In future postings, I will delve into my findings in more detail and offer suggestions for how you can use this information. However, before diving in, I thought you might appreciate an overview of what I’ve learned after three quarters of interviewing SNL students about writing.
- 24 students enrolled in one of three Foundations of Adult Learning classes in Fall 2008.
- 19 women, 5 men (nationally, roughly 58% of adult students are women – for more see http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_181.asp?referrer=report and http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003167.pdf)
- Average age 40, with youngest 26 and oldest 55
- Students identified their socio-economic class as of fall 2008 follows: 1 lower, 1 lower middle, 20 middle, 2 upper middle
- Using US Census Department categories, students placed themselves in the following groups (one individual can appear in more than one group): 3 American Indian or Alaska Native, 1 Asian, 8 Black or African American, 0 Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, 13 White, and 1 Hispanic or Latino
- No immigrants. Three have immigrant parents. Only one student identified herself as bilingual. Another student said he used to be bilingual and could be again if he immersed himself in his second language for a short time.
- One in school full time, 23 part time (going to school part time is considered a “risk factor” that might work against successful degree completion, see http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2007165)
- 14 have children, 3 with pre-school or younger children (having dependent children is another “risk factor” – for more on risk factors, see http://nces.ed.gov/pubs/web/97578d.asp)
- 18 work full time, 3 work part time, 3 not working (working full time while attending school is also a “risk factor”). One of the full-time workers was laid off in Fall 2008 and did not have a job as of Spring 2009. 10 were in management positions in Fall 2008, one more moved into a management position in January 2009. Most are in middle management. The exceptions are two small business owners, a landlord, a partner in an R&D start-up firm and a director of community and government relations for a phone company. The non-management positions included administrative assistants, technicians, analysts, sales people, training specialists, customer service reps, an event planner and a club dancer.
Higher education and family:
- 63% did not have a parent who completed college
- 42% had a sibling who has completed college
How obtained high school degree:
- 9 high school, not college prep
- 8 college prep or college prep track high schools
- 2 home schooled
- 2 GED
- 1 vocational high school
- 1 performing arts high school
- 1 alternative high school
After obtaining a high school degree, students in this study averaged two colleges before coming to SNL. All students attended at least one college prior to SNL, while one attended five different schools, three went to four schools, another three went to three schools, and one student earned two associates degrees before coming to SNL. This amount of prior college experience challenges a common assumption that adult students have little higher education experience.
Students took an average of two academic writing classes (not including business, technical or creative writing) before coming to SNL. Only one of the twenty-four students did not have a previous college writing class. However, the currency of these previous classes varies widely. While two students took college composition in 2008, another last took a college writing class in 1971. The average number of years since students had last taken a college composition class was over thirteen. Twenty-six percent of the academic writing classes were taken within four years of the start of the study. Forty-one percent were taken eleven or more years prior to the start of the study.
Stronger writers seemed to self-select into this study. Four participants reported being encouraged to publish their writing by prior teachers. Another student wrote music reviews for a local paper. By my estimation, forty-two percent of the writers enrolled in this study are strong, thirty-three percent are average and twenty-five percent are struggling college writers. This distribution is roughly reflected in the grades students received in their prior writing classes. The average grade is a B-. While only 14% of the grades are failing, 19% were withdrawals or incompletes.
Students more often understated rather than overstated their writing abilities. In ten cases, I assessed students as being stronger writers than they claimed to be, while in only three cases did I feel writers had overstated their abilities. Of the ten writers who understated their abilities, only two identified themselves as light readers. Heavy reading seemed to lead strong writers to be modest in their appraisal of their writing abilities. These writers often said that compared to their peers at work or school they think they are strong, but compared to “writers” they feel they have a lot to learn.
- Students wanted to obtain their college degree for both practical reasons (to move up at work and/or change careers) and for more personal reasons (validation, personal development, sense of completion, as an example for children).
- About a quarter of the students had no problem asking questions when confused or unsure about course material, assignments or teacher feedback. However, about as many did not ask questions when doing so would have helped them. This is contrary to a common assumption that adult students can be counted on to ask questions when they are confused.
- Unlike students in previous studies, returning women did not express guilt about coming back to school. Rather than guilt, they talked about school as “their time.”
- One student echoed another in saying that a “degree is important when you don’t have it.” These two articulated the way college looms large in the minds of many of these returning students, leading them to idealize the institution and be overwhelmed at the prospect of returning to school. A practical result of this sense of college as over the rainbow is their attempts to “sound like” college students by producing the convoluted prose they identify with academic writing (see 1 under On Writing below).
On Themselves as Learners:
- Students reported a variety of learning styles. However, almost all (19 of 24) described themselves as learning best through by doing. Of those who like to learn by doing, the majority preferred to have an overview of the task first before jumping in and doing it. All reported that they liked being challenged.
