AN EMBEDDED MODEL: FIRST-YEAR SUCCESS IN WRITING AND RESEARCH

Susan Pagnac
Central College
pagnacs@central.edu

Cyndi Boertje
Central College
boertjec@central.edu

Shelley Bradfield
Central College
bradfields@central.edu

Elizabeth McMahon
Central College
mcmahone@central.edu                                                                                                                             

Gregory Teets
Central College
teetsg1@central.edu

First launched in 2003, Central College’s first-year seminar, Intersections, has introduced thousands of first-year students to the college’s liberal arts tradition, writing across the curriculum program, and information literacy initiatives. This course, one of four writing-intensive courses required of all Central College students, is characterized as “a glimpse into the critical thinking and rigorous research and writing typical of the liberal arts…it explores the complex relationships between the sciences, arts and humanities” (“Intersections”). The course also introduces students to the college’s recently adopted Integrated Learning initiative, a practice through which classroom content is linked to “the learning taking place outside it” (“Integrated”).

In Intersections, each course section addresses the common theme, “Perspectives on Human Nature;” in addition, each instructor prompts students to investigate a sub-theme ranging from pop culture and creativity to scientific approaches and sustainability. The first-year seminar at Central College exists as the first step students take into the writing across the curriculum program. As Gretchen Flesher Moon explains, one purpose of the first-year seminar is to “demonstrate to students that writing, conversation, and critical thinking identify the intellectual work of all disciplines, not merely the humanities” (106).

While Intersections shares many characteristics with other first-year seminars at liberal arts colleges—small course sizes, faculty instructors, and a variety of subtopics—it also embodies several distinctive characteristics. An examination of these unique features—embedding writing tutors and pairing librarians with each section of the course—reveals how the first-year seminar, when paired with writing tutors and librarians, can better prepare and empower students for success in writing and research in their first year of college. In this article, we present the perspectives of the Director of the Writing Center, Tutoring Coordinator, Head Librarian, and one faculty-tutor team as a means of demonstrating that embedding these entities helps ensure student success in first-year writing and research. By examining our embedded model through a case study approach from the experiences of a first-time Intersections professor and writing tutor, we discuss the challenges and benefits of training faculty and peer tutors in the practices of writing and information literacy pedagogy.

Our Embedded Model

In 2009, tutors were first paired with sections of Intersections after librarians were embedded within the course. The intent is to help students build relationships with services supporting student success; by embedding librarians and then tutors in the first-year seminar, students can begin to establish relationships with the library and writing center. The integration of information literacy into this first-year seminar, and intentional partnerships between librarians, tutors, professors and students, acquaint students with research strategies and citation practices and has been an integral part of Intersections since its inception.

Initial student learning outcomes for the information literacy component closely mirrored the then-current ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. These standards define the “information literate individual” as one who is able to:

 

Determine the extent of information needed, access the needed information effectively and efficiently, evaluate information and its sources critically, incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base, use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose, and understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally. (“Information Literacy Competency”)

While this understanding of information literacy is undergoing significant revision within ACRL, these standards informed the design and the goals of the information literacy instruction program for the first-year seminar. The college document that describes the role of information literacy in the first-year seminar draws on these standards to orient information literacy among the student learning outcomes and to build information literacy instruction into the core course activities:

 

The first year experience course Intersections specifies the incorporation of reading, writing, speaking and “information literacy components” to develop students' reasoning and critical thinking skills. Through collaboration between librarians and faculty colleagues, information literacy instruction is woven into course content, structure, and sequence of Intersections. This fits logically with reading, writing, and speaking assignments that require seeking, evaluating and managing information gathered from multiple sources. The information literacy components are designed to promote responsible and ethical use of information, enhance students’ ability to evaluate information, and foster stronger relationships between students and librarians. (“Information Literacy Components”)

To develop these stronger relationships with students, the program is based on an embedded librarian model in which a librarian is partnered with each course section. The embedded librarian model depends on effective collaboration with faculty and tutors to ensure that the goals and sequence of the information literacy components are in alignment with writing assignments and other course objectives.

