Summer Reading: June 2014 Newsletter

The seventh Inkshed newsletter is now available, with lots for thinking and responding.

Don’t miss Doug Brent’s piece about learning from librarians, or the tastes and reminders of the stimulating Inkshed 30 conference in Waterloo: a WordCloud showing responses to the plenary talk, an amusing report by WLU participants on experiments with technology in their writing centre, and U of T and Windsor advice and questions about teaching writing in other people’s classrooms.

Theresa Hyland also shares her answer to a sensible question: why are there so many writing-studies conferences each spring? If you have a different answer, or a different take on that fact, please say so by using the response box that follows the article.

The capstone is the minutes of the 2014 AGM, which reveal among other tidbits the location of next year’s conference(s).

All of these pieces invite further thoughts. Please share yours by using the response boxes on the site or by writing your own article for the next newsletter.

Learning Psychology, learning writing

This past week several posts on the STLHE Listserv considered the question of how to deal with students who claim not to have learned a prerequisite concept even though the instructor knows it was covered in an earlier course. Much of the discussion seemed to assume that the concepts and material of interest could be learned on the basis of a single interaction. I suppose some things may be like that, but certainly not all. I have seen many exceptions as a psychology professor, and now that I’m involved with a writing program I also see exceptions in the way students learn writing.

For example, I recall studying the concept of “sampling distribution” in a few undergraduate courses, but it was only in my fourth year of teaching a statistics course that this concept came together for me. Once I saw what a sampling distribution really was, it seemed perfectly obvious. So for the next several years I kept trying to formulate a single right explanation so I could spare my students my own long period of confusion and misunderstanding. But, long story short, that didn’t work. Sampling distribution is a tough concept that I now know one has to interact with in a variety of situations over a long period of time to understand.

I do a good job in my introductory course of teaching research concepts such as independent variable, dependent variable, and control group. But it’s perfectly reasonable for even my best students to have difficulty using these concepts in upper-level course discussions. Learning them requires multiple interactions in a variety of settings. The better those interactions are scaffolded by instructors who recognize this need, the better the learning will proceed.

Writing instruction provides many other examples for which one-trial learning is very unlikely. I don’t believe there is anything one can say to a student in a single session that will reliably provide immediate understanding of things like “thesis statement” or even “paragraph.”

Writing instructors are bound to encounter faculty members who complain that their students who have taken our courses or visited a writing centre still don’t know how to write; but I think they seriously misunderstand the nature of the concept and the scaffolding approach that is most likely to help a student improve over time.