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!