At the same time, information literacy pedagogy highlights several characteristics shared by both writing centers and libraries, suggesting an organic collaboration. First, tutors and librarians share common ground in understanding writing and research as processes rather than solely as products or content (Elmborg; Jacobs and Jacobs). Second, both share an interest in critical literacy and the ways in which meaning is made. Last, and perhaps most important, at Central College, the library and writing center both seek to engage faculty, staff, and students across disciplines rather than within a particular department. For many faculty, teaching a multidisciplinary course like Intersections is somewhat outside of their comfort zones. Through this collaboration, faculty, who may be expert researchers themselves but do not typically teach in the information literacy and first-year writing frames, gain insight into new information literacy and writing pedagogy and tutors get to sharpen their own research skills while supporting their students’ own development as writer and researchers.

In recent years, Intersections librarians have been embedded in both the physical environment of the classroom and the virtual environment of the course management system (CMS). Embedding in the CMS enables librarians to communicate directly with the students regarding preparation for class sessions focusing on information literacy, deliver content, and also keep abreast of news and developments in the course. Tutors have not participated in the online course environment, but their participation in the classroom often exceeds the librarians’ in terms of time invested with the students. Several reasons explain this disparity. From an organizational standpoint, the Director of the Writing Center has successfully recruited sufficient numbers of student tutors so that almost every course section has its own dedicated tutor. Further, the implementation of a common teaching time resulted in librarians being spread even more thinly across multiple course sections scheduled on the same days and times. Conceptually, however, librarians also recognize the value of the peer expert in this learning environment.

Addressing the student learning outcome pertaining to ethical use of information offers an opportunity to legitimize the tutors’ expertise, present them as authoritative members of the teaching team, and make the most of their position as peers. Part of that effort is an in-class exercise called “Become A Citation Pro,” developed a few years ago by the Intersections program director and librarians. The exercise is designed to teach responsible use of quotations and attribution of sources in formal writing. “Citation Pro” involves out-of-class preparation including a reading assignment and practice quiz in addition to the interactive game. Its learning outcome is ultimately assessed by student performance in formal writing. Embedded librarians and tutors lead the game together. Co-leading “Citation Pro” became an early opportunity for the writing tutors to take an active role in class in order to showcase their knowledge and expertise, in turn positioning the tutors as academic role models for students. Working together with the tutors on this fun and interactive activity enables librarians to build stronger relationships with these high-performing and academically talented students who often become library ambassadors among the wider campus population. These students come to the tutoring role from a variety of academic backgrounds and experiences, but all are recognized for their own writing abilities. Through their partnerships with both librarians and professors, they also add to their research and academic leadership abilities.

Writing tutors are recommended by professors across the curriculum as part of the work-study system on campus and are matched to sections of Intersections considering a few factors. Such factors include the tutor’s and professor’s departments, their level of expertise with Intersections, and their personalities. When pairing tutors and professors, the Tutoring Coordinator prioritizes the disciplinary interests of the tutors and professors. Although this pairing is not always possible, it does provide tutors and professors with a common language. Another factor considered when pairing is the level of tutor and professor experience—if the tutor and the professor are new to or returning to Intersections. If possible, and given the tutor’s schedule, experience has shown that matching a returning tutor with a new professor, and conversely, a new tutor with a returning professor, strengthens the tutor/professor relationship. A returning professor can help a new tutor learn to work with students both inside and outside of class while returning tutors can be a useful resource for the new professors as they become familiar with Intersections. In addition, each professor uses writing tutors to varying degrees within Intersections, so a professor’s past use of the writing tutor is also a consideration when pairing tutors and professors for Intersections. Personalities are also considered but are not the overriding factor in pairing tutors and professors, even though balancing introverts with extroverts is helpful to both students and professors, as they may find it easier to adjust to and work with certain personalities.

