As writing instructors we inevitably have students who do not successfully earn a C or better in our courses every semester. While we do what we can during the semester to motivate and push our students to write well and pass, some students are not yet ready to move on to higher level writing courses (either 1020, 3010, or the Writing Intensives). Yet, for all our efforts and all of our frustrations, many of these students are quickly forgotten in the rush of the following term. We know that these students will have to re-take the course in the future, but often times we can only hope that they do better the next time around.
Where do these students go once they have failed to move on to higher level writing courses? Are they successful the second time around? The third? Maybe some seek alternative options, such as a transferrable writing course at a community college (nearly 50% of our 3010 students have taken first-year composition outside of our department), but what becomes of them in the following semesters?
Some students are indeed successful the second time going through our courses. Having gone through the course once before and having a chance to experience the major assignments a second time, students who previously missed the mark the first time are often able to squeak by with a C (instead of that C- the first time). Perhaps they are able to connect with another instructor better the second time around, maybe they have matured as writers or found more time to devote to their courses. Maybe.
Whatever ultimately happens, I think this is a population of students that is often forgotten in our discussions of course planning and student-teacher interactions, but it is a group of students that all of us will encounter as writing instructors. So what can we do for those students who are taking our 1020 courses or 3010 courses for a second time? How can we promote a re-engagement with the material the second time through in order to motivate them? Is there a way for us to facilitate transfer not only between writing courses (i.e. 1020 and 3010), but between repeated sections of the same course (i.e. 1020 to 1020, 3010 to 3010)?
At this point in time I think I have less solutions than questions, less answers than hypotheses. Never-the-less, I offer up two unique, albeit extreme, situations of repeating students (one in 1020 and another in 3010) that could generate some discussion.
The first case is one that has haunted me for the last several semesters. During my second year of teaching 1020 I had a student register for my section that had taken and failed 1020 five times. In fact, this particular student had to seek out special permission to register for my section (in the hopes of finally being able to pass the course). While I had received word from our department of this student’s situation prior to the first day of class this student was quite upfront with his record and seemed motivated enough to do well this time through. We set up required meetings once a week and required him to attend appointments at the writing center (two appointments for every major project in 1020) to make sure that he was on task and working toward the project goals. In the end, however, this student turned in only one out of four major projects and was unable to pass through to 3010. Moreover, this student would have to re-start the composition sequence at ENG 1010 before trying ENG 1020 for a *seventh* time. I asked him just before the close of the semester about what went wrong this time around. His reply: It was just the same stuff over again. Couldn’t do it the first time, couldn’t do it now.
The second case happened in my 3010 class recently. This student was taking 3010 for the first time, was a capable writer, and seemed motivated at the start of the semester. Her first few projects of the semester were smart and well composed (though at times shorter than they ought to have been). As the semester wore on, however, her attendance became spotty and her projects infrequent. When prompted via email to come to office hours to discuss any potential problems that she may be having she failed to respond. Eventually I confronted her after class one day and asked about her standing in the class. She told me about her job and working full-time which left her little time to work on the assignments. She also mentioned, however, a feeling of writers block when it came to her projects. I offered her a chance to come to office hours to work on some brainstorming strategies, which she kindly refused (her work schedule would not permit it), but promised that she would soon turn in all late assignments and complete the remaining projects on time. Eventually these projects were turned in. Unfortunately, these projects were turned in three weeks after grades were submitted. I offered her feedback on any piece of writing that she submitted, but could not change the grade. She would need to repeat 3010 in a future semester.
While this case might feel familiar enough (many students feel the pressure of balancing work and school as well as a sense of paralysis when it comes to writing brought on by the lack of time needed to properly complete an assignment), what is a bit more unusual is her request to repeat the course with me again. Every semester a small handful of students earn grades lower than the required C, but never have any students requested joining my class a second time (though I do know of other instructors that have had this happen). What am I to do with a student that has already taken the course and completed all the projects (if turned in on time she would have received a B or better)? Could she simply turn in the same projects the next semester? Do I have her write new projects? Is there a middle ground to be had? Beyond the desire to earn a passing grade next semester, what is going to motivate her to remain engaged in the course a second time?
Perhaps on some level there is little we can do for students like the first case. We cannot convince students that our classes are more important than the jobs they work; we cannot always convince them to even turn their projects in on time. This may be indicative of a certain student “disposition” (for a more fleshed out discussion of this look for Wardle and Wells’ forthcoming work) that finds motivation difficult, but does that mean we just let them go?
Beyond simple repetition, is there anything more we can do to facilitate learning for second-time students? Is there a way to help the student see connections between sections of ENG 1020 or ENG 3010 to facilitate better writing, or at least an awareness of writing strategies? I told you I had more questions than answers.
I also told you that I had a hypothesis, but it’s a hypothesis just barely in the making.
Over the last year our department has been promoting the use of reflective portfolios to assess how well students are achieving the learning outcomes in our writing courses. These reflective moments have been trumpeted by transfer scholars as a way to teach meta-cognitive writing skills, or a more adept awareness of writing strategies and how they can be used in future writing situations. A similar strategy I believe can be incorporated into the writing classroom for repeat students (Note: I think that reflective assignments throughout the semester can be beneficial for all students, I am just thinking about how they might be particularly beneficial for repeat students).
1. Beginning of the Semester Diagnostic
Through a simple writing diagnostic at the beginning of the semester we can fish out which of our students are repeating the course. Asking them (in a writing prompt) to discuss experiences that they may have had in previous writing classrooms and then highlighting high school classes and also previous versions of this course will tell you who is a repeat most often. Additionally, you can ask them to list several key concepts that they remember from the course and how they might be useful in this section will allow them to re-engage with skills and concepts from previous courses and think forward to how they might use them in their current course. This type of diagnostic is, I believe, already in common use throughout the department, but we might consider including explicit reference to previous versions of the same course here.
2. Follow up Reflective Writings
As one of the planning assignments for your major projects have repeat students re-assess one of their written projects from a previous semester (this would be particularly useful for students who were asked to write similar assignments in a previous section, something fairly standard with the common syllabi). What worked for them last time? What didn’t? Having students articulate strategies from their own work will hopefully reinforce portions of the course that they were able to grasp and highlight other concepts and skills that seemed more foreign to them.
You may or may not allow the student to use the project from the previous section (the problem that I face with student #2). In her case, I think I may allow her to return to those previously written works, but develop revision plans that will ask her to reflect on the work that she did and develop strategies for strengthening the projects. Specifically, because she was enrolled in one of the pilot courses, I will ask her to collect additional data to strengthen her claims about writing practices in her field and then reflect on how this additional data changes the project outcomes.
3. End of Semester Reflection
To conclude the semester you can have the repeat students reflect on the process of going through the course a second time. What was similar? What was different for them? What did you do the second time around that made a difference? How can you use these strategies to successfully complete the next level of writing class?
To conclude, I feel that these reflective strategies would be the most beneficial for students who failed their writing course the first time because of higher order content and organizational issues (rather than lack of commitment to the course). Still, I can’t help but wonder about the first case. Would reflective assignments have been able to help him through that feeling of helplessness? That feeling of repetition which could not be surmounted? Would these assignments have helped him re-engage in the course? Maybe not. But then again, maybe.
Joe Paszek is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. His research interests include Gay and Lesbian studies, Queer theory, and Composition history. He has taught ENG 1020 in the department for several years and is currently teaching ENG 3010.