Students unsure of University Writing Program

In surveys, students said the effectiveness of the 3-year-old University Writing Program, designed to promote undergraduates’ writing and critical thinking skills, is inconclusive. But University officials are pleased with the program’s results.

According to student evaluations from spring 2005 published on the University Writing Program’s Web site (http://www.gwu.edu/~uwp/), about 75 percent of students in UW20 – a writing-intensive course now required for all freshmen – said they felt the assignments for their classes were challenging, by indicating a “4” or “5” on their course evaluations. But most did not indicate the course improved their writing “to a great extent.”

Mark Mullen, GW’s director of the first-year writing program, said the UW20 courses are “the most heavily scrutinized and thoroughly evaluated programs in the University at the moment.” He said that at the end of term UW20 students answer in-depth course evaluations so GW can begin to compile students’ opinions and statistics on the success of the courses.

Mullen said the evaluation results have been consistent throughout the years, adding that they are “so far remarkably positive.” In their evaluations, 89 percent of the 641 students surveyed said the size of classes, which are capped at 15 people, contributed to making the courses an effective learning experience by indicating a “4” or “5” of 5 on the evaluation. Also, 80 percent of students said the instructor’s comments on their work were informative by indicating a 4 or 5 on evaluations.

But following completion of the course, 12 percent of students said they would evaluate their own writing ability as “excellent,” and 18 percent said UW20 improved their writing ability “a great extent.” Five percent of students said UW20 didn’t improve their writing at all.

The University Writing Program began in fall 2003, when a third of the entering freshman class was selected randomly to be a part of the new program, which aims at strengthening GW students’ writing abilities for both rigorous upper-level coursework at the University and in their future careers. By fall 2004, the University increased participation in the program to two-thirds of the entering freshmen, and at the start of this semester all freshmen were required to take the introductory course by the end of the academic year.

Christopher Sten, GW’s director of Writing in the Disciplines, which are upper level University Writing Program courses, said he believes students developed what they need in University Writing in order to take the upper level courses.

“I wouldn’t say that UW20 students are more prepared or better prepared than those who haven’t taken UW20, but their preparation is more uniform or consistent from student to student, and I can be reasonably certain that UW20 students know how to construct and develop an argument,” he said.

While freshmen taking UW20 in the fall semester interviewed by The Hatchet said they find the subject matter of their courses interesting, the debate falls more in the area of whether UW20 actually improves students’ writing ability.

Freshman Stephanie Sell, whose UW20 course focuses on conspiracy theories, said she is enjoying the topics her class discusses but does not think it is improving her writing.

She said, “(I) am not using the new style of writing that I have learned in UW20 class in other classes, but I am still getting good grades.”

Freshman Sara Zaremba, who is taking UW20, said she feels she is writing only for the professor and giving her “what she wants to hear” instead of improving overall writing. Claire Breedlove, as well as many other students, feels that “UW20 should not be mandatory.”

Some students have also stated that the structure professors give for essays in UW20 courses make their writing sound formulaic.

“I do not think the course improves my writing. I think it makes my writing less my own and forces me to write like everybody else,” freshman Lia Schwartz said. “I feel like if everybody is being taught the same writing formula, there’s no opportunity for originality. It makes a very mundane group of freshman writers.”

Some students argue that they learned how to write in high school, and that foundation is what they will ultimately depend on. Mullen, however, disagrees and said taking an intensive writing course in college is a necessity.

He added, “In terms of writing, nothing is more limiting to long-term growth than believing that you have mastered the complexities of writing at age 18.”

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