Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Take advantage of Writing Center Services

As you are preparing for your winter term, please take advantage of the Writing Center services for you and your students! Click here for more information.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

SNL faculty discuss supporting student writers across the SNL curriculum

When the SNL writing faculty gathered this past October for our semi-annual meeting, we discussed the points in the SNL curriculum where students do the most writing or where their writing is assessed more heavily than at other points. To deepen a conversation of how to help SNL students become better writers and succeed in the program and beyond, we asked faculty who teach SNL's Independent Learning Seminar, Research Seminar, and Advanced Project to join us and contribute their thoughts about what writing looks like and where students need support. Below are some highlights of that conversation.

Not surprisingly, we agreed that the "path" for SNL students when it comes to becoming a better writer is not always the same. Some students enter with lots of professional writing experience but little knowledge of what it means to do academic research or why research matters when students are seasoned experts in their field. Others may come straight from a community college with a great sense of what a traditional academic essay should look like, but are not comfortable "writing from experience" or "writing to demonstrate competence". Others come to us with extreme anxiety about writing in general; the idea of writing an essay or a professional letter makes them cringe. There are, of course, students who are some combination of these. Although, the ideal path is not the same, we agreed that it would be useful to have students take a writing class early on in their SNL career. Discussing the major writing assignments and the conventions of academic writing earlier will afford plenty of time for students, their mentors, and faculty to wrestle with assumptions, contradictions, and requirements when it comes to writing at SNL. This early conversation gives students the opportunity to learn SNL's language (discourse), navigate the major writing assignments they will encounter, and begin to think about the best path for them. 

Another question raised was, "What are the priorities with regard to writing at SNL in general?" Based on the overview provided for us by the ILS, RS, and AP faculty, the SNL curriculum prioritizes insightful responses to the assignments within the conventions of the genre (ILP, Research Proposal, Artifact/Analyis, etc.). However, "error-free" writing is a very, very close runner-up. In alignment with this, SNL writing faculty explained how they prioritize global issues like thesis development, paragraph focus and organization, writing as a process, conducting research, and integrating sources in our two main writing courses (LL140 and LL260), and a great deal of time is spent on these in class, in online exercises and discussion, and through instructor feedback on drafts. Sentence-level issues like grammar and spelling are also covered in the two writing courses through one-on-one conversations, individualized feedback, and in-class activities.

However, as is true for anyone trying to improve their writing, students need more practice with all of these writing concepts than a 10-week course can afford. As a result, SNL writing instructors give students the tools to address their own grammar needs over time and provide them as well as other SNL faculty with information about resources for ongoing writing support, including the Writing Center tutors and writing groups, online self-directed activities, the SNL Writing Guide, and the Purdue Online Writing Lab. The most common issue is that students pass their writing course but then forget about these resources or the processes for research and effective academic writing because there is too long of a hiatus before they need to use them again. Another issue is that their ongoing development as writers is not directly emphasized again in the curriculum until they get to Research Seminar, where the expectation for writing proficiency is sometimes near a graduate-student level or sometimes heavily social-science oriented, which may be foreign to students who are not interested in pursuing a research-oriented path. The SNL writing faculty agreed that exploring some of the various approaches to these SNL genres is key, they also felt that a continued dialogue about these genres and types of writing throughout the curriculum is necessary. They felt that if all SNL faculty members play a role in reminding students of the available writing-related resources and support them in their ongoing development throughout their tenure at SNL, even if only via one-on-one feedback on an essay or a brief discussion in class, the students are more likely to excel and further develop their writing competence.

 While these were just a couple of the points we covered in the meeting, they are foundational concepts that we agreed to continue monitoring and discussing when it comes to adult learning, supporting SNL students in becoming better writers, and helping each student succeed in navigating academic discourse and in a competence-based curriculum that is writing-intensive. We plan to continue this conversation on a regular basis to consider additional ways each person in the SNL community can meet students where they are and continue providing resources for success. SNL Writing also will continue to provide support for SNL faculty in working with SNL students on their writing through our resources such as Writing Fellows and the Teaching with Writing professional development course, the SNL Faculty Support: Writing Resources website, the SNL Writing News blog, and the SNL Writing Rubric for Papers and Essays.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Encourage students to submit to the SNL Writing Showcase

As the term comes to a close, students should consider submitting their excellent final papers, portfolios, or other writing projects to the SNL Writing Showcase. Entries are welcome through April 1, 2015. More details are here:

Monday, November 3, 2014

The 2014 Month of Writing Challenge: The Blank Page as an Opportunity for Revision

by Steffanie Triller Fry

During this 2014 Month of Writing Challenge, I’ve spent much of my time penning something my Creative Writing MFA program calls a “craft essay.” It’s an essay of 5,000+ words that analyzes the way a writer performs a particular aspect of her craft. 

