“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.
“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.