By Liz Lebron
Jennifer Wells has helped many students in her role as director of writing at the Writing Resource Center and as a faculty member who teaches writing studies courses. Thanks to a new grant, Wells will also work with students on qualitative research methods this fall.
Wells and three of her colleagues at partner institutions across the country are replicating a 2007 study that found students view the first-year composition coursework as only applicable to that class and irrelevant to the types of writing other instructors expected them to produce. “Students weren’t able to see how they could transfer skills, knowledge, and behavior” from the first-year composition class to other courses or the workplace, according to Wells.
Writing studies experienced a pedagogical shift after the 2007 study that yielded two new approaches designed to improve knowledge transfer: writing about writing and teaching for transfer. Wells is a proponent of the writing-about-writing approach, in which, rather than having students write about content unrelated to writing, writing is the subject of the course.
“Teaching writing in this way, where writing is both the content and the thing that people do in the class, that’s what’s going to be transferable,” says Wells.
Wells and her colleagues are testing whether students report the ability to transfer the skills they learn during first-year writing courses at higher rates than they did in 2007, when the writing studies discipline adapted the new approach. The grant includes money for Wells to hire student workers and compensate study participants with gift cards.
“I’m going to train undergraduate students to help recruit participants, hold the focus groups, and facilitate the discussions,” explains Wells.
The eContract system at New College will enable Wells to study the potential effects of the writing-about-writing approach unencumbered by previous approaches to writing at the college.
“One of the cool things about coming to New College was that, unlike all but, I think, five colleges in the United States, New College doesn’t require a first-year writing course,” says Wells. “There was no history of the way things had been taught in first-year composition for me to have to undo or address. There were beliefs about how writing should be taught, but there wasn’t a curriculum. ”
Wells will recruit students, whom she will train in the use of Dedoose, a qualitative coding tool that will help them find patterns in the focus group discussions, this semester. She will hire students who have been immersed in writing studies either as assistants in the Writing Resource Center or students in one of her writing courses, and begin the project this fall.
— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications at New College of Florida.