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Writing Matters

a t T e x a s A & M Un i v e r si t y
a Newsletter for Faculty Volume 3, Issue 2 Spring 2006

Virtual UWC sessions a real hit

More students turn to online lab for writing help

he next time students tell you they dont have time to get help from the University Writing Center, remind them about the Online Writing Lab. The UWCs Online Writing Lab, or OWL, is a supplement to the centers traditional face-to-face consultations. Students can submit questions about their writing online and receive an email response from a UWC consultant, typically within 24 hours. Its an ideal option for those who cant come in during regular UWC hours or those who have a quick question that wouldnt require a full session. OWL traffic is up significantly this semester, perhaps because more students are aware of the online offering and also because a software change has made the service more user friendly. These days, the OWL is powered by SupportSuite help desk software by Kayako. Originally created to provide customer service for technology companies, the software offers some key advantages over the UWCs old OWL. For one thing, it allows for live support: During regular UWC hours, students can choose to chat online with a consultant about their writing, an option that seems to be growing in popularity. In addition, the software can be configured to offer clients additional information in response to certain key words. For instance, when students type in questions about audience, the software will automatically offer them an opportunity to review UWC resources on audience awareness and analysis. Of course, that help will be an addition to

UWC peer writing consultant Mary Compton reviews a student submission to the Online Writing Lab.

the online response provided by one of the UWCs trained writing consultants, who will offer much the same kind of help online as they might in a regular face-to-face session: answering students specific questions about grammar or format, noting where a papers supporting evidence is weak, or suggesting how a lab report might be reorganized to provide clarity. The new software makes the OWL easier to use and greatly expands the range of services we can offer online, explains UWC Communications Coordinator Brady Creel. Best of all, it allows us to reach a broader segment of our stakeholders. Students who dont have time to come to the UWC still can get value from our services. Still, there are some things students wont get from the OWL, says UWC Executive Director Valerie Balester: Just as in a faceto-face consultation, our online consultants wont edit or proofread for students. We expect the students to be active participants in the process, so they can learn to look at their

own work with a more objective eye. Currently the UWC is in the process of migrating all of its informational handouts to the OWLs knowledgebase. In addition, the handouts are being revised to ensure they offer information thats up-to-date and easy to use. When UWC clients click on a

Students can choose to chat online with a consultant about their writing, an option that seems to be growing in popularity.
knowledgebase article, they have the opportunity to email it to someone, print it, create a PDF version, or add it to their favorites. In addition, the UWC can keep track of search terms and which handouts are viewed most frequently, allowing staff to augment topics as the need arises. Faculty members are invited to check out the OWL and suggest additional resources theyd like to see added. To view the OWL, click to

Their writing improved over the semester

Faculty, students alike finding that UWAs are an invaluable resource

other aspect of teaching writing, including commenting on student drafts, designing assignments and rubrics, and holding one-onone conferences. Belk met with his instructor, Assistant Professor Julie Newman, early in the semester to learn more about her goals for the class. He also attends some of the class aving an Undergraduate Writing sessions to get a sense of the stu- Undergraduate Writing Assistant John Belk Assistant (UWA) assigned to your dents needs. My job, Belk explains, is to course is like having your own permake sure the instructor gets the sonal writing center. At least thats how John Belk, an under- writing she expects from the stugraduate majoring in history and English, sees dents. I do everything I can so she it. Having undergone training at the Univer- wont have to look at papers and sity Writing Center, Belk is now working as a be disappointed. Having a UWA assigned to UWA in the Department of Geology & Geotheir course gives students a rare opportunity ing on campus; several more are in training, physics. including one graduate student. Senior Tara The UWA program is a pilot offering from to get very specific feedback. I try my best to tailor all of my comments McGuigan is now in her second semester of the UWC that trains talented undergraduates like Belk to work directly with W course to what the professor wants, Belk says, noting work as a UWA. Assigned to a forest policy instructors. Although UWAs cant grade as- that most of the students he has worked with class last semester, she helped revise prompts, signments, they can help with just about any this semester seem pleased with how much helped develop outlines for papers, met with students, offered written comments, and provided online help and guidelines to the class regarding what the instructor expected. One of the advantages of the UWAs, notes McGuigan, is that theyre less intimidating than a professor, so students may be more likely to seek out extra help. Associate Professor Diana Burton, the instructor for whom McGuigan worked, thinks students were fortunate to have her expertise. Most students who worked with Tara benefited a great deal from her guidance, says Barton. Their writing improved over the semester. McGuigan, who plans to teach high school after graduation, thinks that kind of improvement is what the UWA program is all about. UWAs, McGuigan believes, dont just want students to make a good grade in the class; we want them to use what weve taught them in other classes and, more important, in their future careers. If youre interested in nominating a UWA Undergraduate Writing Assistant Christine Philip, left, teaches two students how to conduct research candidate or having a UWA assist with a W using the librarys databases and online research tools. Philip, a senior biomedical engineering major, is course youre teaching, contact Dr. Valerie Balester at a second-semester UWA and is working in a W course in the Department of Industrial Engineering.