Embedding tutors in Intersections has advantages in addition to asking students to work with a tutor one-to-one. These benefits include students learning to use the Tutoring and Writing Center early and often and becoming comfortable seeking help with their writing throughout their four years. In addition, faculty can “share” the burden of teaching writing with the tutor by collaborating with the writing tutor on class activities. One faculty member noted, when surveyed by the Director of the Writing Center, that her tutor was able to “communicate concerns” he had with the students he met in the Tutoring and Writing Center (“Fall 2013 INTX Survey for Faculty”). The tutor’s role in the classroom became one of support for the instructor, illustrating Ken Leighton’s observation: “...in the past, when I was working with one student, there were 25 others who were not being engaged. With [the tutor] in the room, students have many more opportunities to ask questions and interact with an instructor. In other words, the students get two instructors for the price of one” (3).

Like any collaboration, our embedded model also accentuates a few problems and difficulties that need to be addressed. For example, some faculty are not accustomed to working with a tutor during class, or they tend to collaborate with the tutor only on peer review or information literacy days. Additionally, miscommunication does occur between professors and tutors; for example, sometimes email is not checked regularly by tutors or faculty. Finally, tutors can struggle with huge “gluts” of students requesting meetings with them around essay due dates.

To prevent some of these issues, the Director of the Writing Center schedules meetings with faculty and writing tutors prior to the start of the semester to motivate contact and ensure that expectations—on both sides—are clear. In addition, the Director provides faculty with information about other activities the writing tutor can support in the classroom, like small group work and discussions of readings. While tutors do have some set hours in the Tutoring and Writing Center, they are also able to adjust their hours to coordinate with in-class responsibilities. Embedded writing tutors serve both students and professors in and outside of the classroom and are a significant component of the uniqueness of Intersections and the successful introduction and support of student writing in their first year.

Contributions and Challenges: A Case Study

A case study approach from the perspectives of a first-time Intersections professor and writing tutor, as well as from the experience of an integrated librarian, presents the contributions and challenges that an embedded model offers to faculty and students in promoting writing and research as a process. New to the program, both the professor and tutor were committed to the opportunity to support each other and students in the first-year seminar. As a result, the tutor attended class sessions in which the professor introduced writing assignments to students, the professor and tutor developed grading rubrics together, and met to discuss writing conference practices and feedback before and after these conferences.

The professor also collaborated with the librarian in planning when and how to introduce research and citation skills, and the tutor assisted the librarian with both lessons, thereby further integrating expert resources into the program at multiple points during the semester. The librarian and professor’s collaboration began well before the course started, when both attended the Intersections teaching workshop held in early summer for all faculty teaching the course in fall. In this workshop, the librarian introduced the information literacy component of the course and the embedded model to faculty, and the professors had the opportunity to participate in a condensed version of the “Become a Citation Pro” game to experience the lesson from the students’ perspective. Shortly before the semester began, librarians completed the process of matching each faculty member with a librarian partner, and planning began in earnest.

Communicating by email at first, followed by meetings in person, the librarian and professor discussed ideas for one writing assignment and, importantly, began to develop a schedule for information literacy activities over the course of the semester. The professor shared an early version of the course syllabus and incorporated the librarian’s feedback on how to best profile both the writing and information literacy components. Consequently, the professor scheduled the librarian and the tutor to introduce themselves in class; additionally, the librarian and tutor met to coordinate their leadership of the “Become a Citation Pro” game. More importantly, the professor shared a description of the research assignment with the librarian, and they exchanged ideas about how to introduce the research component, utilizing library space and resources, so students also were introduced to using the library, online and offline. The writing tutor helped the librarian with the research presentation, and all three professionals circulated in the room while students started their search for popular and academic sources to research race and pop culture. As a result of this collaboration and the integration of expertise, the tutor, professor, and librarian together created more effective assignments and rubrics, students could utilize several experts to improve their research and writing practices, and experts could rely on each other to buttress their attempts to improve student writing and encourage students to understand writing as a process.

