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Preparing Students for the Transition to College Writing

June 5th, 2015

Barrie E. Olson has a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Louisville. Currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash College, she teaches first-year composition courses that focus on writing about writing, writing in the disciplines, and discourse analysis. As part of her work with the Literacy Design Collaborative, she is developing materials that stress discipline-specific ways of knowing. 

With June now upon us, many of our students have only one thing in mind: summer vacation. As a college professor, I’m thinking about summer, too, albeit probably for different reasons. For many our students, summer is about freedom: freedom from homework, freedom from teachers, freedom from school. For me, when I think about summer, I think about how it is the only thing separating a high school writer from a college writer.

That’s right. There are two to three months separating a student versed in the kinds of writing he or she does in high school and the kinds of writing he or she will be expected to do in college. I spend a lot of time dwelling on these months because, for many of the students who step into my classroom, the world of college writing can seem suddenly daunting. Unsurprisingly, the summer months students spent working to save up money, or lounging by a pool, don’t really transition them to college writing.

As a result, many colleges and universities have some kind of required writing course (or courses) that most, if not all, entering students must take. These programs vary widely from one university to the next, but they most often involve some attention to purpose, audience, and the type of writing task being presented.

Sometimes courses are themed (for example, I once knew a teacher who revolved her entire course around the topic of food) while other courses focus explicitly on teaching genres from different disciplines. Some coursesinvolve a great deal of personal writing while other courses are concerned solely with rhetoric and argument. Regardless of the focus, however, the hope is that these courses can help students transition from high school writing to college writing.

It is impossible, however, for any one-semester course to expose students to everything they need to know in order to be successful college writers. As a result, many students complete their college writing courses armed with tools to help them succeed in some courses, but not in others. This can be problematic when much of the writing they will see occurs in classes taught by disciplinary specialists who know a great deal about the content of their disciplines but who have spent little time training to help students become better writers in those disciplines.

Students are often left to fend for themselves. Highly motivated students, and students who know how to seek out writing resources to help them, will be successful in managing these unfamiliar writing tasks. Other students, however, might struggle and, as a result, lose interest in a discipline that would have otherwise engaged them.

These students, then, need the transition to college-level writing to occur before they enter a college composition classroom. Last month, I discussed the ways in which even elementary school instructors can start teaching students about writing to communicate. From the elementary level, through high school, it is vital that teachers think of the work they are doing as already transitioning students for college-level writing and, subsequently, the writing their students will do in their professional lives.

So what is a teacher to do? It is my belief that setting up a writing assignment that helps students transition to college does not involve starting from scratch or revamping entire units. As I’ve stressed month after month, attention to smaller elements in any one assignment, and explicitly tying it to college-level writing, is all it takes to better transition students to that level of writing. For example, in an English class where students are asked to write a literary analysis, a teacher might take part of a lesson to talk about who the audience is for that assignment and why.

                   Student Work from the Building Bridges Exemplary Module by Shelia Banks


Even if the audience is the teacher herself, it would behoove her to talk about what her audience expectations are and how that should influence the choices students make as they write their papers. Likewise, a science teacher helping students conduct a lab and write a report might compare the sections of the standard lab report format in their classroom to the standard lab report format followed in most scientific journals (the IMRaD). Small teaching moments like these can have a big impact on student success at the university-level.

For me, it is a matter of scaffolding. If students are presented with a brand new writing task, and the person presenting it does not take the time to truly break that task down (a common problem in disciplines where instructors are not trained to teach writing), students who are familiar with at least one aspect of the assignment will fare far better than students familiar with nothing. This is because students who have some familiarity have the confidence to proceed with at least that aspect of it and, in so doing, have more support beneath them as they begin to tackle less familiar aspects. On the other hand, students with no familiarity often feel overwhelmed and struggle to complete even a single element correctly.  

So, as you teachers and coaches prepare for your own summers (summers that I’m sure are filled with plenty of prep work for the upcoming year), think about how you might begin to use the assignments you’ve already created, or modules found on LDC CoreTools, to start transitioning students for college-level writing. In my experience, such preparation really can make all the difference. 



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