But it’s not the craft in the essay that I’ve been struggling with this month; it’s the craft of the essay. I labored over the first draft: I revised over and over, printing it out to scribble handwritten notes over the entire document, rewriting my introduction, only to have my instructor come back with this: “What’s the original angle / approach of this essay? Does its author have her own ideas, or is she only going to call forth old chestnuts? Trust yourself. Use your own expertise.”

But I did! I thought. I drew together the ideas of numerous experts and, I thought, made some interesting and enlightening connections between their ideas. What was missing?

Then, about a week later, one of the students in the Write Now class gave his required “Pep Talk,” a 500 word reflection on how to effectively write at least 25,000 words in one month. His talk included the following message: 

Oh, I thought. That's what was missing from my essay: Me. In trying to communicate my analysis in my essay, I failed to communicate even my main message. My writing became overly academic. 

So the spirit of the Month of Writing, I set my essay aside. I opened Microsoft Word and clicked open a blank document. I wrote my introduction again. I decided it was still too impersonal. I opened another blank document. I tried again. I thought of my daughter’s favorite toy: a set of stackable rings. I had them, every kid’s had them. The rings fit onto a cone-shaped tower. The blue goes on the bottom, then the yellow, green, orange, and red. When she first received the toy, my daughter loved the red ring: it’s also a rattle. She would dump all of the rings off the cone, and then put just the red one on. Of course, then none of the other rings would fit. She’d get frustrated. This is what I was trying to do with my essay: jump to the top ring without building the foundation of blue, yellow, green, and orange for my reader. 

As the author of my essay, I need to build that foundation of blue, yellow, green, and orange. Now in my final draft, I use a short personal narrative about my daughter (much like the one in the previous paragraph) to illustrate the main idea of the essay. I state my purpose briefly but completely, and I even include an example of a time that I attempted to use an object to evoke emotion in a short story, and failed. This time, as I worked on what felt like the 500th draft, I felt like I was building and supporting my own idea. I had found my expertise in the topic. I appreciate the Month of Writing for giving me the courage to turn to the blank page, and to turn to it again. Without the blank page, I might never have found myself in this essay.

We would do well to remind our students and ourselves that we have a place not only to craft our writing, but to write about ourselves as part of our craft. As my student said, it’s not enough to tell the story. We need to become the story. Next year, the School for New Learning will partner with the University Center for Writing-based Learning to hold the 2015 DePaul University Month of Writing Challenge. Encourage your students to participate. Offer extra credit. Participate yourself! The Month of Writing can be a wonderful time to extend the invitation of the blank page, and to invite students to bring themselves to that page.

And, if you’re interested in the complete text of my student’s talk above, or to read more Month of Writing Pep Talks written by SNL students attempting the Month of Writing Challenge, see the Pep Talks page of the Month of Writing website.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Pleasure Principle

by Kamilah Cummings

Earlier this month I participated in a webinar presented by Dr. David Kirkland of New York University titled A Song of the Smoke: Critical Thoughts on the Literacies of Young Black Men. The webinar was part of Georgia State University’s “Conversations in Global Literacy” series. Kirkland’s presentation examined how educational bias has marginalized black male youth and created a cycle of miseducation that disengages them from the classroom at all levels of education. As part of rethinking the ways educators address this crisis, he offered thoughts on how to better engage these students and their literacies in the classroom. One of the thoughts Kirkland offered for how to do this is to replace “reading, writing, and arithmetic” as the rudiments of education with “pleasure, play, curiosity, and creativity” (Kirkland).