Much of the peer review literature addresses the value of utilizing peer review practices to help students improve their writing (Bean; Bouton and Tutty; Karegianes, Pascarella and Pflaum). Students benefit from receiving feedback at multiple points in the writing process and from multiple reviewers, more effectively comprehending the assignment criteria, and modeling their own writing on excellent peer examples (Rieber; Topping). Although there is plenty of evidence affirming peer review practices, the literature also addresses the challenges of incorporating and teaching these peer review practices as part of the writing process. Students complain that they do not receive valuable feedback from their peers who are not good writers or only offer vague feedback, and instructors are loathe to use valuable class time to engage in peer review (Rieber). In recuperating the importance of peer review to student writing, Linda Nilson differentiates between a descriptive and an evaluative role that she recommends instructors teach students to take. Nilson suggests a directed peer review approach, at least initially, where students are asked to identify specific components in their peers’ writing assignments such as a thesis statement, topic sentences, and sentences of review (36). Peer reviewers can then comment specifically on the presence or absence of these components and give pointed feedback about their effectiveness. In other words, students are not expected to evaluate the overall strength of an assignment but instead identify whether the assignment meets particular criteria outlined in a checklist.

Referring to this peer review literature, the instructor and tutor developed a system of peer review that prompted students to objectively assess the presence of assignment criteria before meeting individually with writing experts to improve the quality and practices of writing. Students were asked to work through a checklist of items such as whether the essay incorporated a thesis, description of a media artifact, a clear argument in the conclusion, and a list of references in APA format. During class, students were paired as peer reviewers based on their demonstrated writing performances, and each pair exchanged manuscripts and filled out the checklist while they were reading the essays. The criteria for the checklist were not discussed at this point, as each had been explained and modeled in class prior to this exercise. After completing the twenty-minute task, students exchanged papers and reported back to each other. Based on this feedback, students were then expected to revise their drafts. Several students commented that they had been inspired to revise based on reading their peer’s draft with good examples of several criteria. Other students commented that they had not received helpful feedback or that the feedback mirrored their own knowledge of the paper’s weaknesses. One student did not bring a draft to class and two other students did not attend class, leaving three students without feedback.

After revising their drafts, half of the students met with the professor and the other half with the tutor for a writing conference during class time. By sharing the conferences between the professor and tutor, students could spend more quality time with the expert, and less class time was taken in meeting with students. The professor and tutor invited students to identify one area of concern they had with the paper, and after reading that section of the paper, the professor/tutor offered suggestions to help the student revise and improve the draft. If the revision was minor, the student completed it during the writing conference. More involved revisions were discussed but left for the student to address in her or his own time. A second concern was addressed as time allowed. After meeting with students, the professor and tutor shared the writing challenges they had addressed and discussed the quality of assignments in broad terms, including reflecting on how effectively students understood and executed the assignment. Students were invited to meet again with either the professor or tutor with concerns not addressed in the writing conferences. Finally, the tutor and professor met to develop the grading rubric, even though the professor graded each of the final papers. Subsequently, the professor and tutor discussed and revised the assignment based on the difficulties that students faced in meeting the criteria of the assignment.

Using an integrated collaborative approach, the professor and peer tutor provided feedback at the point of need in the writing and research processes. A similar process of embedded research skills were introduced in the course by a librarian, assisted by the writing tutor, as discussed earlier. By integrating the tutor into both the writing and research processes, students could feel confident that they were receiving expert help outside of class when they met with the tutor in the writing center. In addition, students could be confident about asking the tutor for help with APA style, how to write topic sentences, or use signal phrases, because the tutor had demonstrated expertise in both writing and research skills.

