Directed Learning Activities–”Just in Time” for the Basic Skills Writer

David Charbonneau

David Charbonneau


By David Charbonneau, Director, Writing Center, Mt. San Antonio College.

 

When I first came to my current position at Mt. San Antonio College, the largest single-campus community college in California, my experience in Writing Centers had been entirely in the four-year context, both at UW-Madison as a graduate assistant and then at a four year liberal arts school as a faculty director. My ideas about Writing Centers had been shaped by these experiences. Similarly, my pedagogy was largely shaped by my own personal trinity of scholars: Stephen North, Peter Elbow, and David Bartholomae. I felt that Elbow freed up the creative impulse in each writer and Bartholomae helped us learn where and how to direct it in the academic context, while North gave us a blueprint for how the Writing Center could contribute to each student’s experience of “inventing [or, hopefully, reinventing] the university.” While the truths of these seminal thinkers in our field still held in the community college context, I found that there were many issues that I had not anticipated.

“Developmental writing” in the community college means something different than it does in most four-year contexts. Few in the four-year system realize that composition classes in the community college can reach all the way down to the equivalent of high school freshman English, and even into primary school levels. The lack of reading comprehension skills alone can be overwhelming. The foundation upon which Bartholomae and North—and even Elbow—build their approaches cannot be assumed. Of course, Mina Shaughnessy was (and is) a crucial guide even thirty-six years on from Errors and Expectations. But, to make a long story, blogable, I found myself worrying less and less about “inventing the university” or even “developing the whole writer,” and more and more about how to teach, yes, “the five paragraph essay,” the structure of a paragraph, identification and correction of fragments and run-ons, and basic summarizing. And how to teach these foundations quickly and cost effectively in a state undergoing massive budget cuts to education and to teach them to students whose free time to spend in a writing center—juggling, often, family, jobs, limited finances, school, and homework within the sprawling metropole of Los Angeles—was (and is) extremely limited. “Triage” is certainly a word that comes to mind—triage on a large scale.

One well-documented difficulty with basic writers is that while we know properly trained tutors are effective in helping this community, we also know that many of these students “don’t do optional.” So if one’s service is not mandated by curricula, those who need it most may not use it. This was true in our writing center as well where, though we had more demand from students than we had budget to meet it, we found we were only reaching a small percentage of the students in the entry-level English composition course (two levels below transfer level). There were over 1600 students in this course each term, but we were seeing less than 200 of them at our tutoring tables. We have employed a number of strategies and programs (including supplemental instruction in these courses) to address this challenge, but Directed Learning Activities are emerging as a highly effective approach. We have seen in one semester the number of voluntary visits by students in this course double and much of this is attributable to these activities.

Some of you may be asking: what’s a Directed Learning Activity (or DLA, for short). I don’t know who invented them, or, to be more precise, who coined the acronym—certainly not us—but a DLA is a self-directed, interactive lesson in which students address a particular challenge in rhetoric or mechanics, completing the lesson before meeting with a tutor to review their work. Often the self-directed dimension involves online work, but it can also be done in the form of a handout. The DLAs go beyond a typical handout or exercise in a standard rhetoric because a. they seek to situate the work in the context of the student’s own writing whenever possible and b. they use the tutor as a crucial element in ensuring that the student really grasps the concept targeted. Thus, for example, students will write their own analytical thesis as assigned in class as they work through the Analytical vs. Persuasive Thesis DLA, and then will work with the tutor to refine that thesis. Or students may be asked to deliberately create their own run-ons as they work through the Comma Splices and Run-on DLA, and then review these with a tutor. To my mind, the tutor is the crucial element, and a well-designed DLA necessarily has a moment in it where students fail to completely accomplish what is directed; this then sets up a teachable moment for the tutorial—one in which the frequency of “a ha!” moments is often higher than I’ve personally seen in typical sessions with basic writers.

David Charbonneau

David Charbonneau

Mt. San Antonio Tutors at the Southern California Peer Tutoring Conference

Mt. San Antonio Tutors at the Southern California Peer Tutoring Conference

Success data is pending, but our anecdotal/testimonial evidence is strong that students (and professors assigning them) find the DLAs to be a highly successful mode of academic support intervention. The fact that the “just in time” nature of it is apparent to both students and instructors seem to account in part for the high level of participation even at this early stage. It is one thing for a student whose skepticism of academic support is high to take themselves to a tutor because the teacher said “you need to go to the Writing Center,” and something else again for them to realize they need to do the DLA on integrating sources because their paper just got marked down for the failure to do so.

Of course, the DLA doesn’t replace Elbow’s free-writing as a crucial brainstorming technique (though one might create a DLA to help students practice and perfect the skill), and it doesn’t obviate the need to make students aware of the expectations of academic discourse (though again it could give a hands-on method for students to learn some of these expectations.) It is only another potential tool in our kit and one already employed by a number of writing centers. It is, though, particularly cost-effective in the community college context (tutorials are typically about twenty minutes). Moreover, the success of such a tool in addressing fundamentals has helped me to learn that sometimes in learning to address “the whole writer,” we need to build up from discrete parts that make up that whole. Or, as the old joke goes:

How does one eat an elephant?

Why, one bite at a time, of course. 

(A complete list along with descriptions of our current DLAs is available at http://www.mtsac.edu/instruction/humanities/writingcenter/DLA.html.)

David Charbonneau

David Charbonneau

One thought on “Directed Learning Activities–”Just in Time” for the Basic Skills Writer

  1. From a tutor’s perspective, working with students who have yet to develop the basic concepts of academic writing has become less challenging with the assistance of the DLAs. I find that students are more relaxed when they are able to focus on, as Dave stated, “one bite at a time.” If a student is faced with his or her actual assignment, that individual attempts to bite off pieces from a number of areas. Students want to focus on grammar, topic sentences, word choice, and the thesis all at once. With DLAs, the only assignment or lesson is that which the DLA is designed to facilitate. This limitation is what allows me as a tutor to ensure that the student reaches their “aha” moment because there are no other distractions to get in the way. I applaud and thank the supervisors at the Mt San Antonio College Writing Center for incorporating and providing students and tutors with such a beneficial tool.

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