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English writing studios address low passing rates

By Donald Halsing

The English Department expanded a program to support 5rst-year students with a low high school GPA by providing dedicated writing tutors in select Introduction to College Writing courses during the fall 2020 semester.

The expansion of the program was a response to the Department of Higher Education’s (DHE) Common Assessment Policy.

English Professor Patricia Lynne coordinates FSU’s 5rst-year “Writing Studio” program, which began as a pilot program in 2017. Writing studios provide students with an hour of tutoring from a professional writing tutor outside their normal class times.

She said writing studios were offered in Fall 2017 for both Introduction to College Writing and

Expository Writing because those courses have high rates of students earning a D or F grade or withdrawing from the course.

At FSU, ENGL 100 – Introduction to College Writing – is considered a “preparatory” course, and ENGL 110 – Expository Writing – is a “college-level” general-education writing course.

Lynne said students placed in Introduction to College Writing who were on the “cusp” of placement into Expository Writing were given the chance to take the college-level course with a writing studio. While studios were well received by Introduction to College writing students, she said Expository Writing with an attached tutoring studio was “not popular.

“We had students do it, but they were not anywhere near as interested or as invested as the students who were getting the support to be able to succeed in [Introduction to College Writing] in the first place,” Lynne said.

She added the English Department decided to focus its limited resources on providing writing studios for Introduction to College Writing going forward. Beginning in Fall 2019, Introduction to College Writing with a Writing Studio became mandatory for 5rst-year students with a low high school GPA.

In March 2019, the DHE approved its Common Assessment Policy, which outlines placement guidelines and minimum passing rates for 5rst-year English and mathematics courses. Massachusetts public universities were required to submit their plans for 5rst-year student placement by Dec. 1 of that year.

Lynne said the policy “came into full force” during the fall 2020 semester.

Starting this academic year, the DHE’s Common Assessment Policy requires 75% of 5rst-year students at Massachusetts state universities to pass college-level English and math courses within their first year, according to the DHE website. The policy’s goal is to improve placement of incoming students, which has the potential to “increase” retention and completion rates.

Lynne said the English department was close to meeting that goal already due in part to the

implementation of writing studios.

She said the studios were created to “provide support for the students who are most likely to withdraw from the courses, most likely to fail the courses, most likely to stop going to college because they feel like they don’t belong – because they don’t feel like they’ve got support.”

Because this reasoning is congruent with the goal of the DHE’s new policy, Lynne said the department looked at how to adapt the studios they were already offering to meet the new guidelines.

According to the DHE website, the new policy allows incoming students to be placed into appropriate courses using high school GPA. Previously, students were required to take the College Board’s ACCUPLACER placement test, which helps universities decide whether to place students in preparatory courses or directly into college-level English and math courses.

DHE guidelines state incoming students with a high school GPA of 2.7 or higher can be placed using their high school GPA, and those below 2.7 can take the ACCUPLACER placement test.

Lynne said the University is required to follow the DHE’s placement threshold, which is higher than the threshold which was previously used to place 5rst-year students during the years following the writing studio pilot.

She added students placed into Introduction to College Writing who are not satisfied with their placement have the option to take a “standard writing placement test” evaluated by the faculty who teach the course. Lynne said around 60% of students who took the placement test so far have been placed into Expository Writing.

“There are good reasons for students to stay where they are, but there are good reasons to take the placement test if they don’t feel like they belong” in Introduction to College Writing with or without a writing studio, she said.

Six Introductions to College Writing courses were offered with a writing studio component during the fall 2020 semester. Lynne compiled a report at the end of the semester which included feedback from instructors and tutors, as well as survey responses from 25 students who were enrolled in writing studio sections.

When asked if they agreed with several statements on how helpful the studios were, 100% of students responded the studios helped them understand their writing assignments. Additionally, 92% indicated the studios helped them get feedback on parts of their essays, and 88% agreed the studios helped them get feedback on full drafts of their essays.

In addition, 92% indicated the studios provided a specific time to focus on their course work, and 92% of students responded the studios helped them with sentence-level elements such as grammar or citations.

When asked which aspects of the studios were especially useful, 84% of students indicated feedback from the tutor was useful and 68% checked oS the dedicated hour each week to spend on their writing for the course as useful.

All student respondents indicated their tutor regularly offered helpful suggestions about their writing and made time to talk with them during nearly every studio session. A further 92% responded their tutor regularly offered suggestions for other aspects of their academic work.

Lynne included substantive anonymous responses to open-ended questions from the survey in her report. Students were asked if there were other helpful or useful aspects to the writing studio sessions.

Many students provided positive feedback, including, “I was able to gain a lot of feedback on my writing,” “I was able to improve on my sentence structure,” and “It was very helpful and made me understand my work better.” Another student said their tutor helped them outline their writing.

One student responded their tutor “helped when we have questions on the assignments,” and another said working in a small group was helpful.

Student respondents had positive comments for their instructors, including, “Very helpful instructor and I purposefully took a class with her as my professor,” and, “Ms. Glynn and Dr. Payson are G.O.A.T.s [greatest of all time].”

