Department of Writing and Rhetoric

O'Dowd Hall, Room 378
586 Pioneer Drive
Rochester, MI 48309-4482
(location map)
(248) 370-2746
fax: (248) 370-2748

Basic Writing Course Redesign

High Impact Practices and Learner-Centered Teaching Program Redesign
Retooling Courses with High Failure and Withdrawal Rates  
Department of Writing and Rhetoric 
Oakland University 
Prepared by 
Marshall Kitchens 
and Lori Ostergaard  
March 23, 2011

Name                                                              Department/Office

Amanda Laugid, Special Lecturer          Writing and Rhetoric

Catherine Rorai, Special Lecturer          Writing and Rhetoric

Catherine Haar, Special Instructor        Writing and Rhetoric

Dana Driscoll, Assistant Professor         Writing and Rhetoric
Basic Writing Course Redesign

Over 200 students do not pass their first year composition course each year during their first semester at Oakland University, and at least 75% of those 200 students will not be enrolled by year 3. The vast majority of these students are capable of succeeding in college, but do not for reasons related to preparedness, academic support, financial support, study skills, and well-being. Failure in their first year writing course has proven to be a remarkably reliable indicator for attrition from the university, and these courses and instructors can play a valuable role in improving student retention.

According to a 2009 report from the OU Office of Institutional Research and Assessment,

Students who do not complete their initial FYC course have markedly lower persistence and attainment rates than their more successful counterparts.  Only 15% of students who do not complete their initial FYC course complete WRT 160 within 3 years.  These data suggest that successful completion of at least a student’s initial FYC course should be an important university goal.

In particular, as a department, we are frustrated by the lack of student progress in WRT 102: Basic Writing and seek new ideas about ways to reach out to students through new teaching practices as well as collaborative partnerships with student support services.  In Fall 2009, 207 students enrolled in WRT 102 – almost all were FTIAC students (n=192).  Of those 207 students, only 77% (n=145) passed the course on the first attempt. Based on past trends, of the 47 who failed, only 25% (n=12) are likely to persist through year 3. Of the initial cohort of 207 students, whether or not they passed WRT 102 on the first attempt, less than 50% will likely persist through WRT 160. Clearly, first year students in WRT 102, a disproportionate number who are minority students or first generation college students, encounter special difficulties which can become a barrier that inhibits them from ultimately attaining their degrees. 

This research project studies the effectiveness of a course redesign of the WRT 102 curriculum (15 sections annually) in reducing attrition among basic writers. These sections utilize high impact practices and learner centered teaching to aid retention among at-risk students: those who are conditional admits; those with low ACT scores in English (those with 15 and below), which includes a large number of underrepresented students, undeclared majors, and first generation college students; and those who self-select into WRT 102 because of anxieties over writing.

Outcomes and Goals

This course redesign provides opportunities for faculty who teach WRT 102 to pilot new, innovative ways of teaching and organizing the course to enhance student success rates. Focusing on processes that can enhance the ability of WRT 102 to engage students, to assist them in learning the material, and to incorporate support services is a priority for supporting student success. 

In redesigning this course, we focus on two specific learning outcomes for students:

  1. Adopt practices of effective writing for reflection, for learning, and for communicating.
  2. Develop an awareness of university resources -- academic, financial, and personal (health and wellness)
In order to meet these outcomes, we redesigned our courses with the following seven specific goals in mind:
  1. Establish routine, structure, and common experiences through a common syllabus.
  2. Create learning modules around student-centered learning and high-impact practices, including writing-intensive coursework, collaborative learning, and community-based learning.
  3. Promote student engagement.
  4. Employ compassion and flexibility according to student needs.
  5. Integrate Support Services.
    1. Content Support -- embed writing specialists from the OU Writing Center.
    2. Academic Support -- invite first year advisers at key point of the semester.
    3. Financial Support -- invite financial aid advisers at key points of the semester. 
    4. Health -- have students investigate and write about support systems for emotional and physical wellness on campus.
  6. Utilize course management tools to acculturate students to online resources and learning practices.
  7. Allow stronger students to pass directly into WRT 160 and others to complete the WRT 102-150 sequence with specially trained instructors.
High Impact Practices

Course redesign will include learner-centered teaching environments, common experiences, learning communities and study groups, writing-intensive coursework, and collaborative projects.

