CORVALLIS - If communication skills are the key to post-graduate success for today's college students, an increasing number of Oregon State University students know they have the "write stuff."
Comprehensive programs to help students at OSU become good writers have become overwhelmingly popular at the university, and are drawing attention from other colleges and universities around the country.
Two programs in particular - the Writing Intensive Curriculum (WIC) program, and the Center for Writing and Learning - are becoming models for their success. Their directors have in common one major theme that they try to pass on to students: good writing is a process.
"When students write, they need feedback and the opportunity to revise," said Vicki Collins, director of the Writing Intensive Curriculum. "That's where the improvement comes. Students need to consider revising content, organization and a number of other areas as well as correcting errors. In terms of mechanics, the teacher merely marking errors on the paper ends the process there. If a student doesn't work with that sentence again, the teacher's effort is wasted."
That is a lesson Collins tries to get across to faculty through the WIC faculty seminars. Established 10 years ago to improve the teaching of writing, the Writing Intensive Curriculum is a unique effort by OSU to encourage students to write within their own disciplines. Faculty are provided training on how to teach writing-intensive courses in subjects ranging from nuclear engineering to zoology to public health.
That is a key to WIC's success, Collins says. Students receive writing instruction from professors in their field, not from the English Department.
"It took some time to catch on, but faculty are becoming more confident that this is part of their role - to make students more accountable for their communication skills in the field they are pursuing," Collins said. "And what really makes this unusual is that WIC was a mandate by the OSU Faculty Senate in 1988-89. In other words, the faculty at OSU decided on their own to get more personally involved in improving student writing."
This year, OSU will offer more than 170 WIC-approved courses that will attract some 3,500 students. Upper division students must take one of the courses in their major to graduate.
The multi-disciplinary nature of the WIC program is beginning to draw interest from other colleges and universities. Collins has shared information about her program with several other institutions in the state and is drawing attention at national conferences.
OSU students also are behind the program. In a study of recent graduates, WIC courses were rated the most useful element of the university's "baccalaureate core" of required courses.
A collaborative OSU program also is drawing raves from students. The Center for Writing and Learning works with students from virtually every college on campus in an effort to improve writing skills. "Faculty sometimes imagine that the program works primarily with first-year students" who are struggling to make the adjustment to university-level assignments, said director Lisa Ede, a professor of English. In fact, 41 percent of the students using the center's resources are seniors or graduate students.
"Several times during the 25 years that I've been teaching at the university level, the media have proclaimed that the nation is in the midst of a literacy crisis," said Ede, who is a recipient of OSU's Distinguished Professor Award. "But I am not sure that I have seen these changes. Students always need to understand the importance of expressing their ideas effectively in writing - and they always need the kind of practice and reinforcement that WIC classes and the Center for Writing and Learning provide."
Ede and staff members Matt Yurdana and Moira Dempsey work with a cadre of trained student assistants who, like the WIC faculty, come from a variety of disciplines around campus. They help students who are seeking input on works in progress and answer questions on grammar, punctuation, documentation and proper word usage. They even established an online "hotline" to respond to questions about writing from people off campus Note to Editors: This story originally contained a World Wide Web address. The characters used in Web addresses will not telecommunicate in our system. Please call us at 541-737-0788 for the address.
The center also is organizing community writing groups, offering a conversant program bringing international and native-speaking students together, and providing study skills instruction. In conjunction with WIC, a year-long series of activities called "Writing to Know: Exploring the Disciplines, the University and the World" will include a series of lectures on the craft of writing.
Both Collins and Ede feel the quality of students' writing improves through their programs though such improvements, they admit, cannot easily be quantified. Mass exit examinations on writing are not something they would like to see, anyway.
"One-shot writing exams go against everything we teach," Collins pointed out. "Sitting in a classroom and cranking out something in an hour isn't conducive to good writing. It's important to include feedback and revision. What we'd eventually like to see is for every student to come out of the university with a portfolio of polished versions of their best writing."
What students do leave the university with, Ede said, is a better understanding of writing.
"I am confident that students who have gone through our programs leave Oregon State University with the understanding that good writing is critical, and it is the product of hard work, input, and revision. They know that it is a process."
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Lisa Ede, 541-737-3710