- While each of these students expressed confidence in at least one and often several aspects of their lives, they were anxious about school. Previous studies have shown that adult students are more anxious than younger students. This study confirms that adult students are profoundly anxious, intimidated, lack confidence and are overwhelmed by their return to school. Their prime anxieties arise from not knowing what to do and not doing it well enough. They fear they are falling short both because of their often exalted ideas of the university and because of the very high expectations they set for themselves.
- Some students who have been successful in their careers expressed a fear of being “found out” by their college-educated colleagues because of their writing abilities and, in particular, their grammar.
- Female students older than 40 worried about age-related loss of their cognitive abilities, particularly recall and vocabulary.
- When first returning to school, a number of students believed they were the oldest (even when not) or least prepared (even when not) student in their classes.
- Many students described themselves as perfectionists or, in one case, as “a recovering perfectionist.” These students were often unfamiliar with, stressed by or resistant to writing process methods like doing rough drafts and developing ideas through revisions.
- Most students identified themselves as procrastinators (which they all plan to work on next quarter). Many rationalized this procrastination by saying that they work best under pressure. Unlike students of other ages, their procrastination seemed largely driven by anxiety at least in their first quarters at SNL. They delayed starting an assignment because they were unsure how to go about doing it, unsure of teacher expectations, wanted to do really well and had unrealistic expectations about what they should be able to do from the get go. Once time pressure built enough so that students had to get started, most did well. They then wished that they had left more time to go over their work. Having followed these students for three quarters now, there is some initial evidence that after a few quarters, this procrastination has become their default process even when anxiety is no longer an issue.
- Students, particularly those who had been out of school for a while, had a notion of academic writing as formal with big words and complex sentences. As a result, otherwise clear writers produced wordy, muddled writing when trying to write in this manner.
- For a number of students, the academic conventions of providing evidence for every claim and of explicitly articulating the meaning of each piece of evidence are so much stating of the obvious.
- The main writing goal of the students in this study was to be able to clearly communicate to the reader what is in the writer’s head. This desire often resulted in frustration because students had unrealistic expectations of the writing process. Many students seemed to believe that “writers” simply sit down and transcribe their thoughts on to paper. Rather than seeing revision as a process of developing and clarifying ideas, they saw it as a time to proofread for wording, grammar and punctuation problems. Those students who had developed sophisticated writing process methods tended to see these methods and the time they took as indications of their inadequacy as writers because they were unable to simply and quickly put their ideas down on paper.
- Students who write at work, even if this writing is minimal, have a strong sense of audience. Many mentioned audience as their first consideration when beginning to write something as well as when revising. This attention to audience is a good thing, and one way in which working adults have an advantage over younger students who often ignore audience considerations. However, it can also result in problems for adult students and their teachers because of the artificial ways teachers work as audiences in academic writing. For example, in a few cases, writers neglected to summarize an assigned reading because they assumed the teacher would be familiar with the material. Instead, these students presented their teachers with the thoughts the reading had inspired. However, by not summarizing, students did not give their teachers evidence that they had read and understood the reading. A related problem arises when teachers, sometimes intentionally trying to maximize creativity, give minimal directions, leaving these audience-conscious writers confused about their reader’s expectations and desires. When students respond by asking their teachers what they want, their questions can be interpreted as a sign of intellectual laziness rather than an indication of the students’ rhetorical sophistication.
- The focus on audience and perfect communication also appeared when students were asked to describe good writing. Thinking of the published work they liked, students focused on writing that engages and transports the reader and that they believe clearly communicates the writer’s intended meaning.
- Almost all of the students expressed anxiety about using sources in their papers, including how to integrate sources into their writing, when to quote and how to cite. A number of students believed that they should have citation formats memorized. Students were worried about plagiarism and often spent significant time referencing handbooks and the Internet in their efforts to avoid it. Nevertheless, confusion about what to cite, how to cite and how to use sources meant that some of the students were, despite their efforts, plagiarizing. Often, the seeds for plagiarism were set in the way students approached their writing assignments and sometimes in the assignments themselves. Rather than using research to find evidence for or against their claims, a number of students, stronger as well as weaker writers, would start by searching for information on a topic and then work to knit what they had found together. Many waited until the last minute to add their citation information and, as a result, had lost track of which ideas were theirs and which came from their sources.
- A number of students could name their most common grammar and punctuation mistakes. Most could correct their mistakes when I pointed them out. Fewer could explain the problem or find examples of the problem in their own writing without prompting.
- Students strongly prefer being able to write about what they are interested in, which is not always what they have experienced.
- The most common reasons students give for their writing decisions for everything from organization to punctuation are because they wanted to signify something, because of the requirements of the assignment, because of a rule they had in their head, or because that was just what the did without thinking.
- The main ways in which students saw themselves has having developed as writers in the first quarter of this study were increased confidence, being more focused on their readers, and building knowledge of college and academic writing. They saw as their main challenges their ability to imagine their audience and communicate clearly, grammar and punctuation, organization, citation and the need to come up to speed with academic writing.