Three-quarters of the class who integrated feedback from the peer review and writing conferences saw improvement in their writing and their grades. The professor and tutor kept track of feedback offered and compared this feedback to the final, graded manuscripts, noting that most students did improve their papers between the first and final drafts. Added benefits included instructional support for a first-time Intersections professor and tutor, the opportunity to resolve student resistance to treating writing as a process rather than a product, and the chance to reflect on how students were responding to the writing and research components of the course.

While students who integrated feedback from this model into their writing and research experienced immediate benefits, more attention to students who were not motivated through this process is needed. By not bringing a draft to class, at least one student opted out of the writing process, and several other students did not integrate feedback from their peers or the professor or tutor. Although the professor shared her own experience of professional writing as a process of drafts and revisions, many students tended to view writing as an end product and demonstrated irritation and resistance when they were invited to revise, expand, or rework sections of their assignment.

This case study invites a consideration of the implications of teaching writing and research by using embedded tutors and librarians. Broadly, how might these same practices be applied in other courses across the curriculum, beyond standardized first-year courses? In addition, would faculty be more likely to integrate the resources offered by writing tutors if tutors and professors negotiated their relationships and expectations before the beginning of the semester? Finally, will students come to view writing as a process more readily through this peer review and writing conference model, allowing them to focus more on improving their writing and research?

Broader Implications

Although the case of Intersections demonstrates the effectiveness of our embedded model, several aspects need to be considered before creating and adopting such a program. One aspect is scheduling. Originally, Intersections was offered at a variety of times on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday. Recently, our institution has offered all sections of Intersections in four specific time slots. By loading so many sections in such a limited schedule, both the writing center and librarians have encountered difficulties with scheduling. In addition, tutor training needs to specifically address tutoring in the writing-intensive course. The Director of the Writing Center devotes a small amount of class time in the tutoring practicum to addressing specific Intersections assignment types and activities with the tutors so they are prepared when they are asked to tutor in the first-year seminar.

However, with these resources already part of the Intersections curriculum, students at Central College are better able to, as David Bartholomae describes, “...speak our language, speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways to knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community” through accessing people who are available and ready to assist them (60). As part of their first-year seminar, students at Central College already begin to build relationships with the library and the Tutoring and Writing Center, relationships that are necessary for success in the first year of college and beyond. A next step for our program is designing and implementing a double-blind qualitative study to better measure the efficacy of embedding tutors and librarians in the first-year seminar; the information in this case study is limited to one dyad. Our experience, however, illustrates that embedding tutors and librarians makes a significant difference to our students, the end goal of the faculty at Central College and the impetus behind the development of Intersections.

Works Cited

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Bouton, Kathleen and Gary Tutty. “The Effect of Peer-Evaluated Student Compositions on Writing Improvement.” The English Record 3 (1975): 64-69. Print.

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“Information Literacy Components for Intersections.” Central College. 2012. Print.

“Integrated Learning.” Academics. Central College. 2012. Web. July 23, 2014.

“First-Year Seminar.” Academics. Central College. 2012. Web. July 23, 2014.

Jacobs, Heidi L. M., and Dale Jacobs. "Transforming The One-Shot Library Session Into Pedagogical Collaboration: Information Literacy And The English Composition Class." Reference & User Services Quarterly 49.1 (2009): 72-82. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.

Karegianes, Myra. L., Pascarella, Ernest T., and Susanna W. Pflaum. “The Effects of Peer Editing on the Writing Proficiency of Low-Achieving Tenth Grade Students.” Journal of Educational Research 73 (1980): 203-207. Print.

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Pagnac, Susan. “Fall 2013 INTX Survey for Faculty.” Survey. SurveyMonkey. SurveyMonkey, Inc.  Jan 14, 2014. Web. Aug 14, 2014.

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Topping, Keith. “Self and Peer Assessment in School and University: Reliability, Validity and Utility.” Optimizing New Modes of Assessment: in Search of Qualities and Standards. Eds. Mien. Segers, Filip Dochy, and Eduardo Cascallar. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2003. 55-87. Print.