Course Exam – ENGL 255 — Introductory Composition

Adien Dubbelboer, an instructor in the English Centre for Humanities in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, is the Academic Coordinator for Effective Writing and the Course Coordinator for English 255, Introductory Composition. She was kind enough to set some time aside from her busy schedule to speak to The Voice Magazine about the course.

When was the last update of the course?
Adien: The course is currently in revision 7. It went into revision 7 in 2014, I think.

What was the process for getting the course made?
Adien: The course has been at AU for a long time, when I first started, students would sometimes send me handwritten work, which I would then mark and return. Eventually It’s all gone online, of course. Since 2014, we are completely online, including the electronic textbook.

The course has not changed so much in its approach as it has changed in its format. The course that was initially created by David Brundage and Marian Allen, who is still a tutor, and has gone through various transitions over time. The first transition that I was involved with was revision 4. Revision 5 is where I started putting more and more things online. It initially went into Moodle as revision 6, which was the most dramatic change in the format and in the way we presented the information.

Revision7 was just the addition of the electronic textbook.

As It’s an e-text course, have you heard of any issues with the e-text that students might want to be prepared for?
Adien: Personally, I think that as long as the student is able to download the e-text to an iPad or a tablet, then the tablet starts to function like a book. It becomes a lot easier to flip through the e-textbook. If you have to do it online or on the computer, It’s just simply more difficult because you can’t quite treat it as a textbook. That would be my most important advice to students: put your hands on a cheap e-reader, and use that for your e-textbooks.

About how many students take this course, on average?
Adien: The average in the last two years? We are close to 2000 students a year. Together, with the accounting course, It’s one of the biggest courses in the university.

What kind of learning style is it? For instance, is it very open ended or does it give fairly detailed instructions?
Adien: It tries to give very detailed instructions. Sometimes It’s not detailed enough, apparently, because I get a lot of calls from students who are a little confused–especially about the discussion assignment.

Because we are trying to get students to think in an academic way about writing and to get them to write in a variety of rhetorical modes, different forms of essay writing, we are quite specific in how we explain what it is that we want from them.

It’s always a bit difficult. It’s almost like a vicious circle: you are asking students to improve their writing by reading, but, if they are not good readers to begin with, then the information doesn’t necessarily come across the way it should. That’s something I’m currently struggling with: how am I going to get to a point where I can improve that by using Internet and by using Moodle?

If this course isn’t a requirement of their program, why should students take it as an elective?
Adien: That’s an interesting question because it is mostly a required course by a variety of programs: Nursing students, a lot of psychology students, English students. For them, it is either this option or take another English course, but very many of them are asked to take English 255 as a core component early in their program to help them set up for success in their courses. However, there are students who say, “This is the last course I need to complete my degree,” and you go, “Okay, so you are in year 4 of your program and doing your first year English writing course?” Hmm. Sometimes those are already accomplished writers, but sometimes you wonder how they managed without taking this course first.

That is probably the other big challenge in the course: there’s such a variety of skill level that It’s not always easy to accommodate every student the way you’d want to.

What part or concept in the course have they seen students have the most trouble with?
Adien: Figuring out what it means to rhetorically analyze a text. That really forces them to think about how someone else has “built” a text, so it really requires a high level of reading skill. And then you have to figure out how to write that all down. So, you get some of the best papers in the final paper of the course and some of the worst papers.

It really demands that they think about both the reading and the writing.

What is rhetorical analysis?
Adien: (Laughs.) Now you’ve got me. In a rhetorical analysis, you are trying to analyze the rhetorical tricks the author uses. You are trying to figure out what the author does to persuade you, the reader, to believe, feel, see, understand what he or she is trying to persuade you of. It’s a variety of textual elements that you would look at. Mostly within this course, because It’s a beginner academic English course, we look at things like logos, pathos, ethos. What are the logical argumentation tricks the author uses to persuade you? What is their ethos? Ethos is how reliable the author is, how authoritative are they in the field they are discussing. And then there’s pathos. What kind of emotional tricks are they pulling to persuade you?

What’s a good way for students to deal with the more troublesome parts?
Adien: I’m always tempted to say, “Stay in touch with your tutor.” There are fourteen of them on the course right now. But some of them have a very heavy workload and that makes it more difficult. If students have any trouble whatsoever getting in touch with their tutor, they should always just contact me. I am the fulltime staff member. (Laughs.) Technically, the others are not. I’m easily reached: they don’t even have to know my name, which most people don’t. They can just use the 255online@athabascau.ca link, which is in the materials at various points within the course, and that will always bring them to me.

