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Rigorous first-year writing initiative preparing students for academic, career success

March 4, 2014
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Dr. Shevaun Watson teaches a course in the Blugold Seminar in Critical Reading and Writing program. A newly created rigorous first-year writing program, the Blugold Seminar is receiving national recognition for its innovation and effectiveness in helping students develop strong communication skills.

EAU CLAIRE — A newly created rigorous first-year writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is receiving national recognition for its innovation and effectiveness in helping students develop the strong communication skills employers say they value in new college graduates.

The Blugold Seminar in Critical Reading and Writing — designed to ensure that every student is prepared for the reading, writing and researching demands of college and beyond — has received the Writing Program Certificate of Excellence from the national Conference on College Composition and Communication organization. The UW-Eau Claire program will be honored by the CCCC during its March meeting.

"We have transformed an outdated English composition course into a modern and relevant first-year writing program," Dr. Carmen Manning, chair of the English department, said of the Blugold Seminar initiative. "This was not a tinkering; we completely changed the way we support our students as they develop effective reading, writing and research skills that they will carry with them into classes in their major and eventually into the workplace."

With 114 class sections serving more than 2,000 first-year students each year, the Blugold Seminar is a high-impact program that touches nearly every student that steps foot on campus, Manning said, noting that students must take a first-year writing class to meet revised university writing requirements.

Revamping the first-year writing program was possible because of the Blugold Commitment, a student-supported differential tuition that helps fund programs and experiences that preserve and enhance the distinctive UW-Eau Claire educational experience.

Through the Blugold Commitment, UW-Eau Claire students have invested more than $1.2 million — $308,000 a year for four years — into the writing initiative, making it one of the university's largest Blugold Commitment projects.

These monies, coupled with ongoing university support provided through the English department, allowed the university to hire additional faculty and academic staff to teach first-year writing courses, provide incentives and professional development to faculty teaching the writing classes, establish a variety of writing support services for students to ensure their success in the classes, and work with faculty and departments across campus to better incorporate and assess student writing in their curriculum and classes.

English faculty had long recognized that the composition classes weren't always working for students, but the English department didn't have the resources to make major changes, Manning said.

"With Blugold Commitment funding, we were able to flip the entire program around," Manning said. "We started with the belief that every student — regardless of their writing skills — would benefit from a rigorous first-year for-credit writing course. We identified a set of uniform writing outcomes for all first-year students and then built a program that would help students achieve them."

The program is based around the concept that everything that happens in a classroom is a conversation, said Dr. Shevaun Watson, director of the University Writing Program. Blugold Seminar courses are designed to help students gain the skills they need to understand and successfully join in these discussions and conversations, Watson said.

Highlights of the Blugold Seminar include:

  • All first-year students, regardless of the writing skills they bring with them to campus, take for-credit writing courses that have a uniform set of learning outcomes. Students cannot test out of the writing classes or replace them with AP credits, and the noncredit remedial courses for students with low placement test scores were eliminated.
  • The program features an array of courses that are designed to meet the learning needs of particular student populations based on their writing skills. Courses move at different paces and some have more student support built in than others, but they all have shared learning outcomes.
  • First-year writing classes are limited to 15-20 students per section, significantly smaller than class sizes under the former English composition program. UW-Eau Claire's first-year writing classes now have the smallest faculty-student ratio in the UW System.
  • Blugold Seminar classes are taught by experienced faculty and academic staff who receive incentives to complete a rigorous professional development program that helps them better understand and teach first-year students.
  • The program offers a variety of opportunities for support through its close association with the Center for Writing Excellence, peer tutoring, writing fellowships and faculty mentoring.
  • Faculty teaching Blugold Seminar classes identify their own themes around which they build their course. While themes vary, all the courses share the same learning outcomes.

Early assessments indicate that the Blugold Seminar initiative already is making a positive difference on campus, Watson said. Students from a variety of majors are reporting and demonstrating more confidence and skill in everything from analyzing and writing different kinds of texts to better articulating research questions, she said, noting that ongoing assessments will allow program leaders to continuously tweak it as new needs or opportunities are identified.

With the Blugold Seminar courses in place, leaders now are ramping up their outreach to faculty across all academic disciplines, Watson said. They want faculty to know what students are learning in the first-year writing classes so they will be better prepared to talk with students about writing expectations and assessments in their own classrooms, she said.

They also are encouraging academic departments to weave writing into their curriculum, Watson said. Nursing and communication sciences and disorders are examples of academic units that already are working to make writing part of their curriculum. Watson said she hopes that in the next five to 10 years every academic department on campus will have a writing plan in place.

Manning said she is encouraged by how quickly the campus community has embraced the Blugold Seminar initiative. It's a sign, she said, that faculty and students recognize how important it is to prepare students to read, write and research effectively for the 21st century.

"Employers tell us that the ability to write and communicate well is among the skills they value most when hiring new college graduates, yet they also say it's a skill that many graduates are lacking," Manning said. "The Blugold Seminar is addressing those concerns and helping prepare our graduates to succeed in their future workplaces."

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