February 29, 2012

Write It To Learn It

In January, I read that Indiana University neuroscientist Karin Harman James was doing research on what differences might occur in learning when students were writing (note-taking etc.) by hand in block letters, using cursive, and keyboarding.

What do you think was the finding of the research?

Most of us have heard that learning occurs in a deeper way when learners write down the information. In our own Writing Center at PCCC, we don't allow our consultants to write on student papers. Their comments, suggestions and corrections need to be put on the paper by the student. We strongly feel that this makes the changes clearer and longer-lasting, so that the writer is able to mentally revisit the session when they return to the next draft of that paper.

Almost all of our students bring in typed papers when it is an assignment for a class. Some students bring handwritten work if they are in the early stage or if the assignment is more of the homework variety than a formal assignment.

Everyone seems to value the computer/printed version of a paper more, whether this is conscious or not, especially before we read the words. It "looks better."

James' research has led her to make efforts to raise awareness about the role of handwriting in the learning process. This comes at a time when many K-12 schools nationwide try to decide whether handwriting instruction, particularly cursive, still fits within the curriculum.

Her research used brain imaging technology to document how significant changes in the brain occur depending on whether preschool-age children learn letters by printing or typing. The findings point to the formation of a literary system used for reading -- that is, when letters are printed.

"These kinds of findings point to there being something really important about printing and potentially also about cursive," said James, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "These are both fine motor skills, so they might be equally important in understanding cognitive development in children."
She is also beginning research involving cursive writing with college students. Preliminary results seem to indicate that they remembered information better one week later when they transcribed a paragraph in cursive, compared to printing it (by hand) or using a keyboard.
Still, the research has not yet determined whether the benefits of teaching cursive outweigh the time spent in students learning it, or the benefits of keyboarding, such as easier revision, access to spelling and grammar checking.

She presented her finding at a summit sponsored by the educational materials company Zaner-Bloser. That's a name I remember from my own days of learning cursive. The company points to a link between handwriting and literacy development. Their "vertical manuscript" has children learning "to write the same letters they see in books, strengthening the reading-writing connection. Learning to print focuses the students' attention on the distinctive shapes and features of letters, leading to improved letter recognition."

Of course, when the word processor first began to enter the classroom, there were many debates about whether or not tools like spelling and grammar checking were good or bad. I heard that "They will learn the rules by seeing the corrections" and "Teachers will get better first drafts" as often as I heard teachers say that "Students will learn nothing if the computer does it for them."  I'm not sure that that particular debate has ever been closed, although the word processor is a very solid part of the education process.

Until we have more definitive results, is it safe to conclude that writing down what you are learning - using any method - helps the learner retain information better than just hearing it and trying to remember? 


February 24, 2012

Practice Taking the CWE

Next week’s writing workshops will be a bit different from our usual ones. We will be offering students the opportunity to take a Mock CWE, which will simulate the same environment as the actual CWE. Students will get two questions (one on a general topic and one from their major), a laptop and two hours to write. After the two hours are over, we will print up the essays and students will review each other’s work.  Students can also schedule appointments with a Writing Consultant for extra CWE review and tips.
The Mock CWE workshop will last a total of three hours. Please remember that unlike our other workshops, the Mock CWE requires students to register in advance (and seating is limited). The dates and times of the Mock CWE are as follows:

Wednesday, February 29, 5:00-8:00 PM

Thursday, March 1, 1:00-4:00 PM

If you are interested in taking the Mock CWE, please contact us at writingcenter@pccc.edu

Make sure that you provide us with your major so that we can make sure to have the appropriate questions ready for you.

We hope to see you there!

February 21, 2012

Using Reflection to Improve Writing

Image from: http://www.free-desktop-backgrounds.net/Nature-landscapes-wallpapers/Water-reflection-landscpe/Mountain-water-reflection.html

The benefits of reflecting for improving student writing have often been discussed. Reflection asks students to take a close look at their own writing process, their strengths and weaknesses as writers and their learning habits, and then they write about it, thus performing their own assessment and practicing the writing process again.

