be important to their future success.
Previous experience has taught these students that they are not good writers, but they also reported that this changed as a result of their participation in the Writing Studio. When asked to rate their ability to “write a well-organized and sequenced paper with good introduction, body, and conclusion,” 37% believed they could write a good or great paper and another 53% indicated that they could do OK which indicates that 91% of the students could demonstrate competence. Our hope is that we have given these students tools that will help them continue to develop their competence as well as confidence.
We have seen evidence of many changes in behavior and thinking that indicate our students are becoming writers and developing an understanding of how writers think and act. Perhaps most telling is the simple fact that they named extra feedback as the number one benefit of the Writing Studio. Students reported enjoying the small group work and peer feedback as well as feedback they received from the instructor and peer writers. Several students indicated that this feedback was key to their growth as writers and that writers need feedback to learn and improve.
Every studio participant who completed a survey said that we should continue the program. Many simply argued that it was helpful, but those who offered more specific explanations described the small groups and opportunity for one-on-one feedback and support as key benefits.
We need to wait until the end of the semester before we determine how many of our students succeeded this semester using the simple measuring stick of grades, but for now I am more than satisfied with the results of our work. The students who worked with our Writing Studio have described changes in their attitude toward writing, their writing confidence, and their writing ability. That is success in my book. Only time will tell if we have truly broken the cycle of defeat that has plagued so many of these students in the past, but I am full of hope.