By: Natasha Segool, Ph.D., Margaret Tarampi, Ph.D., Beth Richards, M.F.A., Jessica Nicklin, Ph.D., University of Hartford
Writing and effective communication are hard! As professors and graduate students in psychology, we engage in a very specialized community that disseminates our scientific knowledge through peer-reviewed journal articles, books, scholarly blogs, and other professional products. Indeed, as graduate students we immerse ourselves in dissecting scientific literature and eventually, through many iterations and by receiving critical feedback on our drafts, we produce a scholarly dissertation as the hallmark of our expertise on a specialized topic. This is often a grueling, years-long learning process that is undoubtedly influenced by our earlier writing experiences in both college and the K-12 educational system. Yet, as we become expert writers, it can be hard to remember how daunting and anxiety-provoking writing can be for undergraduate college students. Effectively teaching our students to write skillfully is even harder—we discuss in this blog post two promising strategies for supporting psychology-majors’ writing experiences.
Entering college, few high school students are well-prepared for first-year writing courses that are designed to provide general, non-disciplinary, academic writing instruction (Aull, 2015). In 12th grade, just 27% of high school students score at or above the “proficiency” standards on the National Assessment of Educational Progress writing assessment, which assesses students’ ability to persuade, explain, or convey experiences to a specific audience (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2011). Further, just what makes a “good writer” is often unclear to students and instructors, especially disciplinary instructors, and each need clear (and shared) descriptions of the expected organization, skills, language, and argumentation strategies expected in academic discourse. As a result, students often do not know what type of writing is expected of them or how to translate their current skills into the murkily-framed expectations of collegiate instructors (Aull, 2015).
Recognizing that writing is an essential learning outcome for psychology majors, we describe a program evaluation of specially designed courses providing writing instruction for Psychology majors. We examined instruction through curriculum-based Learning Communities (LC) and major-specific cohorts of first-year psychology majors in comparison to traditional non-major-specific instruction through our University’s Academic Writing general education program. Our hope was that LC and Cohort courses would address writing skill deficits among students, enhance retention and academic success, and enhance community among Psychology majors. Our results suggest promising relational and learning effects.
Learning communities (LCs) involve groups of students sharing similar academic goals, collaborating on coursework, or focusing on learning distinct skills (Kern & Kingsbury, 2019). Curriculum-based LCs link two or more courses serving the same group of students (Zrull, Rocheleau, Smith, & Bergman, 2012). They are implemented on college campuses and in universities to build stronger relationships between students, increase student engagement, and enhance academic achievement. Research supports numerous benefits of LCs including higher GPAs and university retention (Baker & Pomerantz, 2001; Bonet & Walters, 2016; Kern & Kingsbury, 2019). Other significant benefits include improved sense of belonging in the major (Masika & Jones, 2015), which has been found to be associated with reduced dropout (O’Keefe, 2013). Furthermore, Buch and Spaulding (2008) found that in a longitudinal study of a psychology LC, students had greater retention, academic progress, academic involvement, and satisfaction within their major.
The Department of Psychology at our mid-sized university partnered with the Academic Writing program to pilot two new approaches to instruction in comparison to traditional instruction: (1) cohorting psychology-majors in a typical writing course to create a major-specific community within a non-major course and (2) developing a learning community that paired a 200-level Psychology course with a writing course to create a major-specific LC emphasizing “writing for psychology.” The cohort writing course, just like the traditional non-major-specific course, emphasized the practices of close readings of diverse texts, critical thinking, and rhetorical writing as a multistep process. In the LC, a few writing assignments were planned across both courses, providing students greater instruction in writing for the psychology discipline. Over a period of five years, we surveyed 128 students at the end of their writing course using questionnaires to assess their experiences in the different classes.
We found that students reported significant positive effects of both the LC and the major cohort courses. In comparison to students in the traditional general education writing classes, students in the LC reported greater overall academic writing and psychology writing skills, greater confidence in their psychology writing skills, and greater connectedness with their peers. Interestingly, compared to the major-cohort students, the LC students reported significantly greater overall academic writing and psychology writing skills, and greater connectedness, suggesting that the LC students demonstrated greater positive learning and relational outcomes. It is possible that the LC benefited from the scaffolding of concepts across courses. The Cohort students reported some benefits compared to students in the traditional classes, including greater psychology writing skills, greater commitment to their major, and fewer plans to change their major. Interestingly, we found indirect benefits of greater commitment to their major and lower major turnover intent among the Cohort, but not the LC, and the LC students reported lower University commitment than students in the Cohort. It is possible this could be due to the greater choice students in the Cohort had in selecting their Psychology courses (versus taking the pre-selected psychology Learning Community course).
Ultimately, in education, and especially in this time of tight higher-education budgets, we must look for promising pedagogical interventions that are low-cost yet have the potential to make a meaningful impact on students. This intervention, which was cost-neutral for students, and low-cost for the university ($400 in instructor professional development) positively impacted not only student perceptions of learning and skill development but also relational outcomes and major commitment. We encourage graduate students to teach within Learning Communities if you have the opportunity – or to advocate for the development of first-year Learning Communities – especially within the area of writing. Not only will your students benefit, but we hope that working closely with an expert writing instructor will benefit your own teaching.
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Natasha Segool is an Associate Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Undergraduate Program in Psychology at the University of Hartford. Her scholarship focuses on teacher stress and student anxiety in educational settings. Natasha is a dedicated teacher-scholar who is proud to train school psychologists to be skilled mental health providers. Natasha leads with a student-first perspective and diligently promotes student success.
Margaret Tarampi is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Hartford. Her Spatial Cognition and Physical Environments (SCaPE) Laboratory investigates the cognitive mechanisms that underlie space perception and spatial cognition in select populations including visually impaired individuals and spatial experts such as dancers and architects. She implements an interdisciplinary approach in her teaching by employing student-centered teaching methods that use content and approaches from other disciplines.
Beth Richards is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages and director of the First- and Second-Year Writing Programs. A former technical writer, her work at the University of Hartford focuses on helping students develop effective writing skills for their academic journey and for their future careers. She also works extensively with faculty in various disciplines, helping them more effectively integrate discipline-specific writing into their courses. She does not have pets, but she does have an adopted philodendron that is conspiring to take over her home office.
Jessica Nicklin is the Associate Vice President for Student Success and an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Hartford. She is dedicated to providing innovative solutions for student success and retention. Her research interests include work-life management, positive psychology, and motivation in the workplace. Jessica is published in several prestigious outlets, including Psychological Bulletin, and is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the Inaugural Schmidt Hunter Meta-Analysis Award.