A culture of writing is finding its way into more classes at CU Denver, thanks in part to a provost-funded High Impact Practices (HIPs) grant and in part to team of faculty who, as recipients of one of those grants, spent last spring discussing ways to improve teaching and assessment of the craft. From the talks sprang a “writing-to-learn” concept they hope will spread to more disciplines across campus.

The writing-intensive approaches – including student reflections, draft revisions and portfolio creation – were discussed by the Professional Learning Community (PLC) of faculty members from several disciplines. The ideas they developed rolled out last fall and are returning to CU Denver classrooms this spring.

Nicole Piasecki of CU Denver
Nicole Piasecki, an English instructor, participated in the Professional Learning Community on writing-intensive approaches last spring.

Nicole Piasecki, MA, a composition and rhetoric instructor in the English Department, said collaborating with colleagues in Business, Sociology, Psychology, plus others in English, was an invaluable and somewhat rare experience. She credits CU Denver leadership for not only emphasizing HIPs, but also investing in them.

HIPs are a nationally recognized list of 10 engaged teaching-and-learning strategies, one of which is writing-intensive courses. HIPs were the main topic of a recent Undergraduate Experience Symposium at CU Denver attended by more than 180 faculty, staff and students.

Writing leads to learning

Last spring, the writing-intensive PLC members were compensated for time spent devising writing-oriented approaches; they met twice a month as a group in addition to outside reading and research.

The payoff is already evident, according to Piasecki, who used PLC-developed concepts in her Business Writing class last fall. “The students were surprised by how much writing they were being asked to do, but they didn’t shy from it,” she said.

Rodney Herring, PhD, an English assistant professor and director of composition, led the PLC group. He said research shows the correlation is clear: the more students engage in small, writing-intensive classes, where they receive robust feedback from instructors and peers, the more they enjoy and persist in college.

Rodney Herring of CU Denver
Rodney Herring, an English assistant professor and director of composition, led the PLC group last spring.

The group meetings sparked a core philosophy that writing-intensive courses should not just teach students how to write, Herring said, but how they can use writing to learn in any discipline. Writing becomes a means by which students better understand physics, business or the content of any other academic discipline.

‘Quality of teaching is outstanding’

Herring believes that writing-intensive courses should be offered not only in English but also across disciplines – tied to engineering, biology, economics and a spectrum of other subjects – to enhance the college experience and the learning of this essential skill in fields in which students are interested. “We want to maximize use of instruction in ways that will truly benefit students in their future university career as well as their professional careers,” he said.

The nature of PLC meetings – bouncing pedagogical ideas off each other – generated two-way learning among the campus colleagues, Herring said. “The quality of teaching among my colleagues in Psychology, Sociology and Business who were in the learning community is just outstanding,” he said. “We all learned tips and additional tools from each other that we will use in our writing classes.”

‘Stimulating to hear ideas’

Herring is keeping the cross-discipline momentum going this spring as facilitator of a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) called “Using Writing to Promote Learning.” The FLC is offered through the Center for Faculty Development, which invites all faculty to join now.

HIPs Initiative

Last year, about 70 CU Denver faculty, staff and students at CU Denver were involved in integrating HIPs into courses and degree programs. Provost Rod Nairn, PhD, provided $86,000 in HIP-grant funding, while contributions from other administrative offices as well as schools and colleges boosted the total grant commitment to almost $128,000.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Jeff Franklin, PhD, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate experiences. HIPs take many forms, including undergraduate research, internships, capstone projects and community-based learning. For more information, visit the Office of Undergraduate Experiences page.

“It’s hard to overstate the value of getting outside our silos,” Herring said. “There is so much intelligence and competence on this campus among our instructors, and it’s stimulating to hear their ideas. The fact that those opportunities are being made available by the provost’s office is to be commended.”

Piasecki agrees, saying that the PLC group also benefited from having a mix of voices, including graduate students, seasoned instructors and full professors with a research specialty. “Having a wide range of ranks and specialization areas was really helpful,” she said. “Everyone had something to offer the other group members based on their unique teaching experiences.”

‘One of my epiphanies’

In discussing pedagogy with cross-discipline colleagues, Piasecki realized she’d been taking an overly formulaic approach in her Business Writing classes: write a business memo this way, craft a proposal letter that way. “One of my epiphanies was that I was teaching the course differently than the composition classes I teach,” she said. “I was teaching Business Writing as less of an intellectual pursuit and more of a formulaic approach.”

In last fall’s section of the class, Piasecki had her students write 25 percent more – largely through intentional reflection on each assignment and extensive revision of all course assignments. She noticed that the portfolio approach made students take her writing comments seriously, and she saw across-the-board growth in their skills. “I witnessed them engaging thoughtfully with feedback they received from their peers and me and applying it in a way that demonstrated mastery of the learning outcomes in their final portfolios,” she said.

Meanwhile, the faculty taking part in the PLC discovered that the path to the goal – creating environments in which students succeed – requires some risk-taking.

“It was uncomfortable at first to make some of the changes and take risks I hadn’t before, but the PLC group gave me the confidence to go for it,” Piasecki said. “I made the changes, and they led to tremendous growth from my students.”

CU in the City logo