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NMSU works to examine, improve student writing in disciplines

The difference between learning to write and writing to learn is at the core of a new initiative at New Mexico State University.

While the first emphasizes the mechanics of writing and the second relates to how the act of writing itself helps us learn a subject, both are critically important to student success. Traditional educational processes often separate and focus on the mechanics of writing, but the NMSU initiative is bringing new attention to the power of writing to learn.

The NMSU initiative, called ?Expert Insider Prose: Developing Students? Disciplinary Expertise in Writing,? is linked to the university?s process of maintaining its accreditation.

NMSU, like other universities in the U.S., must undergo a regular process to maintain its accreditation. NMSU is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission on a 10-year cycle. Accreditation culminates in a site visit, which took place most recently in 2008 at NMSU. The accreditation process also continues to evolve, and now includes interactions with HLC between site visits. NMSU participates in HLC?s Open Pathways evaluation process, the most flexible of three HLC accreditation pathways available only to well-established, mature institutions. The Open Pathway allows the university to participate in a multi-year Quality Initiative designed to support improved student learning.

NMSU Director of Assessment Shelly Stovall said the focus of NMSU?s Quality Initiative proposal is geared to improving student writing after college deans and faculty provided input.

?There is national concern about student writing,? Stovall said. ?Writing well is among the top three concerns of employers.?

A group formed last summer to work on the proposal included Stovall and faculty members Patti Wojahn (English), Laurie Churchill (English) and David Trafimow (psychology). The proposal was submitted to NMSU Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard and others who gave their support. NMSU?s initiative was submitted to HLC last fall and approved in February.

?There are now good data that demonstrate the importance of writing throughout one?s college career in order to develop the skills ? effective communication, critical thinking, complex reasoning, and the ability to draw connections between different areas of knowledge ? that are necessary for lifelong learning and success in the workplace,? Howard said. ?This Quality Initiative positions NMSU to be a national leader in producing graduates who have essential skills that are valued by employers, graduate schools and professional schools.?

A summary of the initiative was distributed to associate deans and department heads last spring.

?We envision that students graduating from NMSU demonstrate strong competency in written communication, including expert insider prose,? says the summary. ?To do this, we believe we must ensure that NMSU creates optimal opportunities and requirements that facilitate the desired outcome, and that faculty and students share similar expectations for and value of writing. Toward that end, this project strives to create communities wherein responsibility for writing is shared across the general education core and the disciplinary majors. This project will focus and equip our campus communities to facilitate improved student writing at all levels.?

Several steps already are envisioned. For example, data on student writing proficiency will be gathered and examined.

?We will look at data on student writing on all levels,? said Stovall, ?from developmental to advanced, at the department level.?

A pilot survey has gone out to faculty to learn more about how they currently include student writing assignments in NMSU courses. A broader survey then will be sent to faculty and students to gather further data about the current quality of student writing and to identify ways to further support high quality student writing skills.

?This project proposes that through a systematic investigation of institutional practices ? from individual courses to institutional policies and procedures ? needed changes can be identified and implemented that will lead to improved student writing,? says the summary.

As the initiative progresses, the focus will emphasize how student writing in the discipline leads to better writing and student learning.

?One key aspect of this is to focus on using ?writing to learn,? rather than focusing solely on ?learning to write,?? says the summary. ?Writing to learn affords ample and varied opportunities for faculty to include writing in their courses without the onerous burden often associated with the grading of more formal (learning to write) writing assignments. In other words, a key component of this initiative is to determine how writing can be used to enhance learning in course-level and disciplinary content, without creating an expectation that all faculty grade formal writing assignments in their courses.?

Over the three-year Quality Initiative, Stovall envisions colleges and the library will focus on assessing student writing beginning this fall. On a competitive basis, mini-grants will be available to faculty to redesign their courses to use writing as a tool to positively impact student learning of course content.

?Faculty want their students to do well and they really want to help them,? Stovall said. ?Our faculty are very committed to their students and want their students to write well, learn, and think critically so faculty are motivated to participate in the Quality Initiative. The ultimate outcome is that students will learn superior writing skills and other skills that will serve them well throughout their future professional lives.?