Despite Poor Writing Skills, my Students Become Proficient When Given the Right Environment

Multiethnic students sitting together and looking at a professor

At the beginning of the semester, I share with my students a (somewhat) surprising statistic: in my seven years of teaching, a student has yet to fail my course on the sole basis of being a poor writer. While the students are initially shocked by this, especially those who have already predetermined (or have been told) that they are poor writers, I quickly follow this statement up with the explanation that those who are not successful in Developmental Composition typically are not so because they do not turn in assignments and/or do not attend class.

While sending this message often causes me (and perhaps my readers) to question whether or not students should be failing my courses on the sole basis of being poor writers, I caution myself against that thinking because, in my experience, those students who might fall into this category often do not give themselves a chance to fail based upon their writing quality. While each case may not necessarily fall into a general pattern, I would be remiss to discount the student who is deeply aware of their writing deficiencies, and, through a series of mitigating events and insecurities, chooses not to cross the barrier from developmental to college-level writing. Those of us who teach developmental writing, including myself, are often left wondering at the end of the semester what would have worked, how it could have played out differently, or just simply what would have happened if the student had turned in a few more essays, attended a tutoring session or two, or could have seen the forest through the trees a bit more clearly.

When I was charged with revising our developmental writing course into a “just in time” model of a college-level writing course paired with a required developmental lab (in place of a full semester of developmental writing), I was admittedly skeptical of what student success would look like in this model. I was anxious that perhaps students wouldn’t have enough time to develop their skills or would be overloaded with the additional work of the lab. However, I knew I would only be able to assess accurately if I taught the course exactly as I would teach college-level introductory composition. Thankfully, the first semester we offered college composition with lab, I was also teaching a parallel section of college composition without the lab, and I was able to keep myself accountable by teaching both sections the same content, lectures, and homework. Regardless, my anxiety remained that this might actually be the semester a student would be unsuccessful in my course because of their lack of skills.

What I discovered very early in the semester was that students in the lab section were more than willing to do the work. They were showing up early Friday mornings (when there were no other classes schedule on campus: a feat for many freshman whose dorm mates were able to sleep in) and completing their MyWritingLab modules. They were asking questions, attentive to mini-lectures, and seeking resources to assist them in understanding the concepts. In short, they were rising to the occasion and showing that they believed they could complete the task. I often wondered what would have happened if I had asked my other, non-developmental section of college composition to come to lab: would they be as eager to tackle the Friday morning lab?

With each semester, EN101 w/lab evolves based on assessment, but one concept remains at the core of its mission: giving students the chance to put in the work and learn the concepts. Using MyWritingLab empowers them to do this in ways that worksheets or exercises never could: students are motivated by discovering skills they are already proficient in via the Path Builder and are encouraged by each module they master along the way. While learning college-level concepts in the classroom, students can reinforce these skills individually through lab performance. I’m encouraged by the results I see from my students, and I am excited to witness how this experience motivates them to persist through the semester and beyond. Perhaps by familiarizing themselves a bit more with the trees and finding their own path, the forest is a bit less dark and vast.


I tracked the progress of my students in a case study, which shows statistically how well they improved their writing skills using educational technology.


About the Author
Emily Ryan-Radder

Emily Ryan-Radder

Emily Ryan-Radder is a writing coordinator for Hilbert College in the English Department. She instructs composition courses and labs, as well as consults individually with students through Academic Services. She specializes in the areas of developmental reading and writing, rhetoric and composition, and modern American poetry.

In the past, she has instructed developmental reading and writing, basic and advanced composition, and literature at several area schools, including Erie Community College, Trocaire College, and Medaille College.