Saturday, January 14, 2012

Writing is Life

Montgomery College student
In recent years, colleges have been asked to prove the utility of a college education for the job market.  Of what possible use are liberal arts courses?  After all, a course in philosophy or literature does not seem to facilitate the development of specific job skills.  The typical rejoinder is that such courses teach broadly useful skills, such as those involved in research, writing, or analytical thinking.  This is indeed true.  Beyond these skills, though, taking on the challenge of college courses teaches life lessons that extend beyond the academic environment.  Take my my students' experiences of completing a research paper, for example.

As I mentioned previously, my Fall 2011 Psychology of Human Sexuality class participated in a pilot Writing Fellows program, a collaboration between Montgomery College and the Universities of Shady Grove.  Upper-level undergraduate students from USG were trained as writing tutors to help MC students with their writing assignments in several Psychology classes (two sections of Abnormal Psychology also participated in the pilot program).

My students wrote papers in which they used scientific research related to human sexuality, choosing their own topics and the format of the paper (newspaper article, brochure, etc.).  This assignment always had a requirement of submitting a first draft for feedback prior to the final draft; I have found that revision is especially vital for this type of research paper, as it is challenging for many students.  For the Writing Fellows program, I added a second opportunity for revision and they got feedback from me and from the writing fellows.  As part of the final draft, I had my students write about their experience with the revision process.  I quite enjoy reading these types of reflection pieces, in which my students discuss their experience of completing an assignment.  It is rewarding to hear about what the students gained from the class, and it gives me a chance to think about how to improve the assignment to better support their learning.  It was also clear from these reflections that researching, writing, and revising the paper taught them important life lessons.  Take this student's reflection, for example:
"The transformation my research has undertaken since I initially wrote my first draft is dramatic. Initially, I intended to write a paper exploring the recidivism rates of pedophilia. However, after feedback from Dr. Stearns regarding my initial draft, I decided to shift the focus of my paper and to examine pedophiles’ reactions to their treatment. While writing my first and second draft, I struggled with properly incorporating studies into my paper. Accordingly, I met with Dr. Stearns on two separate occasions to seek guidance with this dilemma. After our conferences, I felt confident of my ability to properly incorporate research into my paper, and I believe that my final draft reflects that. 
The entire research process has been a long and strenuous one. However, because of the requirement to hand in multiple drafts, and our opportunity to meet with the writing fellows, and privately with Dr. Stearns to discuss our papers, I feel the overall quality of my writing has measurably improved. Because of the feedback I received, my paper is now better organized, and more polished. In fact, having the opportunity to revise my paper boosted my confidence in my writing, and relieved much of the stress commonly associated with research papers.
All in all, I feel the process of revising was beneficial. Had I not been given the opportunity to revise my paper multiple times, it would not be of the quality that it is today. This experience taught me the importance and value in revising a paper. I now understand how critical the process of revision is to writing a polished college level paper.”
What did the students learn from completing the research paper?  Quite a bit, as it turns out. 

It takes work to complete a project, but you are more capable than you might think.

In her keynote speech at AFACCT, Rebecca Cox discussed the research from her book, The College Fear Factor:  How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another. She found that many of the community college students she interviewed feared that they weren't capable of succeeding in the college environment.  In order to avoid being exposed as inadequate, these students did not ask questions or attend office hours, and even failed to submit assignments for fear that their "stupidity" would be revealed to the professors (Cox, 2012). These strategies are deeply problematic, of course, as they impede the students' ability to learn and succeed in the academic environment. 

I am thus especially pleased to see that some of my students left the class with increased confidence in their academic capabilities.
“Going into this essay I wasn’t very confident of my ability to write a scientific research paper and now I feel like if I ever needed to write one again I would have the confidence I built in myself to write one if I ever needed to in the future.”
Indeed, another lesson they learned is that there is no surer way to become more confident and capable than to just jump in and try. Confidence is built through mastery experiences, in which we learn from experience that we can succeed. As one student wrote, "It feels good to write again and here’s hoping to bigger and better papers for the future."

