December 15, 2011

Closing Out 2011 and Into the New Year

The Writing Center at PCCC on the Paterson campus will be closed starting Friday, December 16th.

Passaic County Community College will be closed for Winter Break from December 23 through January 2nd.

Classes for the spring semester begin on Wednesday, January 18 and the Writing Center will reopen on Monday, January 23rd.

The Writing Initiative team wishes all of you a happy holiday break and a healthy new year!

December 14, 2011

Writing Initiative Faculty Institute - January 2012

The Writing Initiative will be holding the 13th Faculty Institute for faculty developing new writing intensive course sections or taking on a WI section for the first time on January 4 and 5, 2012.

This is a collaborative seminar-style event where we will be discussing overall Initiative goals, sharing existing WI materials and best practices, creating new assignments and materials and looking at the pedagogy, tools and resources available for writing intensive courses.

Following the Writing Initiative Handbook, our topics of discussion include:
  • Writing Initiative goals and requirements
  • Formal and informal writing
  • A review of existing course materials (syllabus and assignment samples) both for regular sections and for any existing WI sections.
  • Creating new WI assignments - examples & using templates
  • Student portfolios: objectives, hands-on use of the eFolio product, sample student portfolios, grading strategies
  • Critical thinking assignments – template, rubrics
  • Information literacy assignments – template, rubrics
  • Responding to and grading student writing - for content and for writing
  • Using the Writing Center
  • Using eTutoring
  • Online resources for online & face-to-face course sections
  • Initiative assessment of WI Courses
  • Hands-on session using LibGuides as an editor and adding links, resources, media objects etc.

December 13, 2011

Writing Across Disciplines Day

This full day event is for faculty who want to incorporate writing into their courses. 

The writing across the disciplines approach is designed to give students additional academic writing experiences, but also to have them practice with the language conventions and specific formats typical of that discipline. For example, the lab report differs in content, format and style from literary criticism or the annual business report.

Based on the best practices that have emerged during the four years of the PCCC Writing Initiative, we will be discussing how to use, assign and evaluate writing that occurs in different disciplines.

There will be a series of topics discussed including:
  • A brief overview of the goals of the Initiative and our writing intensive courses 
  • What do you do with writing in your classes now?
  • Using formal and informal writing
  • Creating effective writing assignments
  • Incorporating information literacy and critical thinking
  • Responding to and grading student writing - for content and for writing
  • Writing Resources available to you and your students at PCCC
January 6, 2012  8:30am - 3:30 pm  The Writing Center at PCCC (Paterson Campus)  A113

Space is limited, so if you’re interested in participating, please respond to by December 23rd. Please include your department and the courses you will be teaching in the spring. For more information, go to

November 30, 2011

Questioning the Socratic Method and Academic Integrity

After I read an article on, I wondered about the state of the Socratic method in American classrooms. The article chronicles the case of Professor Steven Maranville at Utah Valley University. He teaches a capstone business course and his style is to ask questions even if students don't volunteer to answer.

It seems that students complained about that (and pedagogical choices) and that those complaints contributed to the university denying him tenure.

I won't attempt to judge his employment status or his classroom teaching, but the article points to other cases where the power of student evaluations and opinions on faculty rehiring was significant. Professors at Louisiana State University and  at Norfolk State University are noted. I also noticed a number of online posts recently about an article headlined "NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again—and Faces a Backlash."

Maranville's style of pedadgogy is described as Socratic, "engaged learning" in which he "pushed for students to go beyond lectures" and created teams for assignments outside class. I don't hear anything very radical in any of that. If done well, it sounds quite admirable.

The Socratic Method as a style of teaching is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates who used this method of inquiry. It is covered in chapter one of the textbook I use in my critical thinking course, and I can't really imagine teaching a class face-to-face or online without using some form of this questioning technique.

This kind of inquiry and debate between individuals is popular in law schools and probably used more in the humanities and the social sciences. Using opposing viewpoints and asking and answering questions stimulates critical thinking and often illuminate ideas.

It is a dialectical method, and so it can often generate oppositional discussion and the defense of one point of view is up against the defense of another. I suppose that opposition can, if the discussion lacks discipline, lead to out and out arguing.

Maybe the Socratic method seems negative because it uses a method of hypothesis elimination. The stronger hypotheses are found by identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions or that cannot be defended.

As the article points out, one advantage of this kind of teaching is that it challenges students "to learn how to think on their feet." In general, I find that students at the undergraduate and graduate level don't like that challenge, especially if they have been not been asked to do it in other classes.

It wasn't Socratic teaching that got the NYU prof mentioned above in trouble. It was his attempt to be more aggressive about cheating and plagiarism in his introductory information technology class. Perhaps feeling safer because he had tenure, he decided to use the Blackboard course-management system and Turnitin's plagiarism-detection software together for the first time. Those integrated software packages allows assignments that are submitted to be automatically checked for matches to materials online.

He found that plagiarism was "pervasive" and 22 of the 108 students admitted cheating by the end of the semester.

The connections to the earlier Socratic case? Students, especially those in certain majors, are simply not asked to do much writing. (It is one of the reasons the Writing Initiative at PCCC was launched.) And faculty in those disciplines often feel unprepared to evaluate writing "as writing" as opposed to grading based on subject matter content. Students have not been asked to do this kind of writing, and instructors are not prepared or unwilling to "police" writing for plagiarism.

Introduce some powerful software that detects it automatically, even on papers or students that you would not have suspected, and an ugly truth is revealed.

Of course, the other connection in these two cases is that the teachers paid for their actions with bad student reviews. Professor Ipeirotis dropped to a below-average score of 5.3 (of 7.0) from his usual 6.0 to 6.5. He claims that "The Dean’s office and my chair ‘expressed their appreciation’ for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my teaching evaluations took a hit this year."

As anyone who has pursued an academic integrity case at a college with the administration probably discovered, it can take up many hours away from your actual teaching or research. Sadly, when he posted on a blog that he had decided to no longer pursue cheating instances, that too was met with a backlash.