But how do we make sure that the lessons students learn from reflecting are lasting? How do we know that they will apply what they have learned about themselves as writers to future assignments?

One of the most important things when implementing a reflection component in a course is routine. A single reflection in the middle or at the end of a course is not enough. As revision is an ongoing process, so is reflection. According to Nedra Reynolds and Rich Rice, "Instituting routine or ongoing assignments that get students to practice reflective learning helps students establish a reflective-learning habit that can influence their learning for years to come" (Portfolio Teaching: A Guide for Instructors). It is the repeated practice of reflecting that helps students improve their writing. Establishing a routine for a course will be habit forming and will change the way students approach their writing now and in the future.

Another aspect is variety. Although having a routine of reflection in class is important, the content of the reflections should not be routine for students. A common reflection process is the "Assignment, Accomplishments, Challenges, Future" process. This process asks students to state what they were asked to do, what they felt they did well, what they felt they did not do as well, and what changes they will make on future assignments. This is a great place to start. It gets students to take a critical look at their writing and forces them to come up with some critiques.

However, there other types of reflection that can be just as useful to both student and instructor alike. One is a simple assignment critique. This type is similar to the above, but instead of focusing on their writing, they write about how the assignment fit into their learning and what changes could be made for the future. Another type of reflection asks students to make connections between the assignment and the course material, or between the assignment and "real life." This encourages critical thinking and shows students that assignments are not given just for the sake of giving grades. Yet another asks students to write about questions the assignment may have engendered or other related topics that they'd like to learn about.

Timing is also variable. Typically, we think of reflections as coming with the final draft of an assignment. However, this does not always have to be the case. Students can be asked to react to their writing after reading the writing of their peers. They can talk about things that others did that they didn't think of, that they find interesting, etc. They can also reflect on their writing after receiving feedback (and even a grade) from the instructor. By doing this, they are encouraged to look closely at not only their writing, but at the comments given by an instructor. They are required to read these comments and interpret them. It will help both the instructor and the student see if he/she understands the comments, and if the instructor understood what the student was trying to do. This is a good lesson on audience as well as on writing.

However reflection is used, it should be used often. Reflection helps make better thinkers, which helps them become better writers.

February 16, 2012

Who Works in the Writing Center?

PCCC's Writing Center is staffed by a talented group of individuals from all different areas of expertise. All are experts in writing in various forms and use their talents to help students one-on-one, in small groups, in workshops, and online. Furthermore, they're a fun bunch who help take the stress out of writing for our students and out of running a successful writing program for faculty and staff.

Elizabeth coordinates the Writing Center, which means she doesn't get as much time to spend with students. She makes sure that global issues in the Center are taken care of, such as consultant training, and she also handles student complaints (not that there are many!).

Martha manages the Writing Center, so she also doesn't see as many individual students as the rest of the team. Martha makes sure that every day in the Center runs as smoothly as possible, including consultant agendas and emergency assistance. Her background is in history, and she is bilingual, speaking both Polish and English, both of which make her sought after by many of our students!

Latoya is one of our senior consultants. She is a fiction writer and also teaches in the English Department. She has become the face of the Initiative on our Passaic campus, teaching Intro to Lit WI every semester. No only does Latoya meet with students; she has also developed curriculum and materials for many of the writing workshops  we offer. In addition, she works with new consultants during their training. She serves as an example, mentor, and source of wisdom. She's always ready to help out.

Mike is our other senior consultant. He and Latoya started around the same time and have been with us the longest. He covers evenings in the Center (and is a teacher by day). He is pretty much in charge after 5:30. He balances working with students, mentoring new consultants, and closing down the Center every night. Mike's background is in history and education, so he can offer insight from a variety of perspectives.

Mark has a background in theater and kind and welcoming disposition. He can always cheer up a sad student or calm down an anxious one. Gentle and patient, he can always be called upon to assist a difficult student. He teaches English and Public Speaking at another college as well. In his spare time, he is a director; he works on a play or two each year.

