Reading and writing are two of the surest ways toward learning and retention, but they don’t come cheap. So when the 2005 National Survey of Student Engagement found that UGA students spend less time reading and writing than their counterparts at peer institutions, a solution was needed.
Fran Teague, an English professor, found the news unwelcome and questionable. As UGA continued to enroll larger and brighter freshman classes, why would the students find reading and writing less rewarding?
She asked for a year off from her classroom duties to study the problem. Aided by the President’s Venture Fund, Teague spent a year studying fast and inexpensive ways to combat the phenomenon. She pored through test scores and national averages and analyzed the NSSE data.
“What I found was that students were under-reporting what they read,” Teague said. “They weren’t counting what they read on their computers as real reading, which it is.”
Reading, it seemed, wasn’t a problem for students. Still, Teague thought it couldn’t hurt to remind students that they liked to read, and started the Bulldog Book Club. The group met with success, pulling in more than 150 people last semester.
“One thing that surprised me was how passionate our students are about reading. I have no concerns about our students and books,” Teague said. “But they don’t have the time to read. They do so much reading in classes and they feel so squeezed by classes that reading for pleasure is something that gets dropped out.”
Teague also sought out the Undergraduate Task Force report, finished in 2005, which recommended that sharpening student writers means making them write frequently, training instructors in how to teach writing and supporting and rewarding faculty who craft and grade writing assignments.
Drawing from the report and her own research, Teague made the following suggestions at a senior administrative retreat earlier this semester:
1. Expand the Writing Intensive Program, which Franklin College administers, making it available to other colleges.
2. Allow Academic Enhancement and the UGA Libraries to run writing labs coinciding with courses across campus, allowing students access to fully trained instructors and removing the burden from professors who want to include writing into their classroom, but lack the time or manpower to do so.
3. Create a Writing Fellow Program for faculty who want more training than the Writing Intensive Program offers. A faculty development offers tangible rewards that can affect career-long changes.
4. Hire a writing coordinator.
5. Expand writing centers, specifically adding one to South Campus.
Some initiatives are already being implemented. The Writing Fellow Program met with so much support in its pilot year that the Alumni Association donated enough money to fund a seventh fellowship. A new writing center will open in the Science Library Oct. 30.
The heart of the writing problem, Teague added, was not about lack of motivation on students’ or instructors’ parts. Students frequently reported wanting to strengthen their writing skills.
The problem is also not as drastic as the NSSE made it sound. The students at UGA are fine writers on the whole, but could use more help, especially when they’re ready to graduate, Teague said.
“We have a wonderful first-year program—students and teaching assistants get good instruction and help then—but as students move into their majors, they get little training in how to write in a discipline,” she said. Our students write well for beginning college students, but we need to produce a physics major who writes like a physicist, for example.”
Administrators listened to her report, she said, and have taken keen interest. The first step is the appointment of a writing board composed of faculty trained in writing theory in order to create a research-based program.