better their papers sound. At first, though, the students didnt realize what a great resource Belk could be, observes Newman, who took matters into her own hands. I made it mandatory for one-third of the students to work with John and one-third of the students to work with me for the last assignment, Newman says. These one-on-one conferences were clearly helpful and led to more significant improvement than simply editing their work and requiring a second draft. Having a writing assistant, therefore, increases the number of students who can be reached in this way. Belk is currently one of 21 UWAs work-

My job is to make sure the instructor gets the writing she expects from students.

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From the Director I

n January a headline in the BryanCollege Station Eagle heralded disturbing results from a study of the literacy skills of graduating college seniors, declaring them Close to Graduation, Far from Competent. The study, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found that more than 50 percent of students at four-year colleges do not score at the proficient level of literacy. In other words, more than half of the college graduates poised to enter our workforce lack the skills to perform complex literacy tasks, such as comparing credit card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the arguments of newspaper editorials. The National Commission on Writing (NCW) has equally troubling news. Their recent research indicates that business and government leaders find college graduates unprepared to write on the job, prompting employers to spend millions annually on additional training. Do these national studies reflect the situation at Texas A&M? In a 1999 report of focus groups conducted with Texas business leaders and educators, all of the groups interviewed considered graduates of Texas A&M University System schools deficient in written communication skills. These results, along with faculty complaints about the poor quality of student writing, prompted the call for writing-intensive courses at the College Station campus. Part of the problem may be that students at Texas A&M are simply not getting enough writing experience. Consider the results of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). According to Mark Troy of Measurement and Evaluation Services, the 2005 NSSE results show that 42 percent of TAMU freshmen and 18 percent of TAMU seniors have written no papers of 5-19 pages. The percentages for freshmen and seniors at other doctoral-extensive universities are 14 percent and 10 percent respectively. While expecting students to write more is an important step, it wont solve the whole problem. How we teach writWriting Matters
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Dr. Valerie M. Balester, executive director of the University Writing Center and an associate professor of English, notes that recent research conrms what employers have been saying: Todays students need more writing practice, the kind that W courses can provide because students learn to write in their areas of expertise.

ing must also change. The NCW recommends not only that time spent teaching writing should be doubled, but that writing should also be taught across the curriculum. Instead of reviewing grammar or drilling students on format, writing instruction, says the NCW, should help students stretch their minds and sharpen their analytical capabilities. The AIR study likewise notes that literacy is significantly higher among students who say their coursework places a strong emphasis on applying theories or concepts to practical problems, a finding which again supports the idea that the most effective writing instruction is done in the disciplines and asks students to apply their knowledge. As demands for literacy escalate, Texas A&M graduates are barely keeping pace. In developing writing-intensive courses, we must remain mindful of what students today require: the fostering of critical thinking, critical reading, and

critical writing, and practice with complex analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and problem solving. We hope our students will learn the ways of using language appropriate to the professional communities they eventually plan to join, and that they will adopt the common language

As demands for literacy escalate, Texas A&M graduates are barely keeping pace. We must remain mindful of what students today require.
practices we as academics value: integrity, careful reasoning, clarity, accuracy, and eloquence. Dr. Valerie M. Balester Executive Director University Writing Center For links to the studies mentioned in this article, click to http://writingcenter.

