Student Variability and UDL
Variability in English 101 — Some Students Can't Type
by Ryan Edel - Thursday, 6 August 2020, 8:33 AM
In English 101 at my institution, our emphasis is on teaching Rhetorical Genre Studies: the idea that all forms of communication are rhetorically important, and that we can become better at understanding and employing these genres by studying their unique conventions.
On the plus side, this means I can assign a wide variety of projects to my students. We do, however, still have two major research projects of 2,500 words each. I actually like this requirement — it prepares students for writing assignments in future courses. But the requirements of these papers reveal the wide degrees of variability in my students.
For me, Todd Rose's example of the Rubix Cube offered an excellent example of how I try to adapt my teaching to help each student meet the learning goal. Each student can be provided with methods for writing a research paper regardless of the variability in how they conceptualize information or how they organize their thoughts.
However, it's complicated getting students to understand their own abilities, and even more difficult when individual students can't envision themselves writing such a long paper. Here are a couple of the main categories I tend to see:
"Advanced" Students have already written long research papers, and they're very familiar with using search terms on a library website. They can also type very, very fast, but they might struggle to make their papers "interesting" or "unique" because they're so accustomed to being graded on finding good quotes. These tend to be highly motivated students, but they may be easily stressed by unclear instructions. They may expect very precise rubrics for every assignment.
Nontraditional Students may have graduated high school with low grades and no plans to attend college — later in life, they return to take English 101 as part of earning an associates or eventually a bachelors toward career progression. Many of these students were "poor" students in high school, but they tend to be highly focused, motivated, and organized compared to their younger peers. They often enjoy getting to choose their own topics, and they tend to more willing to adapt to open-ended assignments. However, they may struggle with technology, or they might have work and family obligations that significantly reduce the time they have for classwork.
"Traditional" Students often start at the community college straight out of high school. They might be uncertain about their career plans, or they may have been "pushed" to attend college by concerned parents — as a result, they tend to feel less investment in the course, and this might be mistakenly viewed as a lack of motivation. In reality, many of these students are motivated by sports, video games, or other connections that hold deep meaning for their lives but that tend to be devalued in school settings. These students may be very adept at navigating social media, but may have difficulty with "basic" technologies such as typing in a word processing document or saving files in a Windows folder.
This variability I see in my students provides some major challenges in terms of preparing assignments that will both prepare students for future coursework and be "acceptably structured" that students know my expectations. And I say "acceptably structured" because life is often open-ended — I create assignments that reflect this. I give core requirements on word count, source types, and the level of research required, but then I ask my students to choose their own directions for these projects. To foster engagement, I ask them to choose their own topics, find their own sources, and zero in on what they personally care about.
But as noted above, not every student responds well to such open-ended assignments. In fact, some students seem "incapable" of following their own interests, and others have never learned the skill of touch-typing. In approaching these different groups of students, I find that Thomas Armstrong's discussion of neurodiversity is very helpful. As he points out, society has a tendency to label students as "disabled" or "dysfunctional," but in reality each student has skills and interests that might not match the expectations of a "traditional" classroom. As a teacher, I regularly find that my students understand far more about the course concepts than they're able to express through their writing — quick conversations often show my students having very deep, introspective thoughts about their topics, but a seeming inability to get these same thoughts onto paper. The key, I think, is to not to think of students as "failures" because they have trouble typing, but rather to find ways to help them better express their ideas, and then use their interests to help scaffold the key skills of research writing. For example, a student who loves art might be encouraged to draw original artwork for an in-class presentation, whereas a student athlete might share a personal interview with their coach. In both cases, the students are able to provide unique insights, and I can then help them choose which individual approaches to outlining and organizing they might do. Breaking up the research paper into individual stages allows students the opportunity to better see their own study habits and then choose what works best for them.