Although we envision the classroom as a place of inclusion, research reflects the reality that many classrooms from kindergarten to college remain places of exclusion. In the article, “Are we having fun yet? Students, social class, and the pleasures of literacy,” Bronwyn T. Williams writes, “if we consider how experiences of reading, writing, and other forms of popular culture influence students’ perceptions of pleasure and literacy, social class has a role to play. Intelligence and pleasure obviously have no class boundaries, but the experiences students have with different forms of texts and communication often do have them. (Williams 339-340)” Williams admits that this can be an uncomfortable subject for educators, but it is a fact that both he and Kirkland argue educators must acknowledge to better facilitate student engagement and learning. Kirkland believes a pedagogical approach that incorporates pleasure, play, curiosity, and creativity can create a more inclusive learning experience.

Certainly, Kirkland and Williams are not the only scholars to recognize the need for pleasure in the classroom. However, as they both acknowledge, the pleasure principle has all but disappeared from most college classrooms. For many educators, pleasure and learning are mutually exclusive experiences that can only unite in specific disciplines.  

Following Kirkland’s presentation, I thought about ways that I use “pleasure, play, curiosity and creativity” to engage students. As much as writing teachers, or teachers in any discipline, love our subject matter we have to accept that many students do not share our love or enthusiasm. With adult learners in particular, there might be a multitude of reasons why students have been disengaged from writing. However, if we find ways to make it more pleasurable and, dare I say fun, perhaps we can disarm some of their fears and frustrations.

This reminded me of a recent class where several of the students confessed that they, “did not like writing.” Rather than attempt to unpack all the reasons why they felt this way, I decided to try to make writing fun so that they could gain pleasure from it while revealing their writing strengths. So, I brought the party game “Table Topics” to class. The game consists of cards with thought-provoking questions on a range of topics from popular culture to politics. It is marketed as a conversation-starter. I used it as a form of low stakes journaling/prewriting assignment. Students pulled two cards and were allowed to decide which question they wanted to answer. I gave them 15 minutes to write a response to the question. I was surprised at how much fun the students had with the game. However, more importantly, they were surprised by how much they were able to write and how much pleasure they had writing it. In previous low stakes journaling/prewriting assignments, students sometimes struggled to write for the allotted time.

The University of New Hampshire’s English Department Director argues, “We can make great claims for the future utility of writing, but if we make it a dutiful act of delayed gratification, devoid of immediate pleasure, students will not write voluntarily, and they will not really engage with the work we require” (Writing and Pleasure). My experience supported this. Playing a game delivered more benefits than I expected. I was able to use their responses to show them how they could effectively write a thesis, use narration, support points, use descriptive detail, compare subjects, and more.  I learned about my students’ outside interests and experiences, which I pulled from to further engage them by selecting more pleasurable future readings that aligned with their interests. I also referred to their game responses when providing later feedback on written assignments. Rather than compromise the academic integrity of the class, as some fear might happen, I felt playing the game enhanced it.

Williams cautions that “taking pleasure seriously in the literacy classroom is not about making everything a game” (Williams 341)Instead, he argues that “it is a matter of encouraging students to bridge supposed barriers between creative and critical work and to understand how pleasures in interpreting and creating texts of all kinds can connect to building pleasure in academic literacies” (Williams 341). I agree. I did not turn my classroom into game night at SNL. However, I did find that one night of play helped me to improve student engagement in my class and yielded a more pleasurable overall learning experience.

Works Cited

Kirkland, David E. A Song of the Smoke: Critical Thoughts on the Literacies of Young Black Men. 14 September 2014.
Williams, Bronwyn T. "Are we having fun yet? Students, social class, and the pleasures of literacy." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (December 2004/January 2005): 338-342.
Writing and Pleasure. 2003. 29 September 2014 <http://cola.unh.edu/english/writing-and-pleasure>.

Monday, September 29, 2014

SNLwriting on the radio

Check out Steffanie Triller and Edward Evins on DePaul Radio this past Friday! They were guests on the UCWbL's Scrawl Radio show and talked about what makes SNL unique, how to work with SNL writers, and the Month of Writing.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Upcoming DePaul Workshops on Teaching and Learning

The DePaul Teaching Commons is offering the following workshops in September and October:
Commenting on Writing to Encourage Revision
Responding to student writing can be time consuming and difficult to approach strategically. In this interactive online workshop, presenters will offer guidelines for prioritizing comments, composing helpful summary notes, and avoiding over-commenting on student work.
Connecting Your Classroom to the World: Developing Global Learning Experiences
This workshop focuses on a range of global learning assignments and contexts that can link current local students’ coursework to international perspectives. Participants will learn about internationalizing course materials, online learning technologies that can facilitate cooperative global learning, and teaching partnerships with colleagues in other countries. Lunch will be provided.
Promoting Student Dialogue Through Online Education Modules
Using technology to “flip the classroom” and teach concepts online, class time can be maximized for student dialogue and deeper levels of meaning making. Participants will explore best practices for online module design, module integration into live classes, and learning evaluation design. Light refreshments will be served.

Writing and procrastination: What type of procrastinator are you?

Based on the research of DePaul's Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Lifehacker created a flowchart to help you decide what type of procrastinator you are. The site also provides a nice synopsis of Ferrari's theories about why procrastinators procrastinate (and my personal favorite, why "procrastinators hate procrastinators").

When I talk with students about writer's block, I introduce some sort of cool digital tool for invention, draw a cluster or brain map, create an outline and start to flesh out the essay as an example, or direct students to "talk to someone, be observant, read something, and some ideas will develop." When it comes to procrastination, I tend to suggest using a daily calendar, setting small goals, or finding a buddy to be accountable to.

Yet, the following week, I still wind up with several late papers and incomplete work, and then a sour feeling comes over me. I ask them, "What happened?" One third of the guilty will say "writer's block", one third will say "I'm a procrastinator", and the other third will tell me about their sick kid, late nights at work, flooded basement, or one of the ten plagues that came across their path in the last seven days. Are "writer's block", "procrastination", and "my kid was really sick" all variations on the same behavioral pattern?

I'd say there are similar, and possibly more forms of procrastination that are task-specific. When it comes to my experience with academic writing and writers, there are likely several variations of procrastination. A bit of research confirmed my suspicion. According to Onwuegbuzie and Collins, "students apprehension about writing appears to be related to academic procrastination stemming from fear of failure and task aversion. This result is consistent with work of Boice who found that procrastination was one of seven cognitive components of writing block. A reciprocal relationship is likely between these constructs" (562). Boice's seven cognitive components include: (1) work apprehension, (2) procrastination, (3) dysphoria, (4) impatience, (5) perfectionism, (6) evaluation anxiety, and (7) rules. Yep, I'm pretty sure I have experience most, if not all of these, myself during my academic career, so I imagine that some these are just now rearing their ugly heads for adult students returning to college.

More recent research has shown that procrastination and writer's block go beyond the cognitive to the social and affective (Wellington 147). Attitudes, beliefs, history, and culture all contribute to those seven cognitive components. Wellington suggests that solutions to procrastination lie in (1) the support and communities that universities provide for writers, (2) opportunities for giving and receiving feedback, (3) educators helping students think about writing as a form of developing and growing their knowledge and understanding (writing as learning), and (4) confronting and talking about the affective elements of writing such as joy, relief, fear, pain, or stress.

I've realized over the years that the process of learning and writing is more than a classroom, a brain, a computer, and textbooks, and that teachers should be required to take at least a few courses in psychology. Procrastination is a real thing that affects real people in achieving their life goals. While I'm not trained in helping people get through these heavy issues, I can at least talk about them in my classroom and offer some food for thought.

For more guidance on avoiding procrastination, check out Ferrari's new book, Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting it Done. Just don't wait too long.

Works Cited
Boice, Robert. "Cognitive components of blocking." Written Communication 2.1 (1985): 91-104.
Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J., and Kathleen MT Collins. "Writing apprehension and academic procrastination among graduate students." Perceptual and motor skills 92.2 (2001): 560-562.
Wellington, Jerry. "More than a matter of cognition: An exploration of affective writing problems of post-graduate students and their possible solutions." Teaching in Higher Education 15.2 (2010): 135-150.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Save the Date

Coming this October: the Month of Writing Challenge. 

Challenge yourself to write as many words as you can. Your words will count toward a scholarship for the DePaul school of your choice. Check back for more details--including a brand-new website--in September.

Until then, feel free to contact snlwriting@depaul.edu with questions. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Making Laptops a Valuable Teaching Tool

Today's guest blogger is Maria Rodriguez, an SNL student. 

