Writers write, right? And accountants and scientists work with numbers and data, right? It turns out that’s not so clear cut.
Educators at the University of Incarnate Word recognize that many professions require the ability to write well. Attorneys must write legal briefs and affidavits, scientists must report on findings, and accountants must summarize balance sheets and craft audits. So, how can teachers across a wide variety of disciplines better teach writing well to their students?
That question became the focus of UIW’s Quality Enhancement Plan, or QEP, a special five-year initiative designed to improve an area of education identified during the university’s compilation of a 10-year comprehensive report. The report looks at about 100 standards that the university must comply with in order to earn its regional reaccreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on College (SACSCOC).
The university received its accreditation results in December and, “We passed with flying colors,” said Dr. Glenn James, associate provost for institutional effectiveness.
Part of passing was a detailed QEP, “Think, Learn and Share,” that looked at the broader issue of writing and defined a plan for how the university could offer more writing opportunities in disciplines that don’t traditionally require a lot of writing and how they could teach writing skills more effectively. UIW held a year-long campaign to identify the QEP focus area by asking everyone – students, faculty, staff, alumni and even parents – what they thought was needed, James said.
“The faculty noted that student writing needed improvement and the students observed they were not writing very much. Published articles told us that better writing is a great way to improve learning and retention,” James said. “It ends up that the more a student practices writing, the better they write, the better they learn and the more likely they are to stay in college and graduate. We expect all those pay-offs.”
Through the QEP, educators and administrators defined a three-prong approach to teach stronger writing skills, said Dr. Tanja Stampfl, associate professor of English. The Center for Teaching and Learning has intensified focus on writing-based workshops and the English department is offering all composition classes in computer labs. The composition component for the QEP is not only the labs but also monthly two-hour workshops for all composition instructors with such topics as responding to student writing, using technology in the composition classroom, and teaching in Learning Communities. But the third prong, a Writing Academy for teachers, is the most intensive, while also being cross-disciplinary, in changing how students learn stronger writing skills.
Stampfl, who is spearheading the academy, said for example that her writing composition class previously would not prepare a student for their Capstone project, or the final project in their respective disciplines. “Communication skills are always something you need,” she said. “This is not just UIW, it’s a nationwide outcry that writing needs to be improved.”
The academy is a big commitment for the first 15 cross-discipline faculty members who have signed up — it’s twice a month for three hours at a time. They represent five disciplines: philosophy, accounting, criminal justice, English and vision science/optometry. Each year, for the next four years, there will be a new cohort of teachers in the Writing Academy. For this first cohort, the fall semester was spent exploring how those in the academy could get students writing more, writing more effectively and writing more consistently across the disciplines. “Most of the time when you get an essay you get a first draft, and first drafts usually aren’t great,” she said. “You need to write regularly. You need to get feedback without getting a grade on it. You need to practice in class and reflect on the (writing of) last class.”
In the second semester of the academy, teachers are defining and implementing two strategies into their classrooms that they think will strengthen students’ writing skills. Assistant Professor Dr. Doshie Piper, who teaches criminal justice courses and is part of the first Writing Academy cohort, said employers are seeking a higher level of writing skill. And she’s seen the reasons why in her life before she began teaching. “I saw reports filled with grammatical errors and typos, reports that lacked style and structure, and lacked proof-reading skills.” And it wasn’t just lawyers, she said, it was police officers too. “I’ve seen cases dismissed because the gender was incorrect in a report. If the gender is incorrect, well then the identity must be incorrect.”
She wants her students to learn how to proofread but also the importance of proofreading. Piper said because of her real life experiences she was really interested in being a part of the Writing Academy. “I don’t want to produce students who perform badly in their profession,” Piper said. “If they don’t have the skills, it really looks bad on the institution.”
Assignments in her class now require more writing, more discussion and less fill in the blank or multiple choice.
Stampfl said the academy has changed how she teaches but also how she views herself as a professor. Now she’s more writing coach than someone who assesses students’ writing. “Instead of putting them on the bike, we tell them all about the bike, show them the bike, compare bikes, get the history of the bike, and now as a test I’m going to put you on the bike and you’re going to go down.” It takes practice, she emphasized.
By Tricia Schwennesen