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The Power of Teaching Writing Skills and 'Feeling the Spaces'

The Power of Teaching Writing Skills and 'Feeling the Spaces'

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Start a transportation and logistics management degree at American Public University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

An author once wrote, “There is something about putting pencil to paper and making a mark. I can feel the spaces more.” Can you see an online college teacher reading this quote to students as they prepare to write an analysis paper on a case study of waste management or trust in customer service? Probably not.

Nevertheless, this statement has merit and value in improving our students’ writing skills. In the world of academia (as elsewhere in life), communicating well is essential.

A study conducted at the University of Virginia found that students “were telling themselves pessimistic stories like, ‘College is a harder place than I thought. Maybe I don’t belong here?’”

Ever run into such students? What do you do?

Every Class Has a Few Students Who Fear Writing

As a professor, I know that fear of writing happens in almost every course. It seems there are at least a few adult students who are truly frightened of college and dread writing weekly papers for eight long weeks.

The UVA research worked at changing those students’ negativity because many of them would either fail or drop out without some assistance. And they deserved better – they deserved the feeling of success in their lives.

One remedy was to show a video of students who recently were in their situation and had those same negative thoughts about themselves. The students in the video were a year or two ahead of the new ones and had been similarly fearful of writing. During the video interviews, those older students said they just needed to learn new study skills, which helped them over their fears.

Now, that is exactly what I tell my students. But perhaps the message does not sink in as well from a professor as it does from a peer.

Slow Improvement in Study Habits Leads to Academic Success

Years ago, I had a student who was not doing very well. She had taken college courses for four years and had bad study habits. She was about to give up and told me so. I listened to her story of how she did not belong in college and how it was too hard for her.

I calmly told her how to improve her study habits one little step at a time. I advised her to take a 15-minute break in her busy work day and night, shut off the TV and phones, and find a quiet place to read or write even just a few words on that weekly college essay. I told her to just spend 15 minutes, no more, each day.

It was the same message her dad had told her. But I was a stranger, not a peer, and had no social or family ties to her. She listened to me and she excelled. After her graduation, she thanked me.

So how do we replicate such change of behavior with our online students today? A full-time professor might teach five different courses a week with a total of 50 to 70 students. We do not have time for such pleasant meetings to help improve a student’s feelings of being ill-prepared for college.

Two YouTube Videos Have Helped Me Teach Proper Studying and Writing Skills

One teaching method I use is to prepare short two-minute videos. During my vacation each year, I create or update these YouTube videos. (And yes, you do need to write a script that is 508 compliant, which requires that electronic and information technology (EIT) be accessible to people with disabilities.) One video is on time management and the other is on writing citations.

These videos are placed in each student’s online messages during the first week of class and when the first written paper is graded. I also include a personal email to any student who does not think he or she belongs in my class. My goal is to get students to the point where they tell me they get it, that they understand that writing is not as hard as they once thought.

But the videos are not enough. During that first week, or when your students appear not to grasp the concept of writing, ask them to tell you about the problems that hold them back. This is when you stop being a professor and start being their personal writing coach.

One last thought. During the first week and at the end of the course, ask yourself, “What are they here to teach me?” Maybe the answer will help us as academics and our students to feel the spaces more.

Start a transportation and logistics management degree at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He is the former program director of two academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management Program and Transportation and Logistics Management Program. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.

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