One can find much debate when discussing laptops and their use in the classroom. Some students I have talked to believe laptops are needed in class, and others think they are just a distraction. However, Benedict Carey, in “Frequent Tests Can Enhance College Learning, Study Finds,” thinks laptops can be used as a teaching tool to benefit students.  

In his article, Carey mentions Professors James W. Pennebaker and Samuel D. Gosling, two psychology professors at the University of Texas who conducted an experiment that consisted of asking 901 students to bring their laptops to class so they could take a short and personalized online quiz before class began. Experts believe this approach can help prevent students from failing class, especially students from low-income households, according to Carey.

Dr. Gosling seems to agree with him. According to Dr. Gosling, students with low-income backgrounds who also come from “poor-quality” schools need to be quizzed regularly because too often these students fail the first and second midterms, and this happens, he adds, because they once “were always smartest in class,” so when they don’t pass their first midterm they believe it was a mistake, Dr. Gosling says. He also believes once these students fail their second midterm, chances to pass the class are lost. Therefore, by quizzing them regularly students not only excel in class but also pass the class. In my opinion this experiment shows measurable outcomes. Students’ class attendance increased by 30 percent. Class scores went up 10 percent, and total high grades had noticeable growth. Better yet, students from lower-income households didn’t fail the class, and their grades showed the most improvement.

After learning the results of this experiment, one can say that computers used in the classroom can “act as an aid to teaching.” While students might not like the idea of taking quizzes at the beginning of each class, I would say that the advantage of these quizzes is practice that yields a results. For example, regular quizzing is already being practiced by Community Colleges of Chicago. As a former student of Truman College, I had a few professors who gave our class regular quizzes. Therefore, we knew to be prepared for the following class. Though their quizzes were not personalized as Pennebaker and Gosling’s, this regular testing helped me to retain more information, and as an adult learner it forced me to form good study habits and to develop better study routines. I learned to use collected quizzes as study guides and lessen the stress.

So, while quizzes can be given without the use of computers, I think the use of them (especially the students’ own laptops) cuts any strain between the professor and the student. Students don’t like to be told what to do, yet professors don’t want to waste precious time telling adults what to do. In addition, the use of this technology in the classroom helps preserve the environment and saves the school money on paper, ink, and electricity.  

Work Cited
Carey, Benedict. “Frequent Test Can Enhance College Learning, Study Finds.” New York Times. 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 21 June 2013.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Free Writing Class at StoryStudio Chicago

StoryStudio Chicago is an organization dedicated to providing a supportive community for writers of all levels, and on Wednesday, August 27, StoryStudio is hosting an open house and free class:  

Join us for coffee, tea, and conversation with other writers, and then stay for Your Life As Fiction, a fun, all-levels free class that will explore what happens when you combine personal experience with your imagination.

What: Open House and Free Class
Where: StoryStudio Chicago, 4043 N. Ravenswood, Chicago, IL 60613 
Cost: Free!
Click here for more details and to RSVP.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Students who write about the future are more likely to graduate