Talking tech
Writing prof gives candid advice
hen it comes to giving advice on how to teach a writing intensive course, Mike Palmquist doesnt mince words. I think its a waste of time to just add a research paper at the end of a course and call it a W course, Palmquist says bluntly. Palmquist, a professor of English and a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado State University, is the author of several widely used writing textbooks and the co-director of the Center for Research on Writing and Communication Technology. He visited Texas A&M recently to present a workshop on his leading academic interest: the interplay between writing and technology. He also met with the UWC staff to share ideas about using technology both Mike Palmquist, Colorado. State Univ. to improve student writing and to ease instructors workloads. During his trip to College Station, Palmquist sat down for an interview with Writing Matters, during which we asked what kind of advice hed share with instructors who find themselves teaching their first writing-intensive course. It was then that he expressed his disdain for the term-end research paper. He objects to that time-honored writing assignment on several grounds. For one thing, [the research paper] is a lot of work for you, because youve got a lot of pages to grade, Palmquist observes. For another thing, if it just comes at the end of the course, its not necessarily going to be effective at helping students learn things. Its going to be more of a

I think its a waste of time to just add a research paper at the end of a course and call it a W course.

demonstration project for them. Palmquist instead encourages instructors to think not about how to integrate writing into their courses, but rather how to get students more deeply engaged with the subject matter. In that way, writing becomes simply a useful vehicle for achieving a larger goal: fostering critical thinking. Over time Palmquist has come to think of writing as a way of engaging with the conversations of the discipline. And thats where he sees a pivotal role for technology. For instance, in an upper division course, Palmquist might find out what topic within the discipline the students find especially interesting. Then, rather than have them simply read about that topic, he might ask them to join a listserv or a discussion forum where they can become part of the community and see ideas unfold. Then youve got students talking to each other about ideas, Palmquist says, and the result is they push themselves to higher levels. Palmquist also has surprising ideas about how to succeed with a writing-in-the-disciplines program, such as Texas A&Ms W course initiative. He encourages W course instructors to avoid the idea that youre doing this solely for the good of your students. Rather, he believes instructors need to remember they are teaching courses to achieve certain goals that are set up by the university as a whole, so its important for instructors to be clear on the reasons behind the initiative. A university writing initiative isnt just about making students better at grammar, or better at being clear writers, claims Palmquist, its about trying to reach the goals that youve set up as a community. For some universities the goal behind a writing program is creating a well-rounded student, while other universities want to improve writing instruction in order to
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help students communicate effectively in their chosen field, whether those students are entering the work force or staying in academia. Those goals are quite different and may result in very different choices in terms of curriculum. Palmquist says its also important for instructors to reflect on their own pedagogical goals. For him, fostering critical thinking is always the top priority. I want my studentsregardless of what class Im teachingto think critically about the course, he states, adding that its not enough for students to know the material. I want them to question it. Then, Palmquist contends, as students begin to write about a topic, they find theyre forced to articulate their knowledge. If you cant write about a subject, you dont really know it very well. You might know it well enough to identify the appropriate response on a multiple choice exam, but you might not know it well enough to explain it to somebody else or to develop a plan for dealing with a problem. When asked if he has advice for instructors using new technologies in teaching, Palmquist quotes the familiar advice that an instructor should always put pedagogical goals first and employ technology only to support those aims. Then he promptly announces, I dont believe that anymore. The reason for his change of heart is