Lesson learned? Well, I completely agree with what he says: "Rather than police plagiarism, professors should design assignments that cannot be plagiarized."  I am actually presenting tomorrow at a writing across the curriculum faculty roundtable here at PCCC on just that topic. I hope to get a positive response from faculty, and will report back here soon.

This is a cross-posting from my blog at

November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Break

Happy Thanksgiving from the staff
of the Passaic County Community College
Writing Center.

We will reopen on Monday, November 28th.

November 14, 2011

Plagiarism and the Web

Educators have been complaining about student plagiarism since books came to be printed. Since we have moved from an analog to a digital culture, it has become much harder for teachers to keep up with student use of online sources.

We have tried to use technology to fight technology. I know a lot of teachers at all grade levels who rely on trying to “Google” a key phrase or sentence of student writing that they suspect is plagiarized. It's not a great method. It doesn't tell you how much of the overall paper is borrowed, and it doesn't compare it to the "hidden Web" that is behind logins and walls. And it doesn't compare it to papers by your other students this semester or from last year or from other teachers at your school or any school.

I got to thinking about this topic again because of a query from a faculty member about PCCC using a service like I had downloaded a white paper awhile ago on "Plagiarism and the Web: Myths and Realities" from

A few findings:
  • Plagiarism is going social.  One-third of all content matched in the study is from social networks, content sharing or question-and-answer sites where users contribute and share content.
  • Legitimate educational sites are more popular than cheat sites. 25% of all matched material is from legitimate educational web sites - 15% of content matches come directly from sites that promote and benefit from academic dishonesty.
  • Wikipedia remains the most popular single source for student-matched content on the Web, comprising 7% of matches in the months examined.

Want to know where students are most likely to look, copy and paste?  The top 8 matched sites, along with their corresponding category in Turnitin's database, are:
1) - Encyclopedia
2) – News & Portal
3) - Social & Content Sharing
4) - Social & Content Sharing
5) - Cheat Sites & Paper Mills
6) - Social & Content Sharing
7) - Homework & Academic
8) - Homework & Academic

Of the 25 most popular sites, 14 are legitimate student resources for learning. It is a bit encouraging that more students are frequenting legitimate academic or educational web sites than cheat sites.

But before I get to using a service like Turnitin, I want to share some of my own thoughts and observations from 35 years of teaching and more than a decade in educational technology.
  1. The majority of instances of plagiarism can be prevented by creating good assignments and by not using the same assignments semester after semester. Yes, I blame teachers for a lot of plagiarism. Assigning topics that abound in online answers encourages using the material online. For example, just crossing a topic with a contemporary issue makes it much harder for students to "find the answer" and promotes some original thought.
    Asking for an essay on the symbols of evil in Lord of the Flies will send a student to Google and turn up any number of answers. Asking students to compare the hierarchy of leadership on the island to our current Washington administration and Congress, or to the people who control our financial institutions will be a lot harder to plagiarize.
  2. Don't rely on English teachers to be the only source of instruction on research and citation. Don't blame whatever level of teachers comes before you for the problems. Now that I am in a college setting, I hear, "They should have learned this in high school."  When I taught high school, I heard, "They should have had this middle school." And yet I know from watching and helping my own sons that they DID have this in elementary school - but it's a process of learning and sophistication, not a one-time lesson.
  3. Teach and give smaller assignments in how to take what is found in sources and either summarize, paraphrase or quote it.
  4. Teach the art of careful note taking. I wouldn't assume students know how to do it well unless I saw them do it. I have used exercises in having students just highlight new information in an article and been amazed that most of the article ends up highlighted when there were only 4 instances of new information. This does not come naturally. I am amazed at how many of my college students expect me to give them notes, slides, and study guides.
  5. Have students do an annotated bibliography as a standalone exercise.
  6. Model academic integrity. Do you credit and cite things that you use and photocopy for class?
  7. Address plagiarism before it occurs. Show examples. Tell them what you consider plagiarism to be. What are the penalties in your class and in your school?
  8. If you just tell students, "I don't allow you to use Wikipedia," you might as well stick your head in the sand. They will use it. They will not cite it for you. Better that you teach them how and when to use Wikipedia. It does have a place in starting research. Most teachers use it themselves. It has pretty extensive source information in the history behind an entry and includes sources for the vast majority of information. Wikipedians are very careful to note when articles are incomplete or questionable. Show your students good and bad entries in your field. Let them know that you know how it works.
    You do know how Wikipedia works, right? One of my favorite lessons that I have used with graduate students and undergrads is to have them read How Wikipedia Works and then create an original article in Wikipedia and have it grow and survive until the end of the semester. Do you know how challenging it is to just find a topic of value that is not on Wikipedia?
  9. Use examples from the "real world" of writers who have been caught plagiarizing or violating copyrights and what the punishments can be. Students who have grown up in a digital culture have had sharing, openness and re-use (good things) mixed in with sharing music, retweeting thoughts and downloading free software. I'm not sure that their ideas about originality fit at all into the world of academic research and writing. 
  10. When you have a student who clearly plagiarized, don't make it only a disciplinary action. Make it a teachable opportunity. Require the student to redo the work and fully document the research. The worst use of a service like Turnitin is as a "gotcha" tool.
  11. Much plagiarism comes from laziness, but a lot also comes from students who don't know how to do the research, and are not good (or confident) writers.
  12. Students are poor at time management. If you give 3 weeks for a research paper but don't do anything during those 3 weeks in class concerning it, many students will not begin until day 20. Break the paper down into smaller sections with milestones that are checked. This doesn't need to require a lot of "grading" by the teacher. Have them bring in one book they will be using and put bookmarks/Post-Its on 3 passages they plan to use and cite. Show the citation format.
  13. Students know that without some software like to do the checking, the teacher is not going to check many or any of the sources they cite. If no one is monitoring the speed limit on the highway, people will exceed the limit with impunity. is designed to assist educators in identifying potential instances of plagiarism but also to give students feedback during the writing process.

Turnitin's database compares papers submitted to against three main repositories of information: 14 billion current and archived web pages; 150 million student papers; and 110 million content items from academic publishers.