Emily is another fiction writer, a snappy dresser, and a charismatic personality. She teaches in the English Department--both writing-intensive and non-writing-intensive courses. Emily brings her energy to everything she does in the Center. She is always cheerful and can change the attitude of a whole room just by entering it.

Alex is fairly new to the Center, having started just last semester. He, too, writes fiction, and he teaches composition in the English Department. Alex's sense of fun has served him (and us!) well at the Center. He is polite and respectful with students, but he's not afraid to let his quick wit come through. He's always ready to work with a walk-in student or run a last-minute workshop.

Juan started with us this semester, and it looks like we may not have him for long! A recent college graduate, he is looking into PhD programs for the fall. Juan is bilingual--Spanish and English, which is a big help, since we have a large Hispanic population. He has taken to the Center immediately and is now requested by students on a regular basis.

Ros too, is new this semester, and she is also a fiction writer. Ros also has a background in ASL. In the past she has worked with hard of hearing and deaf students, serving as an aid to their learning. She is knowledgeable about ADA compliance, and we frequently ask her how we can be more attentive to students with disabilities of any kind. She has just begun working with students, and she seems to be a success!

Nelson is our newest member. He began at PCCC teaching Basic Skills and working in the Reading/Writing lab. He still teaches Basic Skills and college-level English, and now he works with students in the Center. Because of his intimate knowledge of the support lab processes, he is the one we turn to when a Basic Skills student comes by with questions. If we can't answer them, he usually can.

February 10, 2012

Writing Center Conference

The Writing Initiative team will be presenting at the upcoming MAWCA (Mid-Atlantic Writing Centers Association) conference. This year the conference is being held at Shippensburg University on March 30 and 31. Its annual conference is a great forum for Writing Center directors, consultants and tutors to exchange ideas and discuss best practices. MAWCA is part of a larger organization called the International Writing Centers Association.

This year’s conference theme is “Writing Centers as Agents of Change,” which will delve into the nature of Writing Centers and how they affect students, peer tutors, professional writing consultants and administrators. Our team will be presenting about PCCC’s own Writing Center and the role it plays in Writing Intensive courses.

Presently, one of the requirements of Writing Intensive courses at PCCC is that students must use at least two forms of tutoring (Writing Center or eTutoring) during the course of the semester. We have found that many students who choose to come to the Writing Center continue to come even after they have fulfilled their required visits. Many return with papers for other, non-WI classes or other types of writing help, like crafting an essay for an application to a four-year university. Rather than seeing it as a punishment or chore, students view a visit to the Writing Center as a valuable resource.

February 9, 2012

2012 Writing Contest

Announcing PCCC's Second Annual Student Writing Contest!

All PCCC students are invited to enter!

The Writing Center is accepting submissions in the following genres:

  1. Poetry 75 line maximum
  2. Short Fiction 15 page (4,500) word maximum
  3. Academic Essays 5 page (1,500) word maximum

We will accept typed submissions via email to writingcenter@pccc.edu or delivered by hand to our Paterson location (in the library.) Unfortunately, submissions cannot be returned. In addition, winners may be asked to provide a digital copy if they submit by hand.

Submissions are being accepted between Monday, Feb. 6 and Friday, March 9.

Judges will choose a first, second, and third place winner in each category. Winners will be announced on April 5.

Winners will receive a gift package and have the opportunity to read their work at a student reading in April.

February 8, 2012

Course-Level Assessment Using Student Portfolios

The Writing Initiative team uses student portfolios to assess overall writing, the use of critical thinking and the use of information literacy in assignments. Writing Intensive students have been using an electronic portfolio product called eFolio.

Using a randomized selection of at least 10% of the student artifacts submitted to portfolios across all sections, the team evaluates assignments using the WI rubrics for writing, critical thinking and information literacy that are used in the WI course sections.

