In November we talked about her experiences in the summer WID workshops and the work she’s been doing since with writing in the courses she teaches. I asked Kang why someone with her level of expertise in education might be interested in a workshop on teaching writing. Kang said, “I’m always looking for ways to improve my teaching and I also really enjoy working with colleagues from other units. These kinds of gatherings raise the potential for cross-unit collaboration and it’s great to hear what’s common across disciplines and explore ways to better scaffold writing instruction across an undergraduate’s time here. ”
She also shared that despite her expertise in science education, she has had little training on teaching academic writing to undergraduate students. She was interested in some clarification and validation about how she was approaching writing in her classes and sought further insight into how the best practices in other disciplines might apply specifically to writing instruction. She noted that it was reassuring to see how some “best practices are best practices” across the different domains of teaching–so that things like the importance of being very clear with students about expectations can translate into writing more precise and detailed writing prompts.
Kang had an opportunity to apply some ideas from the WID workshops in two courses, one of which, a summer CSTEP course (College Science and Technology Entry Program) commenced immediately after the the workshops. The CSTEP class for incoming freshman STEM majors from underserved districts is part of a summer bridge program for graduating high school seniors to help them prepare for the academic rigors of college. While in the past this course was a no-credit course, students enrolled this year will receive college credit for the first time. This course focuses explicitly on developing writing and reading skills within the STEM disciplines. Students work on academic literacy development while investigating a local environmental issue and ultimately argue and defend their ideas about this issue in a research paper.
Kang has designed an exciting research-based opportunity for her summer students, with a focus on the nitrification of Long Island waters. An excess of nitrogen, due in part to discharge from wastewater treatment plants and fertilizer run-off, initiates a cycle that ultimately reduces the oxygen levels in the water, affecting the habitat for fish and other wildlife in the sounds and bays of Long Island. The course includes field trips where students collect data on water quality and observe the marine ecosystem on boats and kayaks, allowing them to investigate nitrification firsthand in order to write about it and propose potential solutions. This is in keeping with Kang’s philosophy that students tend to be more motivated to write about an issue when they’ve personally experienced it for themselves.
For this writing assignment, Kang applied WID workshop suggestions to refine her writing prompt to make it “crystal clear.” She asked students to define an audience for their writing and also to choose a purpose–either focusing on analysis of data or a literature review of a nitrification-related issue. She gave them a structure for the paper, breaking it down into parts and letting them know what should be in each part.
Another concern she had coming into the workshop was the question of whether one should provide students with exemplars, to allow them to see good examples of the kinds of writing she was asking of them. Like many faculty, Kang was torn about providing exemplars, anticipating that student’s writing products might adhere too closely to the examples given. The discussion in the workshop emphasized that one of the ways people become effective writers is by emulating examples, particularly for students who are learning how to write in a style and/or a genre that may be unfamiliar to them. Kang said that after the workshop, she felt validation to use exemplars throughout this course, to good effect.
Kang indicated that the refinements she made to her writing prompt also made a more focused peer review process possible. She was able to give her students more structured supports during peer review: what to look for and how to respond to one another’s work. Students received suggestions like: “Find the evidence in the paper that supports a particular point,” or “if you were to create an outline of this person’s paper, what would it look like?”
Kang also expressed gratitude for the two “gifted” Writing Assistants, Richard Sejour and Gurpinder Kaur, from the Adelphi Writing Assistants program (led by Michael Matto, the Writing Program Director) who helped with the CSTEP course. She says she used the Writing Assistants more than ever this time, breaking the class into thirds so that each student got to meet with either her, or a Writing Assistant, three times during the class. Her advice to faculty colleagues is, “When offered the opportunity to have a Writing Assistant in your class: take it!”
In terms of outcomes, Kang, who has taught this course four times before, said that most students did a lot better, though some still struggled. It’s a very condensed two-week course and some students felt crunched for time at the end. Several students wrote to her afterwards stating it was a valuable learning experience. Kang said, “It’s the nature of writing that you write to learn–the writing assignments helped them process the scientific information they learned. Something I’m still working on is supporting those students who have a lot to say content-wise but are struggling with expressing it through academic language.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Kang added, “What I would love to see moving forward, organizationally, is the development of a university-wide set of writing benchmarks from freshmen to graduate level. Departments should articulate a plan for explicitly supporting students in their writing development; we can accomplish this by identifying which courses develop which key writing skills so that students can continue to grow as writers in a cohesive and developmentally-appropriate way.”This article is from the Fall 2016 edition of the FCPE Newsletter.