You might not think about user-generated content (on sites such as Facebook, Scribd, SlideShare, Yahoo Answers and as a source, and some of these "walled gardens" don't show up fully in a search query.

Turnitin also queries academic, educational and homework help sites (such as and the National Institute ofHealth, and popular homework help sites like and

Another legitimate category for research is News and Portals like The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Associated Content.

The bad guys are the "paper mills" that are made for cheating and academic dishonesty. They profit from students by selling, exchanging or placing advertising around offers of "original student papers." Teachers should be aware of these sites (like and Turnitin spots many of these usages not only because they index those sites but also because the papers have already been submitted to the Turnitin database in someone else's name! The student papers in their database and the most controversial aspect of their service and also what makes it far more powerful than using a search engine.

Encyclopedia web sites are as popular as the paper encyclopedia were in the 50s, 60s and 70s were with people who are now teaching. Wikipedia, Brittanica. com and fall into this category.

According to the Turnitin white paper, "...institutions with widespread adoption of Turnitin see a reduction in unoriginal content of 30 to 35 percent in the first year. By the fourth year, many institutions see levels of unoriginality fall by up to 70 percent."

As I noted in #7 above, demonstrating how you use technology like Turnitin, Google, and sites like to your students BEFORE they do research writing has a chance of deterring them from improper research, citation and writing practices.

When I was on the Academic Integrity committee at NJIT (where I introduced Turnitin to the university), I never saw a case of a student being confronted with a detailed and even color-coded Turnitin "Originality Report" of their written work next to the original sources when the student didn't admit to using those or similar sources.

In every case, was it plagiarism? Was it grounds for disciplinary action? Those are questions that institutions and instructors need to decide. But each instance was certainly an important “teachable moment” if we want to change students' approach to using information in the proper way.

Further Reading

November 11, 2011

Information Literacy, Primary Sources and Native Americans

Following up on an earlier post today, the Library of Congress also has many resources related to the experiences and contributions of Native Americans to our nation which would be useful for units during this Native American Heritage Month.

It would be interesting for students to consider  how many of the items were created by Native Americans versus how many were created about Native Americans?

New-York Tribune Article
on “The Iroquois Wampum”
A list of American Indian History exhibitions and collections includes primary sources.

Students should also learn that there are multimedia items (such as Omaha Indian Music and Florida Folklife from the WPA Collection, 1937-1942) and that items related to Native Americans are intertwined throughout many of the Library’s online collections that also focus on other topics.

For example, search the historic newspaper collections to analyze newspapers published by or dedicated to Indians of North America as well as articles and images published in newspapers serving a broader audience. To get started, search on terms such as Indian agency, Indian bureau, Indian war, or the names of particular groups or tribes, including Ojibwa, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Iroquois.

Native Americans narrate their personal experiences serving in conflicts from World War II to Iraq in audio and video interviews collected by the Library’s Veterans History Project in “Willing to Serve: American Indians.”

You can find primary sources and historical context for teachers and students in the presentation Immigration…Native American.

A listing of Primary Source sites on the Library website is at

Information Literacy, Primary Sources and American History

The Library of Congress has a wealth of materials for promoting the effective instructional use of primary sources. Primary sources are the raw materials of history and culture and can be great tools for teaching.
Draft of the United States Constitution:
Report of the Committee of Detail,

ca. August 6, 1787

A number of our writing intensive courses have students analyzing primary documents, images, recordings, or maps from an earlier era.

It's a natural way to get students engaged with content. It certainly lends itself to building critical thinking skills. Obviously, it is an interesting way to use information literacy in class.

Primary sources related to U.S. legislation help students explore the writings and ideas at the core of the American experience—the documents that have made the United States the nation that it is, and that continue to shape its evolution today.

Some lessons that can be easily undertaken using the Library's resources:
  • Look at the drafts of the founding documents and compare them to the final copies. Identify significant changes between the documents, and speculate as to how the nation might have been different if those changes hadn’t been made.
  • As you study issues in U.S. history, use THOMAS to find and examine recent legislative documents on the same topic—immigration, poverty, the role of religion in politics, for example. Identify whether the recent documents use similar language or persuasive techniques as the historical documents, or if approaches to the topic have changed in the intervening years.
The Library of Congress Teacher Guides and Analysis Tool can guide students through analysis of these primary sources.

The gateway to investigating these landmark documents is the Legislative Resources for Teachers page from the Library of Congress, which provides free online access to primary sources that trace the legislative history of the U.S., along with teaching tools that allow educators to quickly and easily integrate these documents into the curriculum.

Creating the United States lets students examine rough drafts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, as well as providing insights into the intellectual environment and collaborative process that saw these charters come into being.

Once students are immersed in the world of Adams, Madison, and Jefferson, Library of Congress lesson plans on the Constitution and Bill of Rights let them ask critical questions of the documents and their authors, as they consider how the smallest changes might have made the United States a very different nation today.

SOURCE:  Teaching with the Raw Materials of the Law: Primary Sources and the Legislative Process

November 9, 2011

Getting Started with eTutoring at PCCC

The PCCC Writing Center helps support the college's participation in the eTutoring Consortium.

Students in writing-intensive courses are required to make use of tutoring twice each semester, either by using eTutoring or by meeting with a writing consultant.

Instructional videos are available online to help students "walk through" the process of using this and other services. These videos are accessible on our eTutoring LibGuide and the Writing Center's YouTube channel.

November 3, 2011

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Rodin's The Thinker, doing some System 2, slow, deliberative thinking.
I teach one of the sections of the writing intensive course in Critical Thinking. Students have just completed a paper on "thinkers" who I define as people who changed a paradigm in their field of study, but also caused a shift in thinking beyond that field  - and in many cases beyond their lifetime. The easy subjects are people like Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein. But we also look at how Edison's light bulb changed our concept of day and night, or how King Gillette changed marketing "freemiums" or Clarence Birdseye's impact on how we look at fresh food. It's fair to say that Steve Jobs changed the way we buy music and other media and use the Net and perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is changing the idea of friends and privacy.

