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Revolutionizing Writing Instruction

Remedial writing classes don’t work.

Studies funded by a UI Seed Grant and the Idaho State Board of Education (SBOE) found that only one in nine students in developmental writing classes went on to graduate from college.

Students enrolled in remedial classes also pay more in tuition and have higher debt loads and dropout rates nationwide.

In 2012, the SBOE ordered two- and four-year institutions to eliminate all remedial math and writing, and institutions responded by creating an alternative for struggling students.

Diane Kelly-Riley, then director of composition, now associate professor in UI’s English Department and associate dean of research for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, has been working to develop these programs at UI since 2013.

Kelly-Riley worked with many English department colleagues and students to implement an English 101 Plus program based on the model developed at Boise State University. The course requires qualifying students to attend a weekly studio session in addition to enrollment in the regular introductory-level English course. The extra time allows the instructor to preview upcoming material, review difficult concepts and provide personalized instruction.

That framework was adopted by Idaho’s seven other public postsecondary institutions in 2016.

So far, the model has seen success. While it is too early to assess its effect on overall graduation rates, students are passing at much higher rates than when enrolled in the original remedial courses, Kelly-Riley said.

Now, Kelly-Riley is using funding from the SBOE to work on a project she hopes will further bolster student success in writing. Idaho ENACT (Educators Networking About College-Composition Transitions) is a statewide network of secondary and postsecondary writing instructors who work to bridge the gap between what is expected of incoming college students and the skills high school students are graduating with.

“We feel strongly that the expertise teachers have needs to drive this project,” Kelly-Riley said. “The Common Core State Standards, renamed the Idaho Standards, have the intent of making students college- and career-ready. They didn’t ask any college educators what college writing looks like as they were developing these standards, though. So we’ve been trying to articulate that.”

Idaho ENACT participants met for the first time in April 2016 at the McCall Outdoor Science School under Kelly-Riley’s leadership. They formed regional advisory boards and have returned to their districts, colleges and universities to continue strategizing with colleagues on how to improve writing instruction.

One issue of concern was the lack of space for student failure.

“In the high-stakes environment that places so much emphasis on student performance on standardized tests, and in the K-12 arena in which teacher evaluation is tied to student performance, there’s not motivation to give room for failure — for students to learn that failure is a learning experience, rather than an end,” Kelly-Riley said.

Alternatives to high-stakes testing is one of Kelly-Riley’s specialties, ever since she was a volunteer for the Peace Corps in 1989 in the Marshall Islands. There, students in the eighth grade needed to pass a national exam in order to advance to high school, and their success largely dictated students’ economic advancement for the rest of their lives.

Since then, Kelly-Riley has found a viable alternative to standardized testing in student portfolios, which provide evidence of student learning from the classroom, rather than “outside the learning environment.”

As communication becomes more pervasive with advancing technology, the writing skills that Kelly-Riley wants to improve are more important than ever.

“The communication challenges students will face when they graduate is always moving,” Kelly-Riley said. “We want to keep our students in tune to what that changing landscape is.”

English Department

Physical Address:
200 Brink Hall

Mailing Address:
English Department
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive MS 1102
Moscow, Idaho 83844-1102

Phone: 208-885-6156


Web: English