The rubrics for writing and critical thinking were aligned with the scoring methodology used for our College Writing Exam so that we could make some longitudinal comparisons with data on that exam that goes back well before the Initiative.

The information literacy rubric and scoring adheres to the methodology that has been used for a number of years prior to the grant to analyze IL in the College Experience classes.

Some instructors who find limited success having student use the electronic portfolios have been allowed to submit paper or electronic copies of student writing for analysis.

The percentage of WI students who upload at least one assignment to their portfolios each semester had consistently been about one-third, which was less than anticipated. However, during the Spring 2011 semester, portfolio use rose to 48%, nearly a 50% increase. There is certainly improved buy-in by faculty and students that has occurred as the Initiative progresses. Portfolios – and the Initiative as a whole – are a growing part of the institutional culture.

Students have access to eFolio tutorials and support documentation via LibGuides. Use of the online video tutorials, recorded with Echo360 lecture capture technology, has increased over 200% from 2010 to 2011. In-class eFolio sessions are conducted as needed, and students with eFolio questions can drop in or schedule an appointment with the Technology Resource Specialist.

The Writing Initiative has played a very important role in making the case for portfolios as a means of campus-wide assessment. Last year, the Vice-President of Academic Affairs outlined a five-year, three-phase plan to adopt portfolios for assessment in several academic programs. The Education/Early Childhood Education department has systematically adopted department-wide use of portfolios. Portfolios are also being piloted in a small sample of Composition I and ESL classes.

February 6, 2012

Writing Center Workshops

Spring workshops have started!  Last week the Writing Center ran “Introduction to the CWE.” This workshop was intended for students who had never taken the CWE, but wanted to know how to start preparing for it.

This week’s writing workshop will be “Attacking the Question.” It will teach students how to attack an essay starting with the question. It will show students how to decode "professor speak" in order to figure out what's really being asked of them and help them to formulate and organize an answer. This workshop will be useful to students taking the CWE to work out exactly what a question is asking and how to go about answering it.

The “Attacking the Question” workshop will be held on Tuesday, February 7 at 5:40 and again on Wednesday, February 8 at 1:10.

Survival Grammar is back every Monday at 1:10 and again at 4:30! This workshop will begin with a grammar lesson and continue with interactive exercises to help students improve their grammar. A different grammar topic will be featured each week.

All workshops are held in the Writing Center located in A113.

February 3, 2012

The PCCC Super Bowl Connection

Passaic County Community College in Paterson is deep in NY Giants country. The Giants' wide receiver, Victor Cruz, is also a Paterson native.

Cruz was an undrafted free agent out of the University of Massachusetts in 2010 and he was almost cut several times by the Giants. He admits that he almost didn’t make it at UMass either because of academic problems.

If you hear him interviewed, he comes off as a smart guy who knows the right things to say. But like many undergrads, he admits to being irresponsible and too interested in having fun.

On Yahoo! Sports, he said:
“Everybody says that when you go off to college, it’s your chance to have a good time. At the same time, you have to take care of your work. I didn’t get that. I expected a lot of things to be given to me and just taken care of when I got to college and that wasn’t going to happen.”

In 2007, Victor was living back in Paterson "trying to get his grades together" here at Passaic County Community College. It was a tough year. His father committed suicide that year, and his grandfather also died that year.
“It wasn’t one thing that made me realize that I had to get this straightened out, it was a multitude of things. So many things were happening at once, and I just realized I didn’t want to be a statistic, another guy from an inner-city who didn’t make it. I wanted to realize my dreams. To do that, I had to apply myself.”

He turned it around.

This season as a player he has been great. He's a media favorite in Super Bowl coverage. He is also a favorite of the the Latin media.

He has demonstrated his salsa dancing on TV and turned down an offer to be on "Dancing With The Stars" to stay focused on football.
“I see what could happen for me and I’m going to capitalize on it when the time is right. Like I said, I have that pride in my culture and I want to show people that.”

We wish Victor and Giants good luck this weekend. And Victor, if you need any help writing a press release, drop by the Writing Center in Paterson...