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics. But he isn't an economist. He won it for work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision-making. He is considered one of our most important thinkers and his ideas have had an impact on economics, medicine, and politics.

His newest book is Thinking, Fast and Slow about two systems that he feels drive the way we think.

In a simplified explanation, System 1 is the fast, intuitive, and emotional system. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Both are necessary and Kahneman shows both the capabilities and benefits, and the faults and biases of them.

Perhaps the part that most interested me is that he has found a type of thought that's actually not very compatible with the way we think: decision-making. Decision-making is a chapter in every book about critical thinking.

"We have a very narrow view of what is going on," Kahneman says. "We don't see very far in the future, we are very focused on one idea at a time, one problem at a time, and all these are incompatible with rationality as economic theory assumes it."

In an interview, he said that an example of System 1 thinking would be the response to hearing a male voice say, "I believe I am pregnant." That would be an example of very fast System 1 thinking. Kahneman says, "It's the same process of recognizing things and distinguishing the familiar from the unfamiliar. You're coming up with solutions that have worked in the past, that's what's called expert intuition."

But if you are asked to multiply 87 by 14 in your head, System 2 takes over.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

When you are asked what you are thinking about, you can normally answer. You believe you know what goes on in your mind, which often consists of one conscious thought leading in an orderly way to another. But that is not the only way the mind works, nor indeed is that the typical way. Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. You cannot trace how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a hint of irritation in your spouse's voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid a threat on the road before you became consciously aware of it. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.

System 1 activity is completely unconscious, automatic and very quick. "You're surprised by something, but you don't really know what surprised you; you recognize someone, but you don't really know what cues cause you to recognize that person," he states.

System 2 activity is orderly computations, rules and reasoning. It is also the system that (luckily for us) is monitoring thoughts, actions and speech so that we don't always say everything that comes to mind.

Kahneman's two systems are an interesting approach to thinking and decision-making. But he recognizes that they are just language to explain concepts and don't actually exist in our brains.

My students might then ask, "So why study about them?"

"Clearly, the decision-making that we rely on in society is fallible," Kahneman says. "It's highly fallible, and we should know that." We should know it because knowing gives us the ability to do something about it.

November 2, 2011

NEA Grant for PCCC Poetry Center

The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College (PCCC) has been awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

With this funding, the Poetry Center will provide free poetry workshops to seniors in Passaic County and publish an anthology of their work.

The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College is one of 1,145 not-for-profit national, regional, state, and local organizations recommended for a grant as part of the federal agency’s second round of fiscal year 2011 grants. In total, the NEA will distribute more than $88 million to support projects nationwide.

Stanley Kunitz, then Poet Laureate of the United States
and Maria Mazziotti Gillan, talk with a reading attendee
Since the Poetry Center was founded in 1980 by Executive Director Maria Mazziotti Gillan, it has organized quality programs that have brought it to national attention, such as the Paterson Literary Review, four poetry contests, and a cable TV show. The Poetry Center reaches more than one million people annually, and is unique not only because of the number and variety of services it offers, but because of its connection with an urban, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community.

The Poetry Center was named a Distinguished Arts Project and awarded several Citations of Excellence, and is funded, in part, by a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts and by funds from the National Endowment for the Arts.

October 31, 2011

Formative Student Writing Assessment

Everyone who has had an educational pedagogy course has studied formative and summative assessment.

Summative assessment is generally carried out at the end of a course, unit or project and in an educational setting, summative assessments are typically used to assign students a course grade.

Formative assessment is a self-reflective process intended to enhance, recognize and respond to the learning. It is a bi-directional process between teacher and student and should be designed to evaluate students on a frequent basis so that adjustments (by the teacher and by the student) can be made to help them reach target achievement goals.

Much research in the teaching of writing is about the use of formative assessment. Anyone who has taught writing knows how difficult (if not impossible) it is to have a final "test" to measure a student's ability to write.

Formative assessment improves student writing by monitoring it through the prewriting, writing, and revision processes.

I was looking over some notes I made and slipped into a book on assessment years ago. The notes still seem true today as I go into the fifth year of the Writing Initiative at PCCC. Here were my top 10 thoughts while reading that book.
  1. monitor, diagnose, and provide continual feedback to your students
  2. break large writing assignments into several smaller tasks
  3. vary your feedback methods
  4. discuss the myths and realities of writing in an academic setting
  5. make sure students self-assess and reflect orally & in writing on their progress
  6. teachers and students should create and use rubrics and checklists
  7. need to support students in all stages of the writing process
  8. each piece of writing a student creates, no matter how brief, formal or informal, is an opportunity to learn
  9. use individual, small-group, and large-group discussions
  10. feedback is key to a "writing workshop" approach
These are three of the relevant books on my shelf. They are probably intended for K-12 teachers but I find much of it relevant to teaching in higher education, especially at a community college. That is not meant as being at all negative about what we see in colleges today, but it does reflect on the observation that the same issues continue with students from secondary education as they move into higher education. And the same issues exist with the teaching of writing, and to a greater degree, in most college classrooms.

Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools  What Student Writing Teaches Us: FOrmative Assessment in the Writing Workshop  Successful Student Writing Through Formative Assessment

October 27, 2011

Writing Support Online

Back in 2009, I read that the University of Arizona was developing a one-credit online writing course that will be used to supplement their three-credit GenEd (general education) classes.

It's one way to address a problem a problem that occurs on campuses where enrollment is growing and the number of staff and the facilities to support them have not increased.

This is true of many writing centers, and they often have problems meeting the increased demand. For better and for worse, online versions are often seen as an economically feasible solution.

At PCCC, we use eTutoring, but we don't have anything like an online writing center. Since our center only opened in 2009, we are fortunate that our roll out was planned in phases. Since the Center was built to support the writing intensive courses, our student clients increase with each semester. This semester we are running 30 sections of WI courses. By the end of this academic year, we will have about 1000 college-level students in the Center student database.

When the grant ends in September 2012, the Center is designed to become the college-level writing center supporting about 4000 students. (PCCC also has basic skills, EOF and ESL labs.)