Are the assignments fairly similar in the amount of work required, or are some of them much larger?
Adien: The first assignment is a diagnostic. It really asks the students to write a small introduction, first of themselves and then of their community or their environment. That gives the tutor an opportunity to get to know the student a little bit. It also functions as a way that says, “These are the areas of strength, and these are the areas of weakness.” That’s the first one. And it isn’t weighted, so it doesn’t cost the student anything in terms of marks. That is where we also sometimes have to say to students, “Look, you are not ready for this course. It is likely better for you to do English 177 or English 155 just to get you up to steam and up to par with what you need in this course.”

It only gets harder after that. The second assignment they do is an online assignment that consists of three sessions, for which they have to post their own post, their introductory paragraphs. Then they have to summarize a debate That’s ongoing in their own community. And, lastly, they have to analyze rhetorically a text from our textbook. And That’s assignment two; it takes about six weeks in total, but during that time, they can be working on the other assignments because the third and sixth assignment reinforces what they do in assignment two. They have to repeat that, or do it at the same time with assignment three and six.

So, It’s a bit of going back and forth in the textbook, and It’s going back and forth in the course as well. Assignment three is a summary assignment: they write two summaries for that. For assignment four, they start doing research. It’s their first research paper. And assignment four, That’s where all the fun stuff with APA and MLA come into play. That’s one of the things that students struggle with, but we try to help them through that. And then there’s assignment five, the two last papers in the course are around 1500 to 2000 word essays. I think It’s about four or five pages. Assignment five is an argumentative essay for which we have a lot different topics to choose from.

And the final one is another four or five page essay: rhetorical analysis of a text of their choosing, but we have limited the number of texts that they can choose from.

Is there a part of the course that you’ve heard students really enjoy? What is it?
Adien: It varies. At one point, I wanted to know how people were experiencing the online discussion groups, so I set up a tiny little survey in Moodle, and I invited students to respond to that after they completed the discussion group, and responses were quite mixed, to my surprise.

I thought there would be far more interest in more online stuff or more group stuff, but a lot of the responses were actually, “No, I’m taking this course through distance ed so I don’t have to be talking to other students all the time.” So, fair enough, That’s a reasonable thing to say. At this point, we’ve made the online part mandatory, so they can’t just willy nilly say, “No, I want to do an alternate,” but there are circumstances in which we the alternate version of the online assignment is necessary, for example for incarcerated students, and you know, we have to make accommodations here and there, for people who cannot manage the time frames that we have set up for the assignment.

So, I think I’ve mostly heard that students enjoy the variety of topics, the variety of ways of writing essays. Overall, students do find it a reasonably challenging but doable course.

What is the exam like? Is it a couple of essays? Short answer questions? Multiple choice?
Adien: There’s one exam. We do ask them to write a final exam. It’s a three-hour exam, so it is quite long. They re-show us the skills they learned in the course.

They write one essay. Then they write a summary of an essay that we have given with the exam. They write a small analysis of that as well. That’s all just about a paragraph long, and, although with the online exam, and It’s online, too, the paragraphs seem to get shorter and shorter. I’ll have to revisit that at some point exam.

They have to write an excerpt explanation. So, in the course, they read a number of texts, and from those texts, we chose twelve essays, the student knows the titles going into the exam. We found some interesting quotes for each of those titles, and they have to explain how that quote works within the text. That takes a bit of memorization for them.

What we’re testing in the exam is the student’s skills, and not so much knowledge.

Or what would you change to make the course even better if you could?
Adien: If I had money and time and everything–and the university had the same–I think what I would try to do more of is have more student-tutor interaction points that are sort of set but free. But also student-student interaction points that are always public.

So, That’s what I’d like to see, but these things are not easily accomplished, especially in a course where you have such a variety of students, so many of them, and little time to spend with each student individually – except through our responses to their assignments.

Basically what I’d like is to make it a course for people who want to study in their own way: to have an individual learning path through the course, but you can set that up, so if you are someone who works better if you have regular contact with your tutor, then that should be possible–more so than it is now. If you are someone who learns best by cramming everything in the last two months of the course, then that should be possible, too. In each case, though, it works best if the instructor and the student both know this before the course actually starts.

So, I want to allow individual learning styles to be possible within the course, but That’s not a super easy thing to accomplish, especially when you have so many students and so many styles and so many tutors.

What kind of personality type or talent is required to succeed at this course?
Adien: Right now, it requires somebody who is self-motivated. It can be difficult to have more than once a week contact with your tutor. But, for some students, That’s necessary.

I would like to see it be made possible that students can also, say, text a particular number and get a more immediate response than from an email, but these are demands that we can’t put on our instructors at this point. That’s just because of our models. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, too.

How can students prepare for the course?
Adien: I would say that it depends on the type of student they are. One of the things a student can do is enroll a month in advance so that he or she has access to all the course material except the tutor, the assignment drop box, and the online discussion group, but then the student can feel his or her way into the course over a longer period of time and then start. So, if you are okay starting in June 1st, but if you sign up now, you pretty much get access now. you’d have a long runway to get started.

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