You can succeed, but you also have a lot to learn.
“Commenting on a film, Roger Ebert – a self-proclaimed life-long film-lover, and my favorite movie critic – once commented that the more films he watched, the more he realized how much there was to know about films, and – in comparison – how little of it he knew.  I feel similar when it comes to writing a research paper.  In the process of writing this research paper I have learn [sic] a lot.  Perhaps most important of everything, writing this paper has laid bare the deficiencies in my writing skills and how much more there is for me to learn. [. . .] I have learned that my skills in writing a research paper are very lacking.  It is something I will seriously work on going forward.  This is something I definitely plan on improving, since I am now seriously considering pursuing a degree in psychology (or at least making it a major life-long interest).” 
 Confidence is important, but overconfidence is not helpful.  We need to have a realistic understanding of our skills so that we know what areas need improvement.  Many times we fear having our limitations exposed, and we may avoid taking on a challenge for fear that we will be revealed as inadequate.  Being aware of these "deficiencies" need not be discouraging, though, as long as we know that we can grow and develop our skills further.  It is all right that we haven't fully perfected our skills yet; we just need to commit to improving them.  And remember, that we don't have to do it all alone.

You can get help.
“Thankfully the professor was always willing to comment on the drafts. . .”
It can be daunting to realize that our skills are not as proficient as we thought.  It feels as though we aren't up to the task of accomplishing our goals.  But remember that there are many resources available; committed teachers and tutors are there to help you succeed.  One of the keys to success in college (and in life) is knowing how to get the resources you need.  Indeed there is quite a bit of research indicating that success in college is as much a function of noncognitive skills, such as the willingness to seek help and availability of mentoring, as it is a function of intellectual abilities (Allen, Robbins, & Sawyer, 2010).   
“I believe that my writing fellow helped me through this process of writing the paper and that I couldn’t have done it without her. [. . .] She gave me some good advice and when I went to edit my old essay I found myself writing a whole new essay that I feel very confident turning in thanks to [her].” 
I've noted before that most significant achievements require support and assistance from others.  Learning that help is not only available, but that it is sometimes necessary, is also an important lesson.  We often hold an unrealistically individualistic vision of success, assuming we can (and should) be able to do it all alone.  However, being aware of the need for help and available resources for getting assistance is a critical component to success. 
“In working through this assignment I came to the understanding that my meager set of eyes will not be enough when attempting to construct college research papers. It will be of great value in the future for me to utilize the writing resources provided by the institution I am attending.”
I couldn't agree more; finding and using the resources available to you will make all the difference in the quality of the finished product.

Just because you think something works doesn't mean it actually does work.
"Through this experience, it became clear that what might make perfect sense to me might make absolutely little or no sense to the audience I am writing for.”
There is often a gap between intention and resultant effect.  I may believe I am conveying a particular message, but my audience doesn't get that at all (a fact made painfully clear to me early on in teaching).  This is often a difficult lesson to learn, because what we meant to achieve seems so patently obvious to us; it's hard to understand why it wouldn't work just as we think it should.  Students frequently come to me, puzzled by the fact that their hours of studying are not met with high exam scores.  It's hard for them to hear that the way they are studying is not effective for learning the material.  Clearly, they intend to learn the material, but that doesn't mean they actually do learn it.
“The format of this assignment was very helpful in the sense that I was encouraged by you (and my writing fellow) to take an honest and critical eye to my paper.”
It is that honest and critical eye, both our own and others', that helps us improve our work.  Sometimes it can be hard to hear that our effort isn't working well, but this feedback is ultimately conducive to achieving our goals.  As one student said, “The best feedback I received was from my professor which did sting at the time, but she had mentioned that I was not focusing on my topic.” While it can be uncomfortable at times, we have to be willing to learn from experience and change when necessary.  Whether it means changing the focus of your paper or changing career goals, flexibility is a vital skill to success, as well as personal growth.

 You can improve upon your first attempt (and your second attempt, and so on).  Review and revision is critically important for improving the final product.  