An online writing course could be viewed as a form of writing across the disciplines. At UA, the course were introduced as a one-credit supplement to the typical three-credit general education class. It is intended to provide an interactive and self-paced online environment in which students' writing skills are diagnosed and improved.

According to an article on the UA course:
"...the courses will not replace gen-ed classes, but instead will support them with needed writing instruction that is not available in the typical 50 minute lecture period...The online course will offer tutorials on topics in writing not ordinarily covered by professors, such as grammar, drafting a thesis and style and craft. Writing proficiency will be tested by a diagnostic system that will, depending on the student's score, direct him or her signed to target a given problem area. These modules will feature flash animation and other interactive software tailored to the specific skill level of the student.

Thomas Miller, English professor and associate provost of academic affairs, pointed out that the online course will help deal with problems in writing essays before it's too late. He said that students all too often realize they have significant problems in writing only after their papers are returned with a poor grade. Miller added that research on writing pedagogy shows that "students do not read teachers' comments on their papers. They often do not understand comments they read and do not apply them." The online course is intended to remedy this problem by developing students' writing skills before a paper is even assigned to them.The course will "take them through the writing process," Miller said. "It will help them draft a research question or thesis and will include strategic visits to the writing center."
It's an interesting idea. At PCCC, our approach is to try to incorporate these skills into the GenEd courses. We have designed 23 distinct courses so far across al disciplines as writing-intensive. We also strive to better equip those faculty to support their students' writing, as well as sending students to our writing center for face-to-face help and sending them online to use eTutoring.

One reason that we chose this path is because we wanted to also include faculty in the learning process. A good part of our initiative effort goes to professional development. We are trying to help faculty improve their ability to create writing assignments, facilitate assessment and utilize technology to do it.

PCCC, like many other colleges, is looking at putting more courses online each year. Since the Writing Center needs to support them as well as students on two smaller satellite campuses at Wanaque and Passaic, we will also be looking at supplementing writing instruction online.

October 20, 2011

Writing is a daily practice for millions of Americans, but few notice how integral writing has become to daily life in the 21st century. 

To draw attention to the remarkable variety of writing we engage in, and help make writers from all walks of life aware of their own craft, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) created a National Day on Writing.

The U.S. Senate passed a resolution in 2009 declaring October 20 the National Day on Writing.

Today, a gallery of submitted works is opened up for everyone to view a wide variety of pieces.  Many groups, classrooms and writing centers will also be celebrating the day across the country.

September 29, 2011

Read Write Comprehend

We have been having more conversations about the reading/writing connection.  Many educators agree that the way reading comprehension is often taught is not effective if you measure success by a student's ability to comprehend what they read.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) , in 2009 only 33 percent of fourth graders read at a "proficient" level-leaving the remaining two thirds to read at or below the "basic" level. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Study another study that looked at how third-grade reading skills influence high school graduation rates, 1 in 6 children who are not reading proficiently in third grade fail to graduate from high school on time. Would we find the same correlation in higher education?

So what has been the traditional approach?  The focus is having students answer questions on readings. The students who succeed are those who already comprehend text. It does not teach the fundamental skills needed to  evaluate text - it's largely practice without instruction.

In reading classes - and I'm including most developmental and basic skills courses at the college level - we are teaching 4 levels of comprehension: literal, main idea, inference and derived meanings.

Derived meaning comprehension is seen as the highest level because mastery usually comes after a learner has success with literal, inferential, and main idea comprehension. For example, this fourth level helps expand vocabulary as students use the details and relationships that they comprehend to deduce the meanings of new words or usage in context.

In addition to the four types of comprehension instruction, increasing passage complexity and varying comprehension assessment options (more answer choices, more variation in questions) as a reading comprehension program progresses helps prepare students to understand complex sentences and longer passages.

Though our Initiative at PCCC is about writing across the curriculum, you would have little argument that a "Reading Across the Curriculum" might be needed. In fact, evidence is out there that reading has a bigger overall impact on learner success than writing.

September 23, 2011

Writing Help at Wanaque This Fall

During the Fall 2011 semester, a Writing Consultant is available at the Wanaque Academic Center (WAC) during the following days:

Mondays 2:30 - 6:30

Tuesdays 11:00 - 7:00

The Writing Consultant can be found in the computer lab next to the library.

We welcome both walk-ins and appointments.  If you would like to set up an appointment, please contact either Martha Brozyna or Elizabeth Nesius

September 21, 2011

Critical Thinking and Writing in Science and Math

It was just announced this week that Passaic County Community College has won a $4.1 million federal grant to improve college students' success in science and math and get high school students engaged in those fields. The funds come from the U.S. Education Department's Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. (More than half of PCCC's students are Hispanic.) The Education Department has sought to boost training in what are known as the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) in order to help American students compete in an increasingly high-tech, global marketplace.

In our writing initiative, we have now redesigned six courses in science and math as writing-intensive. Those courses are: College Math, Statistics, Environmental Science, Biology I, Biology II and Microbiology. Part of our approach to WI course redesign is to include the explicit use of critical thinking (CT) assignments and techniques in the writing activities. Scientific critical thinking is different than the CT found in a literature class. Though certain standards, such as open mindedness, relevancy and accuracy, certainly go across disciplines, a familiarity with the nature of science, the experimental method and the knowledge base of a particular science changes most teachers approach to CT.

 Critical thinking skills that are often noted as essential in STEM areas include:

  • Distinguishing correlation from cause and effect
  • Distinguishing analysis from description
  • Understanding reductionism and knowing when to use it.
  • Recognizing important variables in complex phenomena
  • Isolating and testing variables
  • Knowing the value of prediction (versus retrodiction) 
  • Distinguishing scientific evidence, reasoning and rationalizing
  • Exercising sound reasoning in understanding
  • Making complex choices
  • Understanding the interconnections among systems
  • Framing, analyzing and solving problems

We can look at retrodiction as an example of a skill that is probably unfamiliar to many people. Retrodiction is the act of making a "prediction" about the past. That's an idea that is hard for students to grasp at first. You would speculate about uncertain events in the more distant past so that you can "predict" a known event in the less distant past. If greenhouse gases had been capped at a certain level in 1950, what effect would it have on the current readings? If a murder victim's body had been refrigerated for a month before it was discovered, how would it affect an autopsy findings? It is used in archaeology, climatology, evolutionary biology, financial analysis, forensic science, and cosmology.