by Steffanie Triller Fry

“Who Gets to Graduate?” This is the question posed in a May 15, 2014 New York Times Magazine article by Paul Tough. At SNL, the answer to this question is one-in-three. Roughly one in three students who begin the program will graduate within six years. The rest can take longer, transfer to another school, drop out of school, or take a leave of absence. What makes the difference between those who persist and those who do not? According to the article, writing makes the difference.
Research done by a group of psychologists from Stanford says that fear, anxiety, and doubt about belonging and ability keep students from living up to their expectations, especially at moments of transition – like the moment when an adult student decides to return to college or attempt university-level study for the first time.
    In response, Stanford researchers Greg Walton and Geoffrey Cohen designed an experiment to combat these feelings of doubt through writing. They had first-year college students read essays written by upperclassmen that spoke of their experience as freshmen. The message of the essays was, “When I got here, I thought I was the only one who felt left out. But then I found out that everyone feels that way at first, and everyone gets over it. I got over it, too” (Tough). The first-year students then created their own versions of these essays and videos. And the results were stunning:
It had a transformative effect on the college careers of the African-American students in the study: Compared with a control group, the experiment tripled the percentage of black students who earned G.P.A.s in the top quarter of their class, and it cut in half the black-white achievement gap in G.P.A. It even had an impact on the students’ health — the black students who received the belonging message had significantly fewer doctor visits three years after the intervention. (Tough)
Writing researchers long ago identified anxiety as one of the largest barriers to adult college composition. This comes as no surprise to any faculty member who has been teaching at SNL for any length of time. This anxiety often manifests itself as doubt about belonging. Students will say: “I write emails; I don’t write essays.” “I don’t know how to do academic writing.” “I don’t have any ideas to write about.” And anxiety about ability: “I’m not a good writer;” “I always write ______ (fill in the appropriate grammar problem here)” or “I’m just not good at grammar.”
    Luckily, many of the SNL writing faculty have been doing their own versions of Walton and Cohen’s experiment for years. The Handbook for SNL Writing Instructors contains many excellent versions of Walton and Cohen’s initial writing exercise. Perhaps most kin is Jane Wagoner’s “Welcome Letter.” This exercise begins with modeling: Jane writes her own letter to her students, welcoming them to the course. She then asks that they write their own letter in response, including answers to questions like, “Have you ever taken an online or a hybrid course before?” and “What are your other obligations besides college courses?” By reaching out to her students, Jane first welcomes them to class with the letter, reassuring them that they belong. With her questions, she invites them to share their anxieties about writing and being a college student. This personal communication allows students entry into the sometimes antagonistic world of academia. Other assignments on this site, like freewriting, goal and expectation setting, and self-assessments of prior learning, are all ways for students to immediately engage in the course material, rather than feeling anxiety or lack of belonging.
    These assignments are not only useful in writing courses, they are useful in any course. The more an instructor invites students to write into their difficulties, the more practice students will have in writing about difficult topics. The Washtenaw Community College website has excellent suggestions for instructors in all disciplines who want to invite students to write into their difficulties. This kind of writing can encourage conversations about anxiety and belonging early on, before a student has a chance to decide that a course or a topic is too difficult. If more of our faculty employ such early writing in the classroom, maybe we can tell entering students that their chances of graduating are better than one-in-three.

Works Cited

“Ideas for In Class Writing Activities.” English and Writing. Washtenaw Community College, n.d. Web. 28 June 2014.

Tough, Paul. “Who Gets to Graduate?” The New York Times Magazine. The New York Times Company. 15 May 2014. Web. 28 June 2014.

“Writing at the Start of a Course.” Handbook for SNL Writing Instructors. Digication, n.d. Web. 28 June 2014.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Finals Week at the Writing Center

The finals week schedule at the University Center for Writing-based Learning is up, and appointments are going fast! Please let your students know that tutors are still available to help them wrap up coursework, get help with Digication, or polish an AP or ILP. 

Students can click here to log in to the online reservation system, or click here for instructions on how to set up an account. Receptionists can be reached at wcenter@depaul.edu, 312-362-6726 (Loop), or 773-325-4272 (LPC) to answer students' questions or any you may have. You can also request a report from your student's tutor summarizing the session. 

The UCWbL's locations are listed below, but online appointments or requesting written feedback are options as well. These resources are perfect for online, commuter, or working students. 

Loop Campus
(312) 362-6726
25 E. Jackson (Lewis Center)
Suite 1600

Monday, June 9, 10am-5pm
Tuesday June 10, 10am-5pm
Wednesday, June 11, 10am-5pm

Lincoln Park Campus
(773) 325-4272
2320 N. Kenmore (Schmitt Academic Center)
SAC 212

Monday, June 9, 10am-5pm
Tuesday June 10, 10am-5pm
Wednesday, June 11, 10am-5pm

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Observations from an Unofficial Cohort

by Kamilah Cummings

This quarter I had the unexpected experience of teaching as a part of a cohort. Granted, it was not an official cohort. However, at the molecular level, it met the definition of one. Despite the unofficial nature of this cohort, I observed some undeniable benefits of this experience for my students and me.

Although an increasing number of institutions that serve nontraditional students are beginning to adopt the cohort model, cohorts are nothing new. In fact, they have been around for decades. However, as the saying goes, “everything old is new again.” For me, this was a new experience.

