Improving Undergraduate Writing in an Interdisciplinary Program
The faculty in the Pacific Islands Studies BA program regularly assessed learning outcomes, and our analysis revealed that our students struggled with demonstrating proficiency in the kinds of writing specific to our field. The analysis itself did not take too much time; it was our efforts to improve students’ writing in the program that was a multi-year endeavor.
Our reaction to the initial, writing assessment results was to explore options for support through the university writing center or through student enrollment in more composition classes in the English department. We discovered that the writing center was a useful drop-in service but was unable to provide ongoing support. The faculty believed more sustained attention would be needed to help students improve. The English Department’s composition courses were general writing courses and we realized our students would likely not learn field-specific writing skills. After considering these options, we decided to provide support to students ourselves.
Our first solution was creating writing workshops and offering these as out-of-class sessions. During the first year, students were encouraged to attend, but only 25% of students attended. Writing performance did not substantially improve. In addition, faculty had observed student anxiety regarding writing, possibly because most students in our program are from primarily oral cultures in the Pacific. The faculty decision to incorporate a greater emphasis on writing in our own courses and teach our specific writing style (for an interdisciplinary program) came quickly after. We agreed that coordinated writing practice and instruction throughout the curriculum was the key. As a faculty, we clarified which types of writing assignments we would assess in each course to enable students to practice skills and expand them throughout the curriculum. Students would learn and practice during in-class writing workshops. The writing skills included things such as citing sources, writing a literature review, and writing a film review. We encouraged students to use first person and to acknowledge their positionality when critiquing or analyzing materials.
Initially, the managing editor of our Publication program in the Center for Pacific Islands Studies led these embedded, in-class writing workshops. This was done, in part, because some faculty were not comfortable teaching writing skills (this has since changed). Later, with the help of a national grant, we added a new graduate assistant position to serve student writing needs. The graduate assistant (GA) further developed the in-class writing workshops into an online trove of skillfully crafted YouTube videos (e.g., Engaging with Sources) designed specifically for students in Pacific Islands Studies, as well as an impressive collection of online resources for all aspects of the writing process in general: note-taking, outlining, citing, etc. We entitled the new writing program, Write Oceania, and drew parallels between Pacific styles of performance and expression and the written word. Faculty were excited to see how Write Oceania GAs made clear connections to Pacific Islands’ cultures such as traditional dance forms, and oral traditions.
To help our students meet general education requirements, faculty teaching five of our seven required Pacific Islands Studies courses applied for and received the general education writing intensive focus designation (undergraduate students need five writing intensive courses to graduate).
The faculty were also reflecting on and clarifying the assessment process. The initial evaluation of student writing involved the faculty coming together and using a basic rubric and sample high-quality papers to evaluate student work. With the assistance of the campus’s assessment office, the faculty collectively developed a more robust rubric to assess students’ analytic writing and critical thinking skills. This corresponded with changes in the wording of program student learning outcomes (SLO) 3 and 4 to better align with classroom activities and faculty expectations. The SLOs were revised from “explain indigenous issues and concerns” (SLO 3) and “analyze processes of change in island societies” (SLO 4) to “research and communicate indigenous issues and concerns” (SLO 3) and “demonstrate critical thinking and write analytically” (SLO 4). The rubric development process helped validate the assessment process: it provided the space and means for faculty to argue in healthy ways about what student work should be collected and what they expected of student learning. They reflected on their craft and the outcomes. Everyone was there. Everyone spoke. It was an engaged process. Further, faculty opted to track writing outcomes every two years to see the impact of their investments on student writing.
Using the rubric, we assessed program SLO 4 on writing/analytical thinking for two cycles (AY 2014-15, 2016-17) and will complete a third cycle, along with SLO 3 (research and communicate indigenous issues) in AY 2018-19. The results have been promising. Results for SLO 4 indicate writing/analytical thinking skills are improving. Although we have a small sample (#25), 96% of students scored a 2 or above (0-4 scale); 60% were deemed competent (scored 3 or above) on our rubric for AY 2016-17. This is an increase from 2014-15 when 40% were deemed competent.
The improvement efforts began out of concern for student learning outcomes and included the development of a robust rubric and healthy discussions about assignments and pedagogies. In turn, faculty invested classroom time on writing skills, they intentionally spread the teaching of writing skills across courses, and the program benefited from a GA’s support and guidance. All these efforts impacted our students positively.
Our success has helped us maintain momentum. As faculty noted in our 2015 assessment report:
“Through the process of evaluating student work and reflecting on writing skills we committed ourselves to our students' needs. We also realized the value of the process of assessment in shedding light on many aspects of our program. We have planned to revise our curriculum map to more accurately reflect the SLOs addressed in our courses, especially as we add Writing Intensive foci to 3 more courses this academic year. The process of assessment and reflection has fostered a sense of purpose, as well as pride and accomplishment as we advocate and work for our students' best interests.”
Since 2015, we accomplished these plans and continue to focus on student learning needs.
The BA in Pacific Islands Studies was launched in 2010 as a new development at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies. The Center is a National Resource Center for the Pacific Islands and houses a Publication program, an Outreach program to share resources for K-12 teachers, and an academic department offering an MA and new BA in Pacific Islands Studies. The BA is a small program with five core faculty, two specialists, and an editor (publications) and 20 declared majors; however, the program has 30 affiliate faculty, and students from across the curriculum enroll in Pacific Islands Studies courses. The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa is a public institution with 18,000 students and is classified as doctoral, very high research activity (“R1”).
Tritelli, D. (Ed.). (2003). Writing and the New Academy [Special Issue]. Peer Review, 6 (1).
Across the Disciplines. WAC Clearinghouse Home - The WAC Clearinghouse, wac.colostate.edu/atd/.
Walsh, J. (2019, March). Improving undergraduate writing in an interdisciplinary program: Pacific islands studies. Retrieved from
Pacific Islands Studies Undergraduate Program
By Julie Walsh, curriculum specialist and faculty in the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa