Keep Them Coming: Discovering Why Upper-Division Students Use the Writing Center
Faculty Mentor: David Stock, English Department
Because the development of writing skills is crucial to professional success, many writing center studies attempt to determine how to best encourage undergraduate students to attend their university writing centers. Many universities require freshmen to attend the writing center while enrolled in a first-year writing class. Because of this, a large portion of writing center research focuses on the effectiveness of this requirement, and its impact on students’ perceptions of and experiences with the writing center (Bell and Stutts, 1997; Bishop, 1990; Clark, 1985; Gordon, 2008; Rendleman, 2013). This research added to the extensive debate over whether or not writing center attendance during first-year writing courses should be mandatory. For the most part, these studies are focused on the perceptions of first-year students and “basic” (remedial) writers (Babcock and Thonus, 2012; Bourelle, 2007; Odney, 2011; Osman; 2007; Robinson, 2009). Very few concentrate on the experiences and perceptions of upper-division students—undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors (Cheatle and Bullerjahn, 2015).
At BYU, the majority of visitors to the Writing Center (WC) are freshmen. We suspect that our upper-division students here at BYU experience the same misconception that Cheatle and Bullerjahn found in their undergraduate population at Miami University: the WC is only for freshmen and ESL students (2015, p. 23). To discover exactly why our upper-division students choose to attend or ignore the WC, and to contribute to the discussion surrounding mandatory writing center attendance in first-year writing classes, we conducted a study centered on two questions: 1) What factors influence upper-division students’ perceptions and usage of writing center services? 2) How does having taken first-year writing affect upper-division students’ perceptions and usage of writing center services?
We organized and distributed an online survey to a pool of 1,520 upper-division students who had attended the WC, according to our records. The 133 respondents to this survey were invited to further participate in a focus group, and 8 accepted. An OLS regression analysis was performed to determine the significance of correlations among the survey results.
We discovered that many upper-division students don’t understand that the WC is a resource for all years of students, not just first-years. There was a fairly even split (41% to 44%) between believing that the WC is only for first-years and believing that the WC is for any year student. Though 68% of respondents understood that the WC is for students of any major, 11% thought the WC is a resource only for students with majors in the College of Humanities. Half of the respondents correctly identified the WC as a resource for writers of any skill level, but the others considered the WC a resource only for average or struggling writers.
We found that most of the respondents view the WC as helpful, but many students with majors outside of the humanities don’t think the WC can help with major-specific writing assignments. Our focus group participants expressed doubt in the abilities of WC tutors when it came to scientific or foreign language papers. A few participants also admitted that they didn’t know they could use the WC in their upper-division classes, and suggested that we coordinate with their professors in order to correct this.
The belief that the WC is a resource only for first-year students may not be limited to BYU. Cheatle and Bullerjahn report that the majority of students in their survey believed their writing center was meant for first-year and ESL students (2015, p. 23). The assumption that the WC is only for remedial writers is not unique to BYU either. This stigma has plagued university writing centers for decades, perhaps perpetuated by the very English departments that sponsor writing centers (North, 1984, p. 436).
The year in school and major of upper-division students may affect perceptions and usage of the WC. Seniors were more likely to report poor experiences than juniors or sophomores, perhaps because—like our focus group reported—they wanted more time with tutors and tutors who specialized in their field of study. And, compared to students of other majors, students of the humanities were much more likely to know that the WC is for all students, perhaps because the WC is sponsored by the English Department in the College of Humanities, or because they have more writing assignments than students of other majors. Also, since many BYU students serve missions for the LDS Church, many upper-division students may have been students several years ago, and thus may have been affected by the first-year–centered aims of the WC’s old director (who retired several years ago). This could also affect why upper-division students incorrectly perceive the WC as a mainly first-year resource.
The most effective way to encourage upper-division students to visit the Writing Center may be to advertise to them through the non-composition professors of their specific majors. This can be done through one-to-one outreach, in-class visits, invitations to staff meetings, and larger seminars. By working closely with individual professors, WC staff can improve their tutoring abilities in major-specific assignments and thus gain the trust of upper-division students and professors alike.
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