Hands-on, project-based math and science curriculum activities are often the nest places for students to think critically about the use of math and science in solving problems. In the taxonomy of higher level thinking skills, this deepens their knowledge of the basics.

This approach is used in many K-12 curriculum too. WGBH offers teachers a number of classroom resources at

The problem based learning approach (PBL) can be seen in "PBL in Action" activities such as The Wing Strength Design Project and Geometry in the Real World: Students as Architects offered by sites such as and

Further Reading
Developing Reflective Judgment (Jossey-Bass Education Series)

September 19, 2011

WI Faculty Roundtable

The Writing Initiative is hosting a roundtable for all WI faculty, past and present.

The purpose is for WI faculty to get together, give and get updates on how the Initiative is progressing, and talk about successes and challenges in relation to classes, campus concerns, sustaining the Initiative, etc. Additionally, as some faculty members have not had the opportunity to meet the other WI faculty, it will be a way to get to know one another, compare notes, and share ideas.

The roundtable will take place in the Paterson Room on Tuesday, September 27, from 1:00 PM - 3:00 PM. In true roundtable fashion, faculty are encouraged to come for the whole meeting, or if their schedules won't allow that, any part of the meeting.

We hope to hold a second roundtable after midterm to follow up and give those who couldn't attend an opportunity to share.

September 16, 2011

Writing Help at Passaic This Fall

During the Fall 2011 semester, a Writing Consultant will be available at the Passaic Academic Center (PAC) during the following days:

Tuesdays 11:30 - 2:30

Wednesdays 1:00 - 4:00

Unfortunately, due to scheduling difficulties, we are unable to accept walk-ins. Students need to make an appointment prior to coming. If you need an appointment, please contact either Martha Brozyna or Elizabeth Nesius

September 14, 2011

Writing and Critical Thinking

There seem to be as many definitions of critical thinking as there are courses that include it. We have a writing intensive section of our critical thinking class, CT 101, here at PCCC. I have taught one of those sections since last spring.

There is at least general agreement in what I read about using critical thinking (CT) that these components are part of what using critical thinking in an academic setting includes:
  • Mindful, conscious, reflective thinking about the task before making decisions about what to believe or do.
  • Being able to assess the authenticity, accuracy, and the value of information (evidence) and arguments.
  • Self-directed inquiry, analysis and critique.
The reason why critical thinking fits so well into a writing initiative is fairly obvious when you look at those elements. They already look very much like what we are teaching in traditional writing classes when we teach the essay or research writing. By that, I mean writing/critical thinking elements such as:
  1. Using a process to evaluate a thesis (proposition, hypotheses, judgment) and then supply well-supported evidence. 
  2. Determine if the evidence found is valid
  3. In that process (of decision-making, research, problem-solving) generate options, looking at opposing viewpoints and make discriminating judgments.
  4. Arrive at a conclusion(s) that is the most reasonable based on the evidence.

In our own Initiative faculty development, we have now trained more than 50 full-time and part-time instructors in teaching WI courses which includes writing pedagogy, critical thinking and information literacy. It is sometimes surprising to instructors how well those three areas work together,

Perhaps the biggest myth we have to dispel is that "every course already has critical thinking."  Though certainly every course has the potential for CT and students are always "thinking", unless the teacher and the students are aware that they are using CT techniques and are asked to reflect on that process, there is little resulting improvement in those skills.

One aspect of this that we have found in our analysis of the Initiative is that our students are better at finding evidence than they are at discriminating appropriate evidence and being able to accurately interpret it. This is no new finding. The use if the Internet has made all of us better at finding information, but has no positive effect (possibly a negative effect) on evaluating and interpreting what we find. Those two latter skills need to be consciously taught. They are not learned by simply being asked to find information or "do research."

There are many sites online that deal with critical thinking and also CT and writing. Our CT101 course site and sites like are good starting places. There are other colleges working on these initiative. We have crossed paths at several conferences with the folks at Georgia State who are doing a CT and writing program.

September 12, 2011

Writing Center in Paterson Fall Hours

The Writing Center has officially opened!

On the main campus, we are open Monday-Friday with the following hours.

10:00 AM - 8:00 PM

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
9:00 AM - 8:00 PM

10:00 AM - 5:30 PM

The Writing Center provides help to students who are taking or have taken a writing-intensive course and students preparing to take the CWE. We accept both walk-ins and appointments, although we get busy starting around midterms!

For more information about hours, workshops, and making appointments, go to the Writing Center LibGuide.

September 6, 2011

Welcome Back

Today is the first day of the fall 2011 semester at PCCC. The Writing Center staff wishes you a successful semester!

We remind those of you that are taking your first Writing Intensive course section this semester that you are now encouraged to come to the Center for help with your writing in that class and in any writing tasks from your classes.

Taking a WI course is you entry into the Center's database (which allows you to make appointments easily online). WI courses require the use of tutoring - eTutoring or the Writing Center - and your instructor may require using our services.

The Writing Center can help you at any stage of the writing process - topic formation, first drafts, revision and bibliographies.

The Center can also help you in starting out using your WI electronic portfolio, eTutoring and using the online appointment program.

We hope to see you in the Center this semester!

August 31, 2011

Achieving the Dream at PCCC

Today was scheduled to be the college convocation, but Hurricane Irene and a record flood stage on the Passaic River and the Great Falls here in Paterson has cancelled that.

One of the main topics for convocation was to be discussion on our participation in Achieving the Dream. Achieving the Dream is a national nonprofit dedicated to helping more community college students succeed, particularly students of color and low-income students. 

Achieving the Dream advances community college student success through work on four fronts: 

  1. Transforming community colleges 
  2. Influencing policy 
  3. Developing new knowledge 
  4. Engaging the public  

Passaic County Community College (PCCC) opened in 1971 with a few hundred students. Today, PCCC enrolls more than 8,000 students a year in over 60 associate degree, certificate, and diploma programs. The college is also home to an extensive program of ESL, continuing education, and customized training. The college operates four campus locations including the main campus in Paterson, academic centers in Passaic and Wanaque, and a public safety academy in Wayne, New Jersey. 

