University of Vermont

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Revising First-Year Writing

Pilot group prepares to make recommendations to General Education Committee

VonDoepp's TAP course
Professor Peter VonDoepp works with first-year students Barbora Zvarova and Ian O'Shaughnessy before his TAP class, "Comparative Political Systems." (Photo: Ben Sarle)

In late October, crowded around a table in John Dewey Lounge, a group gathered to talk about their assignments. "I'm used to lab reports, structure," said one, but this kind of writing was proving to be more of a challenge. Another commiserated, acknowledging his unsure footing with this kind of work. They weren't students hashing out expectations for a shared course; they were professors, working on the best way to teach writing to their first-year students.

The first-year writing pilot program, launched in the spring of this year, pulls together more than a dozen faculty from across the disciplines, along with a few students, to examine how foundational skills like writing, critical reading, and information literacy can be taught more cohesively and effectively to UVM students in their first year of college. Up for consideration by the group, tasked with the effort by the university's General Education Committee, are the three existing courses that most prominently deal with these skills: English 1, Honors College 85 and the College of Arts and Science's Teacher-Advisor Program (TAP) courses.

The group is probing to what extent each of these courses are able to incorporate four foundational and information literacy goals: providing students with a variety of assigned writing; the skills to make appropriate choices about their writing depending on genre, field or occasion; the ability to evaluate and respond to ideas from a variety of sources; and an opportunity to compose and revise texts so that ideas grow in complexity and effectiveness.

To tackle this, the group convened over the summer to work on revisions of their own -- overhauling their existing courses to incorporate these goals more explicitly. Leading the effort, and providing expertise in composition and rhetoric along the way, is English Professor Nancy Welch, who is working via regular meetings with pilot faculty Taylor Sacco and Jenny Grosvenor, who teach English 1; Lisa Schnell, representing faculty who teach Honors College 85; and Deborah Blom, Becky Miller, Deb Noel, and Peter VonDoepp, who teach TAP courses in anthropology, biology, English and political science.

Welch says she chose these faculty by considering who across these courses had already worked with UVM's Writing Center or the Writing in the Disciplines Program. "I wanted to be sure I chose people who had a real interest in writing,"she explains, "but who also (given the subjects of their courses) presented a real test -- could we actually make this happen?"


Peter VonDoepp, who this semester is teaching his revised TAP course "Comparative Political Systems," says he was interested in the effort because of a perennial struggle with how to deal with writing in his political science courses. Even though two three-page papers means assigning himself 600 pages of reading and grading for his largest course alone, he's devoted to assigning writing each semester in every class.

Joining the pilot program was an effort, he says, "to have other faculty interrogate what I was doing in my writing assignments and develop a kind of knowledge base about how to structure writing assignments." Around that table in John Dewey Lounge, VonDoepp feels camaraderie with colleagues outside of the English Department who are also struggling to teach writing within the framework of classes that must also cover non-composition content. From conversations with the larger group, as well as smaller sessions with Welch, VonDoepp says he's picked up strategies for teaching these foundational skills that a professor without a background in rhetoric and composition might not otherwise have.

For example, VonDoepp now employs a technique Welch recommended: recording comments rather than writing them on a paper. "What that requires of students," he explains, "is for them to listen first and then receive their grade at the end," instead of scanning a paper for the grade and tuning out the rest. He's also using "scaffolding": class time devoted to walking students, step by step, through the process of preparing to write a paper. Additionally, he'll sometimes ask students to submit a quick bullet list of revision ideas for a paper he's graded, which encourages students to understand and synthesize his feedback.  

"I used to be very directive in my comments: rephrase this sentence this way. And then the students would rephrase the sentence that way," he laughs. The new techniques require more of the students, a level of engagement not possible with more didactic methods.

"I think this has been very rewarding in terms of the way I feel about what I'm doing, and in terms of what I intend to incorporate in the future," he says. "I'll be curious what the students have to say."


Assessing the success of these revisions is the next step of the process for the pilot group, which also includes faculty members Daisy Benson, Libraries; Jackie Weinstock and Cynthia Reyes, College of Education; Bill Mierse, College of Arts and Sciences; Thomas Patterson, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Alison Pechenick, College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences; and undergraduate writing tutors Hannah Prescott and Antonia David.

In late November and early January they'll begin the work of combing through student assessments, their own reflections on their courses, and complete sets of writing from up to four students, randomly chosen, from each of the 12 pilot sections. With this data, they'll determine which of the four goals were met and which were least represented. Next spring, they'll report back to the General Education Committee the results of their efforts, informing that group on the best way to ensure all UVM students have a strong start on writing, reading and research and what would be necessary to achieve that.

"Regardless of what happens with the recommendations of this pilot project," Welch says, "we want to keep emphasizing that there are some critical skills and orientations that students need in their first year, regardless of their high school experiences or their SAT scores." While high school, she says, focuses on developmentally appropriate writing tasks like reporting and describing, "the university is about discovering and making new knowledge, and there are a certain set of foundational skills and orientations that are involved in that that are very different from what high school involves."

The task for faculty, she says, is about "realizing that the kinds of things we have learned to do as scholars, writers, critical thinkers -- there are a lot of complex steps within it. There's so much that's not visible to students, and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to make these skills, approaches, orientations, visible to them."

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