Composing the FYC Course: Community College Style

Holly PappasHolly Pappas teaches writing at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts. She began blogging in 2004 as a way to collect reflections about her teaching and, more importantly, to find her professional voice while working as an adjunct. She writes here about the challenges of designing a FYC course that will meet the diverse backgrounds and goals of community college students. Holly also blogs at Re: Thinking, Teaching, Writing and Community College English.

Habits of Mind: Persistence

posted: 7.6.12 by Holly Pappas

In my plan for re-focusing my comp class, I’ve saved for last the one that’s hardest for me to grapple with and also most crucial (in some ways) for my students’ success. In many of the classes I’ve taught, between 20 and 30% of the students either disappear without officially withdrawing or continue to come to class without turning in any (or many) assignments. I look back at the report I’ve cited earlier (“Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing”) to copy out the definition of persistence: “the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.” Many of these students had the ability to pass the class, but something gets in the way of their completing the work of the course, or sometimes of even starting it.

I’d like to be able to poll them to find out why this is so. In particularly bad semesters I sometimes ask students to write an anonymous page about how they assess their progress in the class and, if they’re not happy with how they’ve been doing, what’s been going on to interfere. Pens fly, and the mood seems to be one of eager confession. Generally the resulting pages speak of difficulties balancing schoolwork and the rest of life (my students often work at least twenty hours a week, and many have family obligations as well) or of chronic problems with procrastination.  In my more insecure moments I worry that it’s something about me or how I’ve taught the class, that I haven’t designed assignments that are sufficiently engaging, or that assignments are too difficult for students to approach.

I teach a gateway course at an open enrollment institution. Is that one of my roles: to “weed out” the field? Do I teach these students the consequences of their actions by letting them fail? If I bear some responsibility on teaching them in some more substantive way to persist despite obstacles, how should or can I do this, or is persistence a habit of mind that cannot be taught but only learned?

Initially I had thought about persistence as a code-word for revision, not abandoning an essay once the ink had dried on a rough draft but rather reconsidering and taking the time to clarify and develop and polish an essay. On further thought, though, the more serious persistence issue students face is not after the first draft is written but rather before it is started.

Here are some of the strategies I’ve come up with that I’ve either tried or am considering for next semester:

  • Make sure that my syllabus has clear expectations about the time required to complete coursework and that these expectations are frequently repeated as the semester proceeds.
  • Confront students directly, in person, about missing or late work, suggesting that they come in to meet with me or seek tutoring support from the Writing Center. Ask students about their process, and suggest strategies for talking out ideas,  using dictation software or a listener to take notes, writing-with-a-friend, enlisting family members to provide bribes, and reconsidering places to write.
  • Schedule assignments with incremental deadlines to encourage students to work bit by bit in stages and avoid the inertia problem and anxiety that arise if students write only as final deadlines approach.
  • Do plenty of in-class writing to help students get started, again on the premise that it’s easier to keep writing once you’ve begun.
  • Discuss persistence in an explicit way. Invite students to see how and why and when they’ve been persistent. Very few of them have given up hope of getting their driver’s licenses because they had to spend time learning how to shift a car, for example. Ask students to write about those experiences when they have been persistent, and consider how an awareness of the goal and its importance have helped them struggle towards success.
  • Ask students for frequent self-assessments of the time they’ve spent on the course and the quality of the work produced. Consider some sort of visual representation, like the thermometer bars that indicate progress towards a charitable funding goal. Let students know how my assessment of their work compares to their self-assessment.
  • Try to set up some sort of group or partner structure so that students can help to support each other in their persistence.

In comments below, please feel free to give any methods you’ve considered or used to foster this habit of mind so crucial to student success.

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