PCCC is federally-defined as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, one of approximately 230 such colleges and universities nationwide, and is among the most diverse colleges in the state and the nation. The Writing Initiative grant which we work on here is a Title V federal grant for Hispanic-Serving Institutions. 

The most recent graduating class of PCCC included students from 54 different nations. Serving a largely at-risk, disadvantaged student population, PCCC has students attending the college at varying levels of academic, social, and financial need. The total student enrollment for Fall 2009 was comprised of 48% Hispanic and Latino students and 17% were African American students. 

Improving student success is a goal of the college’s Strategic Plan, which is linked to PCCC's seven institutional goals. Passaic County also envisions the improvement of teaching and learning for diverse students, and the re-engineering of tutorial laboratory services for ESL and developmental students.

With the help and guidance of Achieving the Dream, the college seeks to:
  • Provide a learner-centered environment focused on student success
  • Make higher education accessible to the community they serve
  • Develop interventions targeting specific groups of at-risk students
Within the past seven years, PCCC has undertaken a comprehensive effort to improve student writing skills. In 2004, the college gathered data that indicated that poor student writing was prevalent throughout the institution and was therefore eroding the quality of academic programs. The college has since been able to establish a College Writing Center on its main campus, therefore providing students enrolled in writing intensive courses with access to writing support from trained tutors. PCCC leaders hope that Achieving the Dream will assist them in reallocating resources for their initiatives as well as help them to expand more promising programs and services.

August 25, 2011

PCCC Poetry Center Receives NEA Grant

The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College (PCCC) has been awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The Poetry Center will use the funding to provide free poetry workshops to seniors in Passaic County and publish an anthology of their work.

The Poetry Center was founded in 1980 by Executive Director Maria Mazziotti Gillan. For over 30 years, it has organized quality programs that have brought it to national attention, such as the Paterson Literary Review, four poetry contests, and a cable TV show.

The Center reaches more than one million people annually, and is unique not only because of the number and variety of services it offers, but because of its connection with an urban, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community. It brings national attention to our college.

The Poetry Center at PCCC is one of 1,145 not-for-profit national, regional, state, and local organizations recommended for a grant as part of the federal agency's second round of fiscal year 2011 grants. In total, the NEA will distribute more than $88 million to support projects nationwide.

Maria Gillan with then U.S.Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz
at a Poetry Center reading in 2001.

August 23, 2011

Research and Information Literacy

The headline "Students Lack Basic Research Skills, Study Finds" in a Wired Campus post had caught my attention last year and I printed it to use in a workshop.

Information literacy is one of the components in the writing intensive courses that are part of our grant project here at PCCC and we know that students still struggle with the process.

Using information from the Project Information Literacy Progress Report, the post cited several findings that we deal with in all our classes.
  1. 84% of students say that when it comes to course-based research, getting started is their biggest challenge. 
  2. The three sources cited most often by students were course readings, search engines like Google, and scholarly research databases. 
  3. Only 30% asked a librarian for research help. 
As an example from our WI courses, while a traditional research paper addresses all of the broadly defined information literacy (IL) competencies, we don't see that as the only - or always the best - means of assessing information literacy.

We actually encourage faculty to differentiate with students Research versus information literacy. Many of our students see research as only something that leads to a research paper.

We also encourage instructors to create assignments that may address only one or several of the IL competencies. For instance, a bibliography covers two of our stated competencies, while an annotated bibliography covers three others.

A two-part assignment from the one Western Civilization course demonstrates how our IL rubric can be used to assess competencies. Part 1 of the assignment asks the question "Does this website have an apparent bias?" for each website used. This can be assessed under the "Evaluation of Sources" criterion in the rubric, with some slight revisions tailored to the assignment. In this example, an answer on the "Beginner" level would demonstrate little or no recognition of the bias (or lack thereof) in the Web site. A "Developing" answer may demonstrate the recognition of bias but difficulty in articulating just what the bias is. A "Competent" answer would recognize the existence and the nature of the bias, and an "Accomplished" answer would demonstrate a recognition and explanation of the bias that is highly nuanced.

In the essay portion (Part 2) of the assignment, students have to compare their personal opinions (stated in a previous essay) with the opinion of others as found in the aforementioned Web sites. In this case, the students' essays can be evaluated under the "Uses information effectively in their writing assignments" criterion in the rubric. An essay on the "Beginner" level would use little or no information from the outside sources. A "Developing" essay would attempt to incorporate information from outside sources, and perhaps be off-topic at times. A "Competent" essay would use information from outside sources to support the topic and demonstrate some synthesis with their own ideas. An "Accomplished" essay would contain highly refined and articulated use of information from outside sources, as well as synthesis of this information with their own ideas.

Alison J. Head, a co-principal investigator for, feels that our students "feel overwhelmed, and they’re developing a strategy for not drowning in all information out there. They’re basically taking how they learned to research in high school with them to college, since it’s worked for them in the past.”

From my own classes, I know that students do see "research" as more of a quest for the "right answer" than as a process of evaluating different arguments and coming up with their own interpretation. That aspect is also something we deal with directly in the critical thinking component of the WI course sections. Unfortunately, we also find that many instructors actually discourage looking at different arguments or including the students' interpretations in their assignments. Although encouraging those two things in all assignments wouldn't be practical, in redesigning GenEd courses as WI sections, we found there was almost no opportunities for that kind of diversity of thought in the existing assignments.

“Not being aware of the diverse resources that exist or the different ways knowledge is created and shared is dangerous,” says Ms. Head. “College is a time to find information and learn about multiple arguments, and exploring gets sacrificed if you conduct research in this way.”

August 22, 2011

August Faculty Institute

This week, August 24 and 25, the Writing Initiative is holding a training institute for faculty taking over new sections of a developed Writing Intensive Course.
This Institute is designed to introduce faculty to the Initiative and WI course requirements, support services for both faculty and students, and handing over of materials previously developed by the original faculty member to teach the course. Developing new materials and tools and resources are also covered.

