Spring 2020 Report Summaries

The DU Writing Program conducted two surveys of Writing faculty in April 2020, near the advent of moving all courses online. Following are Executive Summaries of two ensuing reports.

Doug Hesse  |  Professor and Executive Director of Writing  |  dhesse@du.edu | April 14, 2020

1. Initial Designs for Online WRIT Courses: A Survey Report

During the first week of the spring quarter, Writing Professors described their plans (made with two weeks’ notice) for conducting their courses entirely online, something that virtually none had previously planned to do.  I sent a survey to all 29 faculty, and 27 (93%) responded, many of them with detailed narrative comments. The result is a clear snapshot of initial planning.  It is clear as of this analysis (during week 3), some faculty are modifying their original designs.

It’s crucial to keep in mind the characteristics of writing courses under any conditions.  Primary is that students learn to write by writing, by getting coaching and feedback on their writing, then writing some more.  There is a rich and well-researched body of knowledge that professors teach about writing: strategies, techniques, principles, and practices.  However, these shape actual writing ability only through practice.  Just as one doesn’t learn to play piano by reading books or listening to lectures about playing piano, neither does one learn to write.  As a result, writing classes are a mixture of direct instruction, analysis of models, workshopping writings in progress, peer review, and studio time.  Writing professors spend most of their time coaching: teaching a principle or strategy, assigning writing task that employs it, facilitating the generation and design phases, reading student drafts and providing feedback, expecting revisions, evaluating the final draft through comments designed to transfer to future writing tasks, and repeating the process anew.

Synopsis of findings

  1. In terms of whole-class meetings, about half the courses will be totally asynchronous. Of those with synchronous elements, those elements will happen one a week or less.
  2. Over half the courses will require no synchronous or individual meetings. Of the 40% that do, these will occur by phone or video, often at students’ choice.
  3. 70% of faculty will have set office hours online or by phone. The remaining have office hours entirely by generous appointment.
  4. 70% of faculty will use an assortment of readings and materials the faculty have curated; 21% are using a textbook authored by three colleagues in the Writing Program; 9% are using a traditional textbook/books
  5. 65% plan to upload five or fewer videos; 11% 6-10; 23% more than 10
  6. 89% plan to have students conduct peer reviews asynchronously
  7. 81% will have discussions occur asynchronously

Several themes came up in extensive open ended comments: regrets for not meeting students in person, being overwhelmed by the torrent of digital communications from every quarter in the university, the amount of stress they see in students, the loss of group projects, physical isolation from colleges, significant revisions (often reductions) of class expectations to accommodate the emergency environment. Still, faculty are making themselves generously available to students. 

2.Writing Faculty Perceptions of Online Students

Executive Summary of Final Report April 15, 2020

We asked 29 Writing Program Faculty (26 on Teaching Professor lines, 3 adjuncts) to describe their students’ engagements with online courses after two full weeks of classes. 26 of those faculty (93%) replied.  Their responses shed light on 71 sections of WRIT courses, and over 1100 students. Almost all those students are in their first year at DU, so the results offer a comprehensive impression of how the class of ’23 is negotiating online writing courses. The survey also asked the faculty to report how THEY are faring in this situation. 

Writing courses are heavily interactive. All faculty have received multiple pieces of writing already from their students, and nearly all have engaged students one-on-one, multiple times, through video, phone, or personal emails. Certainly, the survey methodology is flawed, relying on impressions. As I mentioned in the directions, reprinted below, I knew I was gathering quick and dirty information. But it is useful information. I do believe that faculty reports of their own circumstances are valid and reliable. 

On the whole, and all things considered, students and faculty are doing relatively well in this environment. It is very clear that writing professors are engaged with, concerned about, and impressed with their students. Faculty with children face particular complications and stresses. Living alone or with multiple people bring different challenges.  Clearly, teaching is much more time-consuming than in a face-to-face environment.

Synopsis of findings about students

  • 84% of writing courses are full, 100%+ enrollment. All courses are 90% or higher.
  • At least 86% of students are actively engaged in classes; 14 faculty reported 95% engagement.

In terms of students and various kinds of challenges, faculty perceive

  • Relatively few student face problems with hardware.
  • Relatively few face problems with bandwidth—although there are some real challenges.
  • Several (though less than half) face problems with their working/learning environment.
  • Few face problems with access to course materials.
  • Many experience social challenges in terms of absent interactions.
  • Many experience psychological challenges, with anxiety or so on.
  • Relatively few are currently experiencing physical health challenges
  • A considerable number of students are facing economic challenges

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