Writing-intensive coursework and learner-centered teaching environments

The redesign of WRT 102 will incorporate research on best practices in writing instruction for underprepared writers. These practices focus on creating leaner-centered teaching environments rather than a teacher-centered deficit model. The majority of the texts students will encounter and respond to will be the texts composed by their classmates. Instructors will build class time around pre-writing, drafting, peer reviewing, and revising in class with the instructor and embedded writing specialist meeting one-on-one with students as they work. Interactions between instructors and students will facilitate the learning process through discovery, inquiry, and problem solving. Each class period will include activities that require students to apply what they have learned to the papers and projects they are composing for the class, learning to develop self- and peer-assessment skills.

Common experiences

The redesign of WRT 102 includes a common syllabus for the class with common objectives and assessment measures. The WRT 102 Committee will develop a sequence of common assignments designed to bridge between students’ high school writing experiences and the work that will be expected of them in WRT 150 and WRT 160. Each paper will be scaffolded, and every student in WRT 102 will complete the same number and kind of written assignments throughout the semester. Common assignments will help us to bring greater consistency to course content across multiple sections and allow instructors to design, collect, and share innovative activities, lesson plans, and best practices for teaching these assignments. It will also allow for more efficient training of embedded specialists.

Learning communities, study groups, and collaborative projects

Although WRT 102 sections are not systematically linked to other courses, they do contain a common cohort of students with similar interests and challenges and instructors with a shared vision. The course redesign will incorporate many of these interests and challenges into the curriculum by including explorations of support services in response to their common challenges.  Students will be able to work in small groups and one-on-one with instructors and an embedded specialist from the writing center. The course redesign will incorporate at least one collaborative project and emphasize peer response as a collaborative enterprise

Assessment Plan

In addition to grounded assessment based on instructor feedback and student performance, we will gather the following data from the Office of Institutional Research on each cohort in comparison with data from prior years:

  1. Initial success rate in WRT 102 (target = 95%)
  2. 1 year success rate in Winter WRT 150 (target = 85%)
  3. 2 year success rate in WRT 160 (target = 60%)
  4. 3rd year enrollment rate (target = 50%)
  5. 6 year graduation rate (target = 40%)


July 2012 Course Development (2 developers)

Lori Ostergaard, the Director of First-Year Writing, along with Amanda Laudig, Special Lecturer with a PhD in Composition-Rhetoric and ten years experience teaching Basic Writing, will develop a research action plan, common syllabus, and assessment plan for the WRT 102 re-design. They will coordinate 3 half-day retreats during Summer 2012 for WRT 102 faculty at the beginning of the pilot phase, and 2 half-day retreats during Winter 2013 for WRT 102 faculty to prepare for Fall 2013.

August 2012 Training (4 instructors)

Four instructors scheduled to teach WRT 102 in Fall 2012:

  1. During Summer 2012, examine research on best practices in first year writing, college student development, and retention. (8 to 15 hours each)
  2. During Summer 2012, participate in 3 half-day retreats to develop common assignments around the above-listed strategies and the result of that research. (12 hours each)
  3. Pilot the common syllabus and assignments in Fall 2012 with 3 meetings to share results with the other 102 faculty, one meeting to share results with the WRT faculty, and one meeting to share results with First-Year Writing Committee.  (5 hours each)
  4. Participate in one follow up meeting to assess the common assignments and make adjustments to the common syllabus for Fall 2013. (4 hours each)

April 2013 Training (4 instructors)

Four instructors scheduled to teach WRT 102 in Fall 2013:

  1. Participate in 1 half-day retreat to create/retool common assignments around the above-listed strategies and the result of that research. (12 hours each)
  2. Assessment of benchmarks #1 & 2 for pilot cohort
  3. Curriculum reassessment
  4. Report on initial results
  5. Phase 2 training

Sept – Dec  2013:                  Phase 2

April 2014:                             Assessment of benchmarks #1 & 2 for Fall 2013 cohort

                                                Assessment of benchmark #3 & 4 for pilot cohort

Report on phase 2 results