Participants are asked to bring a copy of the course textbook and any syllabus and writing assignments they already use in their version of the course.

Below are some of the topics covered over the 2 days.
  • Writing Initiative goals and requirements
  • Formal and informal writing
  • Creating new WI assignments  - examples & using  templates
  • Student portfolios: objectives, hands-on use of the eFolio product, sample student portfolios, grading strategies
  • Critical thinking assignments – template, rubrics
  • Information literacy assignments – template, rubrics
  • Responding to and grading student writing  - for content vs. for writing 
  • Using the Writing Center and online resources for online & face-to-face course sections
  • Hands-on session using LibGuides as an editor and adding links, resources, media objects etc.

August 9, 2011

Math Writing Intensive

This fall, College Math I will join Basic Statistics as the second WI course from the Math Department.

College Math is the first WI course to be simultaneously developed by multiple faculty members. Professors Fillmore Corpus, Kristina Oriente, and Kavita Patel collaborated to create the WI components of this course.

Three sections will pilot in the fall: one on the Paterson campus, one on the Wanaque campus, and one online. The hope is that it will eventually expand and be offered on the Passaic campus as well.

MA 101 offers a  broad introduction to the mathematical concepts of symbolic logic, sets, finite and infinite mathematical systems, as well as some history behind these concepts.

August 8, 2011

The PCCC Writing Center on the Road

During year 3 of the Initiative, the PCCC Writing Center provided services at the main campus in Paterson and also on our Wanaque (WAC) and Passaic (PAC) locations. Unfortunately, there is no permanent location for these services on either of the satellite campuses. We have used the tutoring/computer lab area at WAC and a computer lab at PAC during the past year.

As we compile our year 4 statistics on Center usage on all campuses, here are some stats and information on usage by students.

In all we met for 722 appointments and workshop attendees in Paterson in year 3. Unfortunately, use on both satellite campuses has been poor.At Wanaque, for example, Fall 2009 had only 10 reservations and Spring 2010 had 14 reservations.

It is difficult for us to justify budgeting the current tutor budget (or any increase in hours) for those other campuses with the low numbers we have experienced.

There have been some student requests for workshops on our other campuses, so we started scheduling workshops in Wanaque and Passaic starting in Oct. 2010.

No-shows continue to be an issue on all campuses with the number hovering at around 25% in Paterson and at WAC. ("No-shows" are appointments not kept and without prior contact by the student that they were unable to attend.) Weather has sometimes been a factor in this, as are the busy lives of our students. We hope that with some new approaches to reminding students of their appointments and with more students being able to schedule and cancel their own appointments online, no-shows will decrease.

The Writing Center in Paterson has been open during the summer the past two years although there are no writing intensive courses offered during the summer. The focus for summer has been supporting students preparing to retake the College Writing Exam.

August 4, 2011

Shakespeare in the State Park

The public is invited to the annual performance of Shakespeare in the State Park. This year's production will be The Tempest, presented by the Hudson Shakespeare Company, a nonprofit theater troupe that "utilizes the best young and experienced actors, directors and crew from around the tri-state area." The production will be presented in front of an 18th Century building within the Long Pond Ironworks Historic District.  For more information on this and other events there see

Shakespeare in the State Park is free and open to the public; the performance will begin at 5:00 p.m. Attendees are asked to bring lawn chairs and bug spray. The performance is ADA accessible. The Friends of Long Pond Ironworks will be offering cold water. Rain date is August 7. 

This project is funded, in part, by the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council at Passaic County Community College, made possible, in part, by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts.

July 27, 2011

Science Writing Intensive

In Fall 2011 the Writing Initiative will be piloting two new writing-intensive science courses.

Biology I and Intro to Microbiology will join Biology II and Environmental Science, bringing the total number of science writing-intensive courses to four.

Microbiology, BS 203, is the first 200-level science course to be offered as WI. Prof. Anne Loving, who is developing the course, has said that this new course should be helpful to nursing students in particular, as most of their general education courses focus on math and science.

Biology I is being developed by Prof. Megan Sloan, and will complement Biology II, which was developed and piloted by Prof. Ida Greidanus in Fall 2010.

For more information about BS 203 WI, go to

July 25, 2011

Connections to Area High Schools

One component contained in our Title V writing grant is to make connections with the area high schools that send students to the college and with other New Jersey college writing programs. The high school connection was a focus for us in year 3 (2010).

“Connections,” as we have branded that particular effort, involves collaborating with area schools to share the best practices in teaching writing across disciplines. Our website for the Connections program is at

These connections to other schools could also help PCCC increase general student success by providing coordination prior to and after their PCCC experiences.

Two sessions for high school teachers were held during the summer of 2010 at the Writing Center on the Paterson campus. Alexandra Della Fera coordinated contacting area high schools with a focus on those schools that participate in the PCCC dual enrollment program. Teachers needed to complete an application with information about their current use of writing and how they hoped to expand their use of writing.

Attendees received a stipend of $500 for attendance at the two days and completion of the activities and received professional development hours for their participation.

Though the invitations went to teachers in all disciplines, the majority of applicants were English teachers. In session two, we targeted other disciplines as much as possible and the participants included teachers of social studies, Spanish, and business.

We discussed strategies to address the topics applicants were most interested in and shared approaches and tools that the participants have found effective. The “big ideas” for the two days were the topics we use with our own WI faculty: teachers as writers, the writing process, using critical thinking and information literacy in writing, writing to learn and learning to write, and using technology in the writing process.

Some of the topics on the schedule were: discussing their schools and student populations, a discussion of the results of some pre-seminar questions we asked them to write about, giving feedback to writers, using Wikipedia, using writing prompts, online Microsoft resources, useful grammar web sites, rubrics, holistic scoring, portfolios & reflection, using podcasts, and critical thinking.

The most interesting and longest sessions were devoted to having the teachers share their own “best writing lesson.” These lessons are being archived along with our other resources online.