- The biggest writing process challenge was just getting started. Students struggled with getting started because they were unsure of what they were being asked to do and because they were trying to do too much too perfectly all at once. Over the quarter, students felt they had improved their writing process by finding places and times dedicated to writing, by practicing better time management, by doing more pre-planning and more proofreading, and by being willing to jump in and just do it with faith that something worthwhile will come out in the end. After the first quarter, their writing goals focused on being more efficient, more effective and less stressed in their writing processes.
- Students were invariably the most proud of the writing assignments they found the most challenging.
On School/Work/Personal Writing:
- Most students who have done even minimal writing at work were in the habit of checking over their writing before sending it out. Upon returning to school, all of the students reported being more deliberate in all of their writing and better at checking it over.
- Students who have had significant training and experience working in an art (professional dancer or photographer), trade (electrician or architecture), or profession (event planning or lobbying) have learned methods of analysis and project management that can help them succeed as students and as writers to the extent that the students are able to see these methods and skills as transferable to but not as sufficient for their academic needs.
- Most students do not realize how much they are already writing. More than once students told me they do not write at all, but then proceeded to list a number of ways in which they write regularly. For example, once students who laughed at the idea of herself as a writer, spends thirty to sixty minutes a day journaling in response to a religious passage.
- At work, these students all have write e-mails. Some have also written business letters, reports, speeches, manuals, and presentations. Individual students have also written work logs, newsletters, press releases, property descriptions, executive summaries, grants, solicitation letters, planning documents and training scripts.
- Besides school and work writing, ten students keep or have kept journals, a few write poetry, songs, or short stories, one blogs and has written music reviews and many correspond with friends and family through e-mail and letters.
- While many students have been in school off and on for a while, college writing classes do not seem to be making a big impact upon them. When students do mention a significant class or teacher, it was almost always in high school and frequently involved creative writing.
- Students import to school from their lives and careers various views of writing, understanding of genre and expertise in a variety of genres, project management and process knowledge, sensitivity to audience, expertise and deep knowledge in specific areas, and the stresses of trying to manage work, home and school.
- While a few students saw no effect on their work and life writing as a result of their return to school, most did. In particular, most students talked about being more deliberate and paying more attention to their writing both in and out of school.
- Adult students are used to receiving feedback on their work. Nineteen have received formal performance evaluations, while 11 have given performance evaluations.
- Positive feedback is crucial for motivating and calming anxious students. It helps them see that they can be successful in college and gives them the courage to relax enough to experiment with their ideas and writing. The stronger the writer, the more important that this feedback be specific. Some stronger writers dismissed general positive feedback as pro forma and as indicative that the teacher did not really pay attention to their writing.
- Students want concrete, critical feedback that will help them improve and opportunities to practice what they have learned through drafting or multiple assignments on similar topics. Too often they receive neither. Seventeen students, 71% of student participants, commented at least once and sometimes repeatedly about not receiving feedback from their teachers. Twenty-one students, 88% of participants, complained at least once about not receiving specific, constructive feedback on their writing. One student said she was considering leaving SNL because she was receiving so little feedback on her assignments. This lack of feedback generated considerable anxiety because it left students unsure of their performance and of how to improve.
- Feedback is not useful when it comes too long after the assignment, when it is general, and when students do not have a chance to immediately apply that feedback either to a revision or a related assignment.
- Students act upon the feedback they receive from teachers, friends, bosses and peers, thinking about it and revising their work when they understand the feedback and have the opportunity to revise or use the feedback on a follow up assignment.
- Students often do not understand the reasoning behind feedback or how to implement a teacher’s suggestions. Twenty-one of the twenty-four students recounted instances in which students and teacher were clearly misunderstanding each other. For example, a student interpreted a teacher’s comment that he can be less formal as meaning he could be less careful. In another case, a teacher tells a student to develop ideas further, so the student cuts out the little detail she had in her paper because it is underdeveloped.
- Students approach their first writing assignments from a teacher with a great deal of anxiety because they are unsure of what is expected of them. Well-designed assignments, which detail the purpose, audience and assessment criteria, address this anxiety and help students be successful. Students use the teacher’s feedback, when they receive it, to make sense of their audience and adjust their writing accordingly.
- Models, scaffolding, and low-stakes practice are important for building confidence and helping students develop a more realistic idea of academic writing and teacher expectations.
- Many students ask for and receive feedback on their school writing from friends, co-workers and relatives. Students pick readers whom they know are good at writing, and often receive more productive feedback from these readers than from their teachers. The exception seems to be spouses, who in a number of cases gave negative feedback that shook the confidence of the student. As a result, a few of these students stopped showing their writing to their spouses and found others to read their work.
- Most students prefer feedback that engages with and pushes then on their ideas. The like when teachers respond as readers and when they ask questions that get students to think through and more carefully explain their ideas. Some will dismiss as trivial and a few resent feedback on grammar, especially from non-writing teachers. Others stressed that any feedback is good feedback.
- A number of students reported being highly motivated by grades.
- Strong writers are not being sufficiently challenged or coached to become better writers. A couple of students with last minute writing habits said that, given the high grades they receive, they have not been particularly motivated to change, even though they know they could do better.