his growing awareness of how new technologies open up new possibilities. As an example, he points to the increased use of collaborative work in the classroom, noting that new technologies make that much easier to accomplish. Likewise, he says that some instructors may now feel less need to do traditional peer response exercises, because they can let students create a blog and get feedback from an even wider audience. Of course, with the rapid pace of technological advances, its hard for instructors to stay even one step ahead of their students, but that doesnt concern him. I dont worry that my students might know more about things than I do, Palmquist says without hesitation. He points to the example of a course he taught recently about writing for the Web. Many of his students in the course worked in corporate settings where they were exposed to ideas new to Palmquist, who says he was happy to embrace the idea of learning alongside his students. If youre a teacher, you know the content and you know what you want to accomplish, he explains. If your students can add to the richness of how you accomplish it, thats great. Mike Palmquist can be reached at mike. For a tour of the Writing Studio he developed, click to

CSUs Palmquist says technology gives students new audience awareness

Dr. Palmquists presentation gave faculty historical context about the technology that has revolutionized teaching. One of the important parts, he says, is dening goals for technology use.
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pen up the world to your students. Thats one key piece of advice offered by Colorado State University Professor Mike Palmquist during his recent workshop at Texas A&M entitled Click on This: E-Resources to Enhance Writing Instruction. For Palmquist, a professor of English who has been teaching with computers since the mid 1980s, one of technologys great benefits to students is that it allows them to contribute to real-life discussions that would never COMING THIS SPRING have been accessible to Look for a podcast of them without the In- Dr. Mike Palmquists UWC interview later ternet. Palmquist says this semester on the having students join UWC Web site. listservs or discussion forums allows them to expand their awareness of the dialogues at the heart of their academic discipline. Some of the faculty at the workshop questioned Palmquist about the decidedly unacademic tone of such discussions, but Palmquist sees an unexpected upside to that informality, as it challenges students notions of what it means to write. Students who might be intimidated by more formal writing get so engaged in their online conversations for a class that they often dont even realize that theyre writing. Contributing to online forums can also help make students aware of the importance of audience. As Palmquist sees it, The best thing we can do for young writers is help them understand audience and situation. Palmquist also urges instructors to harness technology to streamline their own teaching process. During the workshop, he introduced participants to the classroom management system he designed. Called The Writing Studio, it differs from offerings like WebCT, because its centered not on specific courses but on student writers and their work. Its a seemingly subtle shift of focus that allows the site to function as a repository for the work of both students and instructors. Palmquist also hopes the site will infuse the writing classroom with the creative energy of an art studio, where students are actively engaged with their work.

Faculty Spotlight W
ord travels fast on the Texas A&M campus in Galveston. Just ask Joan Mileski, an associate professor in the Department of Maritime Administration. Students who took Mileskis W course last year found that recruiters were impressed by Galveston students writing skills. And it didnt take long for those students peers to find out that W courses were paying off for grads in the job market. Industry has become aware that we are doing this, Mileski said of the W courses. The students groan and moan when taking the course, but they come back and say that it was really valuable. Writing skills are a top priority for maritime firms looking to hire, Mileski and her colleagues recently learned after the department conducted a survey of industry executives. The response was, We dont care about jargon just let them write well, Mileski said. That expectation applies both to students ability to write alone and their ability to collaborate and write in teams, she said. So Mileski, whose research is on international management, takes those industry needs into consideration in teaching her W course on the economics of transportation, MARA 424. Much of her students learning is based on case studies real-world practicum about economic issues facing maritime transportation. Because of that, Mileski said, her goals for W courses go beyond the expectations of the curriculum. She is trying to meet the needs of the maritime industry through her teaching. Our concern is, are these students up to speed when they walk out the door? To that end, her message to students is this: Were writing and thinking at a higher level were not just memorizing facts anymore. Mileskis colleague William McMullen, agrees. Life is not multiple choice, he said. McMullen, interim head of the maritime administration and maritime transportation departments, teaches a W course in strategic management, MARA 466, with the philosophy that good writing is strongly linked to good thinking. Having to write well spills over into hav-

Faculty members (left to right) Joan Mileski, William McMullen and Joselito Estrada are teaching 400-level W courses in maritime administration and maritime transportation at Texas A&Ms campus in Galveston. They are encouraged by their industrys positive response to the writing skills their students are taking into jobs.

