Identification of the Topic/Issue

Student Writing

Student writing in college is and has been a concern.  Professors have long expressed disappointment with student writing in the freshman year and beyond. Since the nineteenth century, American colleges and universities have been grappling with students’ writing deficiencies. In 1874, Harvard implemented writing entrance examinations amid concerns that a sizeable number of their students, even those coming from the best high schools, were incapable of writing effectively, and by 1897 all Harvard undergraduates were required to take a course in composition (Connors, 1996). State universities followed Harvard's lead, but those writing deficiencies have only deepened over time.  One of those factors has to be the decline in reading anything outside the classroom; another would be the gradual replacement of reading and writing assignments with multiple-choice exams that are easier to grade. At any rate, producing competent writers and critical readers remains a fundamental aim of higher education, yet questions still abound about how best to approach the problem. Norfolk State University's QEP Selection Committee and its stakeholders have grappled with the following questions: Once in college, does the first-year composition class really prepare students for their later academic careers?  Is there transfer from composition classes to disciplinary writing classes?  What approaches work best?  What is the role of reading, especially academic literacy, in the composition classroom? Does including close reading and academic literacy offer answers to the question of how to improve student writing? Reading and writing are essential components of thinking and learning, and it is with these questions in mind that Norfolk State University selected its Quality Enhancement Plan.

The University's QEP Selection Committee -- upon consulting other faculty, staff, and student leaders -- believed that the best place to implement any reforms would be to start with the University's general education core requirements.  All Norfolk State University graduates, regardless of major, pass through the general education core requirements that introduce and emphasize the acquisition of reading comprehension, writing competency, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and civic engagement, the basic competencies that the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV) wants assessed. Norfolk State University’s current model is a highly detailed distributive one with three distinct tiers. Its requirements consist of 40 credits in total, and it has remained relatively stable for the last fifty years, ever since the Norfolk Division of Virginia State University became Norfolk State College in 1969. What became Norfolk State University (NSU) had started off as a junior college offshoot of the Virginia Union, a Baptist institution and one of the handful of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that stressed the liberal arts over technical training. To survive financially, what became NSU had to add an array of technical and vocational curricula as options for undergraduates, and the Norfolk Division of Virginia State offered these practical two-year degrees from 1944 onward. However, there remained a strong desire to have a well-rounded general core for the Division's increasing menu of four-year degrees, which included the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Furthermore, in 1970, students demanded that this core include a capstone, junior-level African American or African history and culture requirement in part as reaction to one of their own history professors' statement that "Africa had no history." This local legacy of the civil rights movement remains in place today.  Our core has seen some minor changes over the years, but nearly all courses now have been certified to meet the student learning outcomes of the first QEP with regard to critical thinking. The heart of NSU has moved from the social sciences to the STEM plus nursing disciplines since the turn of the century, but the commitment to the general core with its deliberate inclusion of the humanities and social sciences has remained strong.

Indeed, the NSU QEP (Close Reading for Effective Writing) is part of an educational movement as old as the groves of ancient Athens (where students met with the likes of Socrates to sharpen their interpretive and writing skills) but as new as the latest selection in Oprah’s Book Club or the current show and project entitled The Great American Read on PBS (http://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/vote/#telescope-widget). At the website just mentioned, viewers vote for their favorite among 100 novels, again ranging from 18th century classics such Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah (2013), one of NSU’s recent Common Reader selections.  With our nation’s understandable and necessary emphasis on STEM training–truly vital for our country’s well-being in a myriad of fields—proponents of the humanities have sometimes felt (with good reason) that their beloved field is on the defensive. But there have also been good results of the humanists’ sense of being under attack:  specifically, articulate defensive works that support the value of reading for ALL people.  A prominent proponent of what she terms “deep” reading is Dr. Maryanne Wolf, John DiBiaggio Professor of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University, and also affiliated with Tisch College’s Cognitive Sciences Program. Wolf takes the reading process right down to the molecular level, using STEM language to convince scientists of the wisdom and indeed necessity of joining ranks with the humanists.    