The studios were also helpful beyond the course itself. Two students responded the studios were helpful because they had “a chance to talk about my other classes as well,” and “It helped me through the semester.”

Students were also asked about ways they wished the studios could have been more helpful or useful. A few survey respondents said they wished the studios included “some more personal meetings,” or the studios were offered “more days in the week.” One student said, “I feel like there was too much free time to just do your own thing and not stay on task.”

Feedback from instructors and tutors included in the report also indicated many positive aspects of the program, along with several areas of improvement.

Lynne’s report indicated changes were made to the studios during winter break based on suggestions from students, instructors, and tutors. This process included holding a meeting for instructors and tutors teaching Introduction to College Writing and attached writing studios during Spring 2021 to address common concerns.

She said overall, students “really liked” having an additional hour to focus on their writing with a dedicated tutor – “somebody who’s not their professor, who’s not judging them.”

Lorianne DiSabato, English professor and Writing Studio tutor, said students bene5t from having “someone they can go to for help who’s also not grading them.”

English professor and tutor Leah Van Vaerenewyck said the one-on-one relationship is more “informal” than a traditional class, and many students felt more comfortable discussing their work in the studio environment.

Michaela Spampinato, another English professor and tutor, said all the tutors are English professors who also teach or have taught Introduction to College Writing.

Lynne said Introduction to College Writing courses are capped at 18 students, and each tutoring session is limited to six students.

English professor and tutor Christine Payson said last year, each studio included students from different sections of Introduction to College Writing. “Students were assigned to studios based entirely on their schedule – so what time block was going to be the most convenient,” she said.

“I wound up with some of my own students in my studio, and it also meant that any given studio had folks who were in different classes. They could be working on five different projects.”

Payson said this past semester, all six students in each studio were from the same section of the course, meaning they are taught by the same professor.

“I think that has made things a little easier,” she said. “It also gives them an opportunity to help each other a little bit more, which I think is a really valuable opportunity. I would much rather have another student in the course explain the directions or go over something that the professor covered in class.”

Patricia Glynn, English professor and tutor, said of the collaborative process between instructors and tutors, “Many hands make light work. I correspond through phone calls and emails with the three studio instructors who work with my students. They have access to my Blackboard course. They are able to provide extra support for my students. Together, we are able to help.”

Students and recent graduates who were not enrolled in the program said they thought writing studios would be beneficial for students who need extra help.

Alyssa Nelson, a junior communication, media, and performance major, said, “I do think students would benefit from a dedicated tutoring requirement. I work at CASA as an Academic Strategy Peer Tutor, and if it has taught me anything, it’s every student has their different strengths and weaknesses with academics, and those who struggle with writing would truly bene5t from a direct tutor for what they are trying to write through.”

Matthew Banks, Class of 2019, an English and secondary education major, said, “If a student isn’t skilled at writing, then they should get the help they need. Some students don’t know about or don’t want to visit CASA, but a required supplement to their writing course could push them to learn and grow.”

Gina Vilayphone, Class of 2020, a liberal studies major, said, “As a graduate, I now know how important writing skills actually are and I feel that it would help because the capstone course requires a lot of writing especially in liberal arts.”

English professors who are not instructors or tutors in the program expressed their appreciation of the writing studios’ impact on student performance and retention.

English Professor Desmond McCarthy, who was department chair when the program was piloted, said, “Dr. Patricia Lynne’s Writing Studio program may very well be the most important and effective academic first-year student retention initiative of the last decade. It was an honor to assist her in implementing this program when I was English department chair.”

Current English Department Chair Lisa Eck said, “We know that the studio version of ENGL 100 was a success this past fall because some of the students who took ENGL 100 without the studio reported being jealous of their peers who had an additional hour per week to work on their writing with a dedicated tutor.

“The research which informs Professor Lynne’s design for the studio project is quite telling: success in first-year writing courses is one of the best predictors of college completion,” she added.

“What I love most about the studio model is that it empowers students to assess their own needs as writers and seek help in a way that is both collaborative and focused,” Eck said.

She added, “We are so lucky at Framingham State to have a talented and dedicated first-year writing faculty who enjoy the individuated give and take of the tutorials, including the way each studio becomes its own unique community of writers.”

Writing studio instructors and tutors explained the transformative impact they were able to have on students’ academic success because of the program.

Payson said the part of the studios she enjoyed the most were “a couple of moments where I got to intervene when students were confident they weren’t good at writing.

“What I want to be doing as a studio tutor is helping – particularly like first-year students – who are like, ‘I’m bad at this,’” she said. “Writing is a thing that happens in community.”

Van Vaerenewyck said, “Writing truly is a process, and no matter how long you’ve done it, it’s not always easy. And I think that that’s important for young developing writers to see.”

Spampinato said the Writing Studio emphasizes that “writing is a process.

“So many of us grew up believing, ‘I’m either good at this or bad at this.’ And that’s not true,” she said. “New students don’t know yet what they’re doing well.”

Spampinato added the studios give first-year students “a chance to catch their breath” and learn how to be in charge.

Payson said, addressing first-year writing students, “The University is invested in this because we’re invested in you.”

[Editor’s note: Desmond McCarthy is advisor of The Gatepost.]


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