More than a million. That’s the total number of words that instructors at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, needed to pore through each semester for College Composition I. Approximately 250 full- and part-time students take the course each year at the Arizona community college, which requires students to submit written essays totaling approximately 4,500 words per student.
Yavapai English professor Joani Fisher realized the sheer volume of grading assignments was a problem. She didn’t want to cut down the student workload, though. The writing requirement was set by the college, and she agreed with the administration that writing practice is essential to students becoming better writers.
However, she knew there had to be a better way to provide students with more detailed feedback. With so much to grade, she wanted to be able to guide individual students with constructive and in-the-moment corrections to help boost their grammar, spelling, and syntax skills.
“Students come into this course with all different levels of writing competency,” Fisher says. “The more we can provide differentiated instruction and feedback, the better those students are going to perform.”
Fisher, who has a master of arts in English, is working on her doctorate in instructional design and technology. She knew that technology could help her students, but wanted to ensure that the solution would be designed and facilitated to meet her students’ needs. After much research, she landed on MyWritingLab from Pearson. More than 11 million students use MyWritingLab each year. The application includes learning modules for practicing grammar, composition, and style while also providing automatic grading and assistance for writing homework assigned by the instructor.
Fine tuning for better learning
To evaluate the program, Fisher implemented the technology into several sections of her class. Meeting in the computer lab, students begin the course by taking a diagnostic test and writing an essay, both of which are automatically graded by MyWritingLab. The test results determine a series of customized coursework, called a Learning Path, for each student. The auto-graded essay results go straight to Fisher, allowing her to quickly ascertain students’ baseline skills as well as get to know them better.
That first semester revealed some problems and room for improvement. For example, Fisher found that students often procrastinated about completing the topics in their Learning Paths, cramming them into a week or a few days, and, of course, not learning as much as they could have. Some students with lower skills often had an overwhelming number of topics in their Learning Paths, so Fisher decided to create individual deadlines and checkpoints for those students to keep them from falling too far behind.
Fisher tweaked the course and her teaching methods based on the trial. Since, then, she has had a successful run with MyWritingLab. She knows some students have a lot of work to complete and keeps things positive.
“I tell them that it’s not a bad thing if they have a lot of topics to complete in their Learning Path,” she says. “We talk about how the program will help them fix their grammar mistakes and build a solid foundation for writing. Now is the time to get it right.”
Now, as students move through the course, they have plenty of opportunities for both writing practice and personalized feedback. For example, Fisher has students use a feature within MyWritingLab called WriteClick, which helps them check their grammar before turning in assignments. Instead of simply correcting mistakes, WriteClick provides recommendations for making changes, leaving it up to the student to implement those suggestions. Fisher has found that her English as a Second Language students, in particular, use and learn from this tool the most.
Fisher’s students have achieved significant improvements in their writing since learning with MyWritingLab. Data from her fall 2015 sections show that:
- All sections showed improvement when comparing pre-course auto-graded writing to the course’s final auto-graded test.
- Students improved 11 percentage points, averaging 87 percent on the entrance essay and 98 percent on the exit essay.
- Individualized Learning Paths helped students improve their knowledge of grammar and writing mechanics by an average of six percentage points.
Expanding the implementation
Now that Fisher has proven results teaching with MyWritingLab, she is working with her department to develop a course shell for all sections of College Composition I, as well as examining whether to introduce MyWritingLab into Introductory Composition, a course for developmental students. As students become more familiar with the software, Fisher and her colleagues will continue to modify the course while gathering data on student achievement.
A significant portion of the course will still be graded by instructors, but the customized content, writing practice, and auto-graded essays have allowed Fisher to achieve her original goal: focusing on the individual needs of students to help them improve their writing.
“The auto-graded writing practice gives students more opportunities to write and get feedback without adding to instructors’ workloads,” she says. “The best part is that students get a sense of mastery from correcting their own mistakes through the program and getting better scores. They’ve told me that they’re much more confident now.”
Wendy Gordon is an executive marketing manager at Pearson, focusing on humanities, social sciences, languages and English.