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Trinary Collaborations: An Alternative Model for Writing Instruction

posted: 10.10.12 by Nedra Reynolds

Recently I had the energizing experience of serving on a dissertation committee (via Skype and e-mail, alas) for a doctoral student at the University of Hawai‘i who has completed a study that will interest many Bits readers. Titled “Trinary Collaborations in First-Year Composition: A Mixed Methods Study of the University of Hawai‘i Writing Mentors Program,” the dissertation examines data collected over four years and across 100 sections of first-year composition (FYC). All sections in the study consisted of an instructor, first-year students, and an M.A. student in English serving as a writing mentor-researcher. More than a tutor, these writing mentors performed an extraordinary number of tasks and played a number of roles.

The major takeaway from this ambitious study is that as colleges and universities try to find ways to make writing programs more “efficient” (and in particular as they seek to deliver writing instruction via online courses), they might see better retention rates and deeper engagement with writing if they put more resources into writing classes—by, specifically, adding  a writing mentor to every class.

For those most impressed by results achieved through quantitative data, they will be interested in the finding that students in mentored sections outperformed their nonmentored counterparts in all of the five categories of analysis, even though the two populations under comparison had almost identical SAT-writing averages and similar demographics. For those interested in an account informed by qualitative data, readers will be fascinated with the context for this study, which takes place on the most diverse campus in the United States, where 59 percent of students are of Hawai‘ian, Asian, or Pacific Islander ancestry. Into a mix of both indigenous Hawai‘ian as well as Hawai‘ian residents (settlers), thousands of students arrive from “the continent,” often unfamiliar with native legends, languages, values, or traditions.

Newly minted Ph.D. Holly H. Bruland has made an incredible contribution to the profession with this study. The IRB approval alone must have been a daunting undertaking, as was the mound of data analyzed: 6,602 conference logs, 653 weekly memos, 89 anonymous end-of-semester evaluations by students, 133 end-of-semester evaluations by instructors. She offers strong evidence that writing mentors’ programs have the potential to increase student retention, particularly on campuses with large populations of minority students or underprepared writers. As we know from Deborah Brandt’s research, literacy sponsors offer an opportunity for a reader or writer at a timely moment. Similarly, this research has established the importance of mentors—neither student nor teacher—to the development of rhetorical tools and writing fluency.

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