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January 17, 2003

New approach to composition courses piloted this spring

by Linda Charles
A pilot unit in three sections of English 105 this semester will be the first real step toward revising first-year composition courses. It's part of a plan, known as ISUComm, to improve student communication skills.

ISUComm planners hope that eventually students will work on their communication skills not only in the foundation courses, but throughout their entire university careers. Already, a few departments are working with ISUComm consultants to revise upper-level courses to include more communications work.

Students lack communication skills
ISUComm is a response to widespread faculty and employer concerns about the communication skills of Iowa State students. Under the proposed plan, the basic writing courses English 104 and 105 gradually would be replaced by courses tentatively titled UComm (for "University Communication") 112 and 212, said Michael Mendelson, English, and chair of the ISUComm steering committee (an ad hoc extension of the Faculty Senate).

"The new courses will retain their primary focus on developing college-level writing and critical thinking abilities," Mendelson said, "but they also will involve some visual, oral and electronic communication activities as complements to the central focus on writing.

"Also new to the courses will be an emphasis on specific civic and cultural themes and a learning community-like format," he added.

Special units planned for spring
"Iowa State's learning communities program will be supported by these changes in the composition courses, and ISUComm will expand an already large involvement of campus courses with the learning communities," said David Russell, English, who is coordinating efforts to revise English 104/5.

"This semester, we're piloting a two- to three-week unit that will integrate WOVE (written, oral, visual and electronic) learning activities in three sections of English 105," he said.

About 75 students will participate in the pilot unit, he added. An evaluation team will observe and interview students, then compare their papers to work done in a standard section of English 105.

The plan is to substitute pilot UComm 112 classes for four or five sections of English 104 next fall, and UComm 212 classes for a similar number of English 105 classes during spring semester 2004, Russell said. Eventually, UComm 212 will become a sophomore-level course, making the foundation courses a two-year sequence.

In time, ISUComm principles could be integrated into upper-level courses, Mendelson said.

Departments will determine what changes should be made to their curricula. "ISUComm assumes that faculty in the individual departments best understand the communication skills required of their students," Mendelson noted.

At present, seven faculty (from English, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, and art and design) have begun working with departments that wish to integrate more communication experiences into courses.

English faculty help with the written component, Greenlee School faculty look at the oral experience and art and design faculty concentrate on the visual aspect of the class, said Denise