|Colleagues Committed to Redesign (C2R)
University of West Alabama
Course Title: Written English
Status: This project was part of Round II of NCAT's FIPSE-funded Colleagues Committed to Redesign (C2R) program, 2008 – 2009. Participants conducted a pilot of their redesign plans in fall 2008. In the C2R program, NCAT’s role was to introduce the course redesign methodology to participating institutions, assist them in developing project plans and work with them through the pilot period. NCAT was not involved in full implementation; consequently, the project’s status beyond the pilot period is unknown. For more information, contact the project contact listed above.
The University of West Alabama (UWA) plans to redesign Written English, the first course in the freshman composition sequence. The course enrolls ~475 students annually in 19 sections of 25 students each. The course is traditionally taught as a modes-based writing course, emphasizing a variety of basic rhetorical strategies such as description, narration, comparison/contrast and process.
The course suffers numerous academic problems. Students typically do not bring college-level writing skills. Teaching grammar and basic skills must be done at the expense of writing and critical-thinking activities. With classes filled to capacity, it is difficult for instructors to provide one-on-one instruction or assistance. Significant weight must be given to in-class writing, sometimes under timed conditions, to ensure academic honesty rather than the desired “writing as a process” approach. The structure of the course is dated, especially in its under-utilization of technology. There is a pattern of consistently high failure rates: 36% in 2004-2005 and 37% in the two subsequent academic years.
The course will be redesigned using the Replacement Model with an emphasis on activities outside of the traditional classroom. Quality circles will be implemented, modeled on those developed at Florida International University . Section size will increase from 25 to 30 students. Each section will be divided into three learning teams on the first day of class. Each team will meet with the instructor once a week for mini-lectures and to go over workshop drafts. Each team will be assigned to a supervised computer lab for two hours to work on a variety of participatory, technology-centered activities such as grammar and mechanics exercises, research, drafting and peer reviewing. An adjunct or lab assistant will supervise the lab sessions, assisting the students as needed. A peer tutoring system will be initiated in Year 2 of the redesign using English Language Arts majors.
The quality of the student learning experience will be enhanced by engaging students in participatory, interactive learning activities and increased interaction with the instructor. The small, intensive classroom sessions will enable the instructor to give more individual attention to students than was possible in the traditional 25-student sections. Moving grammar and mechanics exercises online will allow students to work on drafts in class. Instructors will serve as facilitators of the learning process, as tutors and writing consultants rather than as lecturers. Plagiarism and cheating will be eliminated.
UWA’s assessment plan will compare student performance in parallel sections, two traditional and two redesigned, during fall 2008. Common topics will be assigned for their diagnostic and final essays. The quality of their writing will be compared over the course of the semester. Specific outcomes including DFW rates, class attendance, and grade distribution will also be compared, and a student survey will be administered. Students will then be tracked through the second composition course offered in spring 2009.
UWA will reduce costs by changing the mix of personnel teaching the course. The number of full-time professors will be reduced from five to two, and the number of lecturers will be increased from five to seven. Section size will grow from 25 to 30, and the number of sections will decrease from 19 to 16. The cost-per-student will be reduced by 16%, from $248 to $209. The savings will be used to move faculty resources to program building, particularly in the graduate program.
Students in the redesigned pilot courses performed significantly better that those in the traditional sections in terms of the chief assessment instrument—a diagnostic essay administered early in the term and a final essay based on the same diagnostic writing prompt. Significant improvement was seen in both form and content. Improved student learning was also detected in terms of development and detail: final essays in the pilot courses were longer, more specific and more logically organized on the whole than those in the traditional courses.
Student grammar skills in the pilot courses were successfully strengthened by frequent use of The Everyday Writer grammar exercise program and by instructor-designed grammar quizzes administered in the lab via Blackboard.
Significant improvement in the pilot sections’ retention rate was also demonstrated. In the two traditional sections the failure rate was 47.5% and 52% respectively. These figures generally reflect the high failure rate in Written English I (which has hovered in the 36% range over four preceding academic years but has been known to spike to over 40% on occasion). The failure rate in the pilot sections was 24% and 11% respectively. The average failure rate for the two pilot courses, then, was 17.5%--well below the course average of 36+%.
Assessment is ongoing in terms of how well the students who successfully completed the pilot courses perform in subsequent writing intensive classes. The team is tracking the students from the pilot sections in order to gauge their success in Written English II.
The pilot program was undertaken with the full awareness that existing lab facilities were not sufficient to accommodate all Written English I students during the course of a semester. Moreover, classroom space is severely limited, and the feasibility of combining sections or dramatically raising section size beyond a cap of thirty is simply not possible at present. New buildings are scheduled to come online in fall 2010. At that time, full implementation of the redesign will be possible. In the meantime, the department aims to continue to refine and expand the redesign by offering four sections in fall 2009 while offering two or three traditional sections.
Pedagogical Improvement Techniques
What techniques contributed most to improving the quality of student learning?
Redesigned composition pedagogy. The traditional version of Written English I requires students to produce seven or more essays over the course of a sixteen-week semester. In the redesign pilot, the class became a series of workshops devoted to only four major essays along with a final single-draft essay that served as both a final exam and an assessment instrument. With fewer required essays, the students were allowed to revise through multiple drafts—drafts that were reviewed at several stages by the lead instructor, by peer reviewers and by the lab assistant. Fewer essays translated into better essays as each writing project evolved as a revision-oriented process over several weeks rather than just a few days as in the traditional course.
Revised reading content. The required novel used in the traditional course was dropped in favor of two short stories to allow for closer focus on the literary texts and to allow the students to become more comfortable with the literary analysis form by writing two such analyses. The standard rhetoric reader for the course was replaced by topical essays from publications such as The Atlantic. Students in the pilot sections were challenged with readings that typically moved beyond the level expected of them in the traditional course. The readings were made accessible electronically, which reduced textbook costs for the students significantly.
Computer lab grammar sessions. Grammar in the traditional course has been taught in a prescriptive fashion, with grammar quizzes and homework being typical features. The redesigned pilot, however, made grammar a largely self-taught component of the course through extensive use of grammar software programs such as The Everyday Writer, open-use online grammar tutorials and Blackboard-administered grammar quizzes. The lab sessions were frequently devoted to grammar, whereas classroom sessions focused on writing or discussions of the readings. Students were required to pass the Blackboard quizzes with a near perfect score before they could receive credit for the assignment and proceed to other course projects. Students were thus urged to take more responsibility for their own learning than in the traditional courses, and indeed, student learning in the field of grammar showed improvement in the pilot sections.
Most students saw the lab sessions as an opportunity to get much of their work done in class with tutorial assistance. A team member assigned to observe the lab sessions noted the high degree of focus during these sessions. Students in the lab remained on task consistently throughout the term, in part because lab sessions were structured and carefully monitored. Course evaluations also indicated high levels of student satisfaction with the lab sessions and the individualized attention.
Cost Reduction Techniques
What techniques contributed most to reducing costs?
Increased section enrollment. Increasing section size from the standard cap of 25 to 30 students in the two pilot sections, coupled with a slight increase in enrollment (26 to 27) in the traditional sections essentially eliminated the need for a tenth section of Written English I during the pilot phase.
Mix of personnel. One tenured professor and one lecturer were charged with teaching the two pilot sections. Full implementation will place the teaching of these sections more fully in the hands of lecturers.
Utilization of lab space. Efficient utilization of classroom space was realized through a much increased use of the departmental computer lab, which otherwise goes largely unused for instructional purposes. This cost savings, not anticipated before the pilot program was implemented, will only increase with the wider implementation of the redesigned course.