Carolyn Callaghan, an Associate Dean of Professional, Continuing and Distance Education Studies, describes a cohort as “a group of students who enter a program of study together, share common learning experiences during a specified time period and complete the program at the end of that specified time period.” Having never taught in an official cohort program, I had not given the model enough thought to form an opinion about it. However, viewing my recent experience through the lens of Callaghan’s definition, it is easy to see benefits in this learning model.

One of the three classes I taught this quarter had six students – six diverse women who had all taken another course together in the previous term. The students all started the program around the same time, and though they had different focus areas, they all had a similar timeframe for completing the program. While I have had classes where a few students knew each other, I had never had an experience where every student had taken classes together in succession and was at a similar place in a program.

One of the things that struck me immediately was the familiarity the students had with each other. This created a high level of engaging and surprisingly candid discussions. The students were open about their anxieties about writing, the course, and succeeding in the program as well. In what I dubbed the 10-minute vent, I started each class with a journal exercise and then allowed them to share whatever they wanted with the class. Although I had never incorporated anything like this into a class, it seemed to offer this group a place to share their feelings in a supportive and encouraging environment. I was amazed at the positive impact that this had on the collective energy of the class from week to week. As we transitioned from discussing personal issues to writing, there was never a dull moment. I never found myself grasping for ways to resuscitate the class. I will admit that there were times where I had to steer the focus back to writing, but it was never a difficult task to get them back on track.

Another place where I saw the benefit of the familiarity that these students had with each other was in peer feedback, an integral component of the writing course. Unfortunately, despite the importance of this aspect of writing, students often need prodding to provide constructive writing feedback to peers. However, that was not the case with this group.

In the book Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development, Eleanor Drago-Severson reflects on a study of a group of 16 adult learners who participated in a cohort  as part of the Polaroid Corporation’s Adult Diploma Program. She states that “For these learners, belonging to a cohort, a tightly knit group with a common purpose, proved important to supporting skill development and transformational learning” (72). I witnessed this firsthand with my group. From reminding a citation weary classmate of research skills she had previously demonstrated in another course to offering to help another student who missed class create an ePortfolio, these students were determined to make sure everyone “got it.”

When one student expressed anxiety over an oral presentation she had to make in another class, the other students invited her to practice before them. I obliged. One thing that I learned as part of my unofficial cohort teaching experience was that as the instructor I played a part in maximizing the cohort experience and further cultivating the sense of community that had already been established.

While some argue that adult learners have support networks outside of school, and are less likely to need the type of support offered in a cohort (Drago-Severson 72), I saw a group of students who supported each other in myriad ways. Whenever a classmate expressed feelings of being overwhelmed and wanting to quit the program, others encouraged her to persevere. During the break in one session, they even helped her find classes to register for next term. Unlike my other two classes, none of the students in this class dropped or withdrew. Additionally, they all completed the required assignments.

According to Callaghan, “Cohort members tend to collaborate, interact, exchange resources, share information and support one another in and out of the classroom.” Drago-Severson’s interviews with the students who participated in the Polaroid cohort support this. She found that with the exception of one student, all the students saw their classmates as supports in addition to the teacher (82). This mirrored my experience. My students had no reservations about asking me or each other questions during class. When there were times a student had trouble understanding a concept, others assisted in explaining it to her.

Of the three courses that I taught this quarter, I received the least questions outside of class from this group of students. In sharp contrast, students in my online class, which has little sense of community despite having assignments that encourage it, regularly email and call me with questions. It appears that the online students view me as their only source of support.

Admittedly, I am no expert on cohorts. There are obvious interpersonal, programmatic, financial, and related issues that require consideration before cohort programs can be created. However, I agree with Callaghan who asserts, “. . . cohorts can be supportive systems for student persistence and educational success.” At the end of the day, this is the goal for adult education stakeholders – student persistence and success. My unofficial cohort experience this term leads me to believe that if cohorts provide another route to this destination, they are worth trying.

Works Cited
Callaghan, Carolyn. Cohorts: A New Generation of Diverse Non-Traditional Learners . 4 March 2014. 31 May 2014 <http://www.evolllution.com/opinions/cohorts-generation-diverse-non-traditional-learners/>.

Drago-Severson, Eleanor. Becoming Adult Learners: Principles and Practices for Effective Development. Teachers College Press, 2004.