Understanding Student Experiences Transitioning to College-Level Writing During a Pandemic, by Stephanie Liu-Rojas

This blog is the third in a short series entitled “Adapting to New Pedagogical Situations in the Continuing Covid Era” that the SLAC-WPA is publishing on its blog in spring 2022.

Through an ongoing assessment understanding the transition from high school-level writing to college-level writing during a pandemic, two student researchers, Josh Hui ’22 and Emily Kuhn ’22, and I, a Writing Center Assistant Director at a small liberal arts college in Southern California, have found that students are forced to reassess, renegotiate, and reorganize how they write as they jump from online to hybrid to in-person learning. Pre-pandemic scholarship (Leahy, 1989; Petric, 2002; Goldschmidt, 2014; Hutton & Gibson, N.D.; Melzer, 2014; Rankins-Robertson et al., 2010; Miller et al., 2017; Moriarty, 2014; Tailor, 2017) attempts to understand the student transition to college-level writing, even providing scaffolding and other lesson planning to support students during this transition. We found that students not only had to learn how to write a college-level paper, but now faced other challenges to achieve academic success during a pandemic.

Stephanie Liu-Rojas, Assistant Director of the Pitzer College Writing Center

By conducting two focus groups with six current sophomores (the class of 2024), we found the following themes:

  1. Students felt that there was a higher standard and expectation for writing which developed imposter syndrome and anxiety.
  2. Students felt that they had to reorganize their writing processes and time management skills while learning in an online environment. Student’s pervious writing processes no longer works as they’re juggling home, work, and school life under one roof.

An in-depth analysis of this study can be found in the Dangling Modifier’s Fall 2021 issue and confirms that students greatly struggled with writing, especially during their first year in an online environment. Moreover, as they have transitioned back to in-person learning, they are now finding that they are not only learning how to manage their classes and assignments, but they are also learning how to navigate campus life while adhering to COVID-19 safety policies. Many students stressed the importance of feeling isolated and the need for community during their online learning. Even though they can interact with their classmates, the socialization is limited due to the constraints of the College’s safety guidelines.

Further, students have expressed the need for community, especially as they continue to reassess, re-evaluate, and renegotiate writing with campus life.O ne student discussed how her First-Year Seminar professor created community in an online environment by constantly checking in with the students and revising the syllabus throughout the semester. As the professor allowed the students to participate in adjusting the syllabus to address the challenges of learning under a pandemic, students felt autonomy and authority for their learning, but also felt that these discussions created community.

This professor also practiced ungrading (Blum, 2020; Inoue, 2019) which greatly reduced the anxiety and imposter syndrome students felt during their first year in higher education. In turn, students could focus on their writing without the added stress of the themes found in our study: higher standards and expectations in writing—writing is more than just a 5-paragraph essay and must include their own critical analysis; and re-organizing their time and writing processes to adjust to the constant changing environments. In other words, ungrading helped students focus on the writing process, and not the product, allowing them to take risks and learn how to write without worrying about whether or not they will receive an A grade.

Although our study is limited by obtaining data from six students, this study not only has a better understanding of the student experience with college-level writing during a pandemic, but it also gives us a better insight as to how we can further support students during a pandemic. Allowing conversations around the syllabus with the students to address any gaps and challenges provides authority and autonomy in student learning, while also creating community in a time of isolation. Finally, practicing alternative grading methods such as ungrading, contract grading, etc. can significantly reduces stress, anxiety, and imposter syndrome that students may face as they are constantly shifting their environments, schedules, and roles they carry during the pandemic. Although practices of allowing students to create and change the syllabus, and ungrading may seem radical, through our study, we have found that these practices better support and accommodate student learning to achieve academic success.

This blog is a call for Writing Center directors and coordinators, and educators to conduct further studies within your institutions to truly understand the challenges students are struggling with, especially when transitioning from high-school level writing to college-level writing during an ongoing pandemic. If our goal is to support students in their academic success, we must understand the students’ experiences, perspectives, and needs first.



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