Hansen, Kristine, Brian Jackson, Brett C. McInelly, and Dennis Eggett. “How Do Dual Credit Students Perform on College Writing Tasks After They Arrive on Campus? Empirical Data from a Large-Scale Study.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 38.2 (2015): 56-92). Print.
Kristine Hansen, Brian Jackson, Brett C. McInelly, and Dennis Eggett conducted a study at Brigham Young University (BYU) to determine whether students who took a dual-credit/concurrent-enrollment writing course (DC/CE) fared as well on the writing assigned in a subsequent required general-education course as students who took or were taking the university’s first-year-writing course. With few exceptions, Hansen et al. concluded that the students who had taken the earlier courses for their college credit performed similarly to students who had not. However, the study raised questions about the degree to which taking college writing in high school, or for that matter, in any single class, adequately meets the needs of maturing student writers (79).
The exigence for the study was the proliferation of efforts to move college work into high schools, presumably to allow students to graduate faster and thus lower the cost of college, with some jurisdictions allowing students as young as fourteen to earn college credit in high school (58). Local, state, and federal policy makers all support and even “mandate” such opportunities (57), with rhetorical and financial backing from organizations and non-profits promoting college credit as a boon to the overall economy (81). Hansen et al. express concern that no uniform standards or qualifications govern these initiatives (58).
The study examined writing in BYU’s “American Heritage” (AH) course. In this course, which in September 2012 enrolled approximately half of the first-year class, students wrote two 900-word papers involving argument and research. They wrote the first paper in stages with grades and TA feedback throughout, while they relied on peer feedback and their understanding of an effective writing process, which they had presumably learned in the first assignment, for the second paper (64). Hansen et al. provide the prompts for both assignments (84-87).
The study consisted of several components. Students in the AH course were asked to sign a consent form; those who did so were emailed a survey about their prior writing instruction. Of these, 713 took the survey. From these 713 students,189 were selected (60-61). Trained raters using a holistic rubric with a 6-point scale read both essays submitted by these 189 students. The rubric pinpointed seven traits: “thesis, critical awareness, evidence, counter-arguments, organization, grammar and style, sources and citations” (65). A follow-up survey assessed students’ experiences writing the second paper, while focus groups provided additional qualitative information. Hansen et al. note that although only eleven students participated in the focus groups, the discussion provided “valuable insights into students’ motivations for taking pre-college credit options and the learning experiences they had” (65).
The 189 participants fell into five groups: those whose “Path to FYW Credit” consisted of AP scores; those who received credit for a DC/CE option; those planning to take FYW in the future; those taking it concurrently with AH; and those who had taken BYU’s course, many of them in the preceding summer (61, 63). Analysis reveals that the students studied were a good match in such categories as high-school GPA and ACT scores for the full BYU first-year population (62). However, strong high-school GPAs and ACT scores and evidence of regular one-on-one interaction with instructors (71), coupled with the description of BYU as a “private institution” with “very selective admission standards” (63) indicate that the students studied, while coming from many geographic regions, were especially strong students whose experiences could not be generalized to different populations (63, 82).
Qualitative results indicated that, for the small sample of students who participated in the focus group, the need to “get FYW out of the way” was not the main reason for choosing AP or DC/CE options. Rather, the students wanted “a more challenging curriculum” (69). These students reported good teaching practices; in contrast to the larger group taking the earlier survey, who reported writing a variety of papers, the students in the focus group reported a “literature[-]based” curriculum with an emphasis on timed essays and fewer research papers (69). Quotes from the focus-group students who took the FYW course from BYU reveal that they found it “repetitive” and “a good refresher,” not substantially different despite their having reported an emphasis on literary analysis in the high-school courses (72). The students attested that the earlier courses had prepared them well, although some expressed concerns about their comfort coping with various aspects of the first-year experience (71-72).
Three findings invited particular discussion (73):
- Regardless of the writing instruction they had received, the students differed very little in their performance in the American Heritage class;
- In general, although their GPAs and test scores indicated that they should be superior writers, the students scored in the center of the 6-point rubric scale, below expectations;
- Scores were generally higher for the first essay than for the second.
The researchers argue that the first finding does not provide definitive evidence as to whether “FYW even matters” (73). They cite research by numerous scholars that indicates that the immediate effects of a writing experience are difficult to measure because the learning of growing writers does not exhibit a “tidy linear trajectory” (74). The FYW experience may trigger “steps backward” (Nancy Sommers, qtd. in Hansen et al. 72). The accumulation of new knowledge, they posit, can interfere with performance. Therefore, students taking FYW concurrently with AH might have been affected by taking in so much new material (74), while those who had taken the course in the summer had significantly lower GPAs and ACT scores (63). The authors suggest that these factors may have skewed the performance of students with FYW experience.
The second finding, the authors posit, similarly indicates students in the early-to-middle stages of becoming versatile, effective writers across a range of genres. Hansen et al. cite research on the need for a “significant apprenticeship period” in writing maturation (76). Students in their first year of college are only beginning to negotiate this developmental stage.
The third finding may indicate a difference in the demands of the two prompts, a difference in the time and energy students could devote to later assignments, or, the authors suggest, the difference in the feedback built into the two papers (76-77).
Hansen et al. recommend support for the NCTE position that taking a single course, especially at an early developmental stage, does not provide students an adequate opportunity for the kind of sustained practice across multiple genres required for meaningful growth in writing (77-80). Decisions about DC/CE options should be based on individual students’ qualifications (78); programs should work to include additional writing courses in the overall curriculum, designing these courses to allow students to build on skills initiated in AP, DC/CE, and FYW courses (79).
They further recommend that writing programs shift from promising something “new” and “different” to an emphasis on the recursive, nonlinear nature of writing, clarifying to students and other stakeholders the value of ongoing practice (80). Additionally, they recommend attention to the motives and forces of the “growth industry” encouraging the transfer of more and more college credit to high schools (80). The organizations sustaining this industry, they write, hope to foster a more literate, capable workforce. But the authors contend that speeding up and truncating the learning process, particularly with regard to a complex cognitive task like writing, undercut this aim (81-82) and do not, in fact, guarantee faster graduation (79). Finally, citing Richard Haswell, they call for more empirical, replicable studies of phenomena like the effects of DC/CE courses in order to document their impact across broad demographics (82).