So often, we expect that our first effort will be all we need.  One draft will result in a polished paper.  But any seasoned professional knows that the first attempt will need to be revisited and revised, often multiple times.  This is not just true of writing, but of any substantial project -- it is through reflection and revision that we create a high-quality finished product.  It is through this process that we learn and refine our skills, so that we are more effective in future efforts.  I was pleased to see that most of the students understood the value of revision.
“When I wrote my first draft, I knew that it would need many revisions. For this reason I was incredibly grateful that we were doing two drafts before handing in the final paper. [. . .]  In general I found the whole revision process useful and necessary. I’ve learned to pay careful attention to the wording in my papers so as to make it easy to read and understandable. Also I should pay careful attention to the substance in my paper to make sure my information is adequate and pertains to the intended topic.”
While most students get experience with revising papers in English classes, they often don't translate that experience into their other classes.  Many students write papers right before the deadline, essentially turning in their first draft and precluding the process of revision. Would we assume that a musician could perform a song successfully the first time?  Obviously not -- it is through ongoing and sustained practice that musicians are able to produce the most nuanced performance.
“For my first draft, I had gathered some ideas in my head and just began writing. No kind of paragraph structure or solid theme, just a bunch of my ideas jotted on paper. [My writing fellow] had helped me gather my main points so I can eventually form a decent theme for my paper, that came after my 2nd draft. . . After the Writing Fellows, I went to Dr. Stearns for more help. Thanks to her I had finally formed a narrative theme for the paper so I didn’t have multiple ideas scattered around the place. She was very helpful in locating more primary and secondary sources for my paper and it’s always a good feeling to have a professor/doctor be genuinely enthusiastic to help a fellow student.” 
This process is typical of writing.  We begin with a jumble of ideas, and it takes time and reflection to turn that chaotic mess into a readable narrative.  The students grasped that the revision process was not merely an arbitrary hurdle, but actually improved the quality of their work. 
“I feel that all these drafts, discussions with people, and reading all of these comments helped my research project become a greater result as a whole.  I now wonder what my research project would look like if I had two more drafts after this.  This truly has impacted me in believing how important revision is and how much a transformation your work can take after doing so.” 
This same student said, "It humbled me to see that there could never be enough critiquing done to a paper."  Absolutely true -- we can always refine and improve.  For some of us, it's hard to know when to stop the revision process!

What you learn from one project will help you with other projects. 
“. . . I have noticed that when writing papers for other classes I now pay more attention to my writing and how I phrase and structure sentences.”
Every teacher hopes that the student is able to generalize their learning.  We hope that what they learn for one assignment will help them with other assignments and what they learn from one class will translate into other classes.  For most of us, what we learn from a significant project is more than just the specifics of that task.  We acquire broader skills of thinking, research, and communication.  We learn how to structure our time, what aspects of the task require greater attention, and how to find the necessary resources to help us through the process.   We learn about our capabilities and limitations, as well as how to make best use of our skills and available resources to compensate for our weaknesses.  By learning how to take on a significant and complex project, we gain skills that will be vital to success in our lives more broadly. 

What can students learn from a research paper? They learn about life.  Life is challenging at times, but they are capable of meeting that challenge.  As they reflect on their experiences, it will be clear that there are areas of needed growth and change, but there will be other people there to help them through the rough spots.  They will need to be persistent, to keep working at it, and to learn from their experience so that they can do better next time.  College isn't just about the particular content of one's classes.  It is a crucible in which students learn the lessons that will stand them in good stead in all their future endeavors.  College, as with all education, is not just job training; it is preparation for the rest of our lives. 



Allen, J., Robbins, S. B., & Sawyer, R. (2010).  Can measuring psychosocial factors promote college success?  Applied Measurement in Education, 23, 1-22.

Cox, R.  (January, 2012)The College Fear Factor.  Keynote Address, Association of Faculties for Advancement of Community College Teaching (AFACCT) conference.  Rockville, MD.

Sparks, S.  (December, 2010).  Experts begin to identify nonacademic skills key to success.  Education Week.