Given these national trends, long-term principles and curricular stability, NSU has always deemed the improvement of undergraduate writing a priority. In the 1980s, for instance, the University embarked upon a writing across the curriculum program that attempted to increase the number of writing assignments in all majors, and, in 2001, the University adopted its own examination of writing competency to gauge the writing skills of its undergraduates. The problems with these early initiatives were that they assumed that faculty and staff knew how to teach reading comprehension and writing skills, and that they also assumed that more writing assignments alone would improve student competency.  While assessing writing, the University's first QEP and its emphasis on critical thinking made reading comprehension a priority of its own. In 2012, the University expanded its Common Reader program to include not only the reading of a common text by first-year students but also guided discussions during first-year orientation, integration into the first-year seminar course, and author talks. The problems here were that there was little follow-up instruction in other general education courses and no systematic assessment of writing competency in the Common Reader program.

The rationale for the development of CREW, therefore, was influenced by this history, as well as by the core values of the University’s newly developed 2019-2025 Strategic Plan: “Forging Onward Toward a New Horizon.” The Strategic Plan's emphasis on student-centeredness complements the QEP's focus on student learning outcomes. Its pursuit of academic excellence and engagement presumes that students are competent in reading academic texts and materials closely, as well as in writing about what they have read closely.

Most significantly, however, the adoption of CREW is supported by empirical data collected over the last few years and based upon best practices in student achievement and engagement.  The selection of both reading and writing reflects widespread concerns about these essential competencies. CREW was developed through a process of broad-based institutional involvement; it came out of both routine University assessment and planning processes in addition to the conclusions stemming from the University's first QEP. Indeed, the University's first QEP Committees began thinking of appropriate themes for the next Plan as early as 2014, and sponsored University-wide competitions in order to come up with a new topic. The winning proposal on student learning communities in the spring of 2015 seemed to be the most coherent at the time; student learning communities had been established by the first QEP to improve critical thinking skills. The new focus, nevertheless, is to improve retention and graduation rates, but the existing Committee concluded that the University should continue the acquisition of student skills and competencies.  At this point, during 2016, learning communities as an overall concept became eclipsed by a close examination of the data coming from the first QEP, which kept indicating to the members that reading and writing deficiencies prevented any important gains in critical thinking.

In the spring of 2017, the Director of the University’s first QEP, “REASON: Creating Coherent Pathways to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Students,” in collaboration with members of the first QEP’s executive and implementation committees, was tasked with developing a new QEP Selection Committee that was broad-based, included faculty members teaching general education courses, and had all of the other relevant stakeholders.

The QEP Committee included faculty members from all five schools/colleges -- Liberal Arts; Science, Engineering and Technology; Education; Business; and Social Work, the Dean of the Honors College; the Dean of Libraries, Student Affairs staff, the Vice-Provost, the Director of Accreditation, the Director of Assessment, and the Assistant Director of Assessment.  Additional faculty, staff, and, for the first time, student leaders were added in the fall of 2018. All of these members were recommended by their academic deans, colleagues, and/or the Vice-Presidents. The Director of the first Plan served as the Committee Chair, and at least two of the faculty and one of the staff had previous experience with the creation and establishment of the first QEP – REASON.Throughout 2017 and 2018, the Provost tasked the Selection Committee with four responsibilities: (1) reviewing relevant SACSCOC principles and guidelines, (2) reviewing the QEPs of other institutions, (3) soliciting suggestions from the University community, and (4) evaluating student learning outcomes assessment data.  Small-group discussions, meetings, an electronic survey and electronic voting engaged varied constituents campus-wide and helped to identify the topic of the QEP.  Reading and writing were identified as outcomes in need of intervention. For example, in August 2017 during the Opening Session, a majority of faculty members attended a University-wide meeting and workshop after which most present felt that an effective Plan should tackle both reading comprehension and writing competency and that any Plan focused only on writing would not be any more successful than previous efforts. A majority from across the disciplines also felt that the initial emphasis on learning communities was a distraction from the student learning outcomes which involved the acquisition of an academic skill. In February 2018, a workshop open to faculty, staff, and students was shown the data coming from the first QEP, and the participants agreed that the deficiencies needed to be addressed by having reading as a tool to improve writing. See the Appendix for membership and meeting summaries.