ing to think well, he said. And I think teaching writing, and they have begun the dialogue between the teacher and to consider ways to assess the progress of students over time. What they do know, the student improves in that sense. Part of what McMullen wants stu- though, is that students need more writdents to think about is who their audi- ing practice and they need it earlier in ence is. He wants them to realize that their undergraduate careers. McMullen said he is an advocate for when they graduate and go to work, there will be a high value on their ability making writing education part of the early curriculum, even if informally, because to communicate outside the industry. Sometimes it sounds like they are students are ill-prepared for upper-level talking to each other in code, McMullen rigors of thinking and writing critically. said of his students use of industry jargon. Its like William McMullen, TAMU Galveston were sitting in a meeting at the Pentagon. So my question to the students is: What if you were writing for a music major? McMullen said he has learned that he must impart his expectations to his students and that students gener- Students seem to share that sentiment ally perform better when goals are made with their instructors, Mileski said. In the feedback were getting from clear. We are concerned about how you say it not just what you say, he said. the students, they want to know, Why We must tell students that good writing didnt you tell me about all this stuff is important. sooner? Mileski said. In the long run, Given that, the faculty ask themselves: she adds, Galveston will establish a culIs the writing getting better? Time will ture of writing that students can expect tell, but Mileski and McMullen are and appreciate. It will no longer be a confident they are on the right path in matter of Why am I doing this?

Having to write well spills over into having to think well. And I think the dialogue between the teacher and the student improves in that sense.

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Teaching Tips
Situation Critical: Good thinking can come from better writing

riting is often regarded as a highly useful tool for developing students critical thinking skillsand rightly sobut assigning more writing isnt in and of itself enough to improve students critical acumen. To foster critical thinking, instructors need to keep cognitive goals in mind at every step of the teaching process. The term critical thinking has been variously defined by researchers, but in general refers to careful, judicious thinking that questions the relevance of facts, the validity of sources, and the logic of conclusions. Critical thinkers can identify patterns, apply information, draw conclusions, and make recommendationsin short, the abilities expected of college graduates. When planning writing tasks for a course, instructors need to consider what kind of thinking the work asks of students. It may be helpful to refer to Blooms taxonomy, the well-known categorization of thinking skills that identifies six levels of cognitive tasks in order of increasing difficulty: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Each level lends itself to distinct kinds of writing assignments. Knowledge At this level, instructors expect students to recall information or demonstrate understanding of a subjects key components. Most short answer and multiple-choice tests focus on this level of cognition. A typical writing assignment might ask students in a psychology class to explain the stages of emotional development in children or ask students in a science class to describe the process of DNA duplication. Comprehension This level asks students to take their knowledge and order or classify it. The traditional compare and contrast essay is often a standard demonstration of comprehension. Students in an economics course could be asked to compare two economic theories. At this level,

the instructor would expect only a factual comparison, not an evaluation of the theories relative merits. Application This cognitive step requires students to use knowledge in new circumstances. For instance, an instructor in an education class might ask students to write a paper demonstrating how a particular educational model could be used in a specific classroom setting. Students at this level of thought begin to see real world uses for their learning. Analysis At this stage, students recognize patterns and look for evidence. In a structural engineering class, students might be expected to write a report explaining what went wrong with a building that collapsed. At this stage students begin to explain phenomena and ideas. Synthesis As students move to this level, which is sometimes seen as equal in complexity to the next stage, they draw on knowledge from diverse sources to draw conclusions and predict outcomes. In a crop sciences class, an instructor might introduce a reading about how a certain species of non-native plant adapted to the Texas Gulf coast region and then ask students to speculate about how the same species might adapt to the coastal plain of Virginia. At this level, theres greater emphasis on generalizing knowledge. Evaluation Finally, at this level students are asked to look for bias or subjectivity in information and put forth a position of their own. A typical assignment in a marketing class might ask students to compare two marketing strategies for a new product and argue which is more likely to be effective. Or a medical student might be asked to review relevant research and argue for how often doctors should recommend certain routine health screenings. Students at this level can contend with questions that have no clear-cut answers. When working to encourage students

critical thinking skills, instructors should remember that the best assignments work in sequence, meeting students where they are and building from there. For instance, at the beginning of the semester, the instructor might ask for several brief (perhaps ungraded) assignments that ask students to demonstrate comprehension of the reading and lecture material. The responses can help an instructor gauge where students are in their intellectual development. Additional assignments can progress from that point. Most of the recommendations for teaching writing dovetail nicely with the recommendations for fostering critical thinking. For instance, most composition theorists suggest abandoning research papers in favor of more real-world assignments. Such assignments are a natural for students at the third stage of development, application, which asks them to use knowledge in new contexts. Likewise, the multiple drafts touted as a best practice for teaching of writing, lend themselves to improving critical reasoning because they give instructors repeated opportunities to redirect students thinking, using questions, for instance, to encourage them to dig deeper. Similarly, when using peer response, instructors can direct students to move beyond proofreading to question the effectiveness of the evidence their peers offer or analyze the appropriateness of the piece for its intended audience. Finally, instructors might ask students to reflect on their own learning. When students hand in an assignment, instructors can ask them to describe their writing experience: What did they find difficult? What did they do well? What would they do differently next time? Do they have any questions about the material? At first, students may see this assignment as little more than an opportunity to offer up excuses, but eventually they come to see writing about the writing as a chance for genuine dialogue, not only with the instructor but also with themselves. After all, a critical eye should also be able to look inward. For links to resources about critical thinking skills relationship to writing, click to

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Call for W award nominees

The UWC is currently accepting nominations for the second annual University Writing Center Teaching Award. The $3,000 prize will be given to a W course instructor who approaches the teaching of writing with both a spirit of innovation and a commitment to excellence. W course instructors (those with an approved W course that has been taught in at least one semester) may be nominated by colleagues, departments, or colleges. Instructors may also nominate themselves. Applications should include: a letter of nomination explaining the instructors contribution to the development of W courses in the college or department; a syllabus demonstrating the integration of writing into the course; a statement by the nominee about the motivation for the course, as well as a discussion of the courses successes and shortcomings; and samples of student writing including instructor feedback. A faculty committee will select the winner. Nominations are due to the Center for Teaching Excellence on or before Aug. 18. Click to faculty/teachingaward for more information about the award, the application process, and a profile of the first winner.

Writing Matters
a Newsletter for Faculty
(979) 458-1455 voice (979) 458-1466 fax 1.214 Sterling C. Evans Library 5000 TAMU College Station, TX 77843 Dr. Valerie M. Balester Executive Director Nancy Vazquez Editor Brady Creel Designer

Faculty workshop on grammar slated for July

UWC offers training in response to faculty requests for advice, help
The UWCs third annual summer faculty workshop will focus on teaching grammar and punctuation. Titled What We Have in Comma: Trials and Tribulations of Teaching and Grading Grammar, the workshop will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 28 at the Bright Complex overlooking Kyle Field. UWC Executive Director Valerie Balester selected grammar and punctuation as a topic in response to faculty interest. Balester said instructors are often frustrated by the number of grammar and punctuation errors they encounter in student papers but are unsure how to respond to them. Correcting every student error is timeconsuming and typically futile, Balester explains, so well explore some more effective and less labor-intensive ways of addressing errors. Its important that our students learn the conventions of usage in academic and professional writing. Following those conventions helps establish common ground with readers, and thats crucial to effective writing. Sometimes, though, instructors themselves dont fully understand the rules of grammar, or theyre confused because conventions change over time. Some of us learned not to split infinitives or end sentences with a preposition, notes Balester, but as those rules fall out of favor, were no longer sure what constitutes an error. This workshop will address some of those questions. To register for the workshop, click to

Texas A&M University Writing Center 1.214 Sterling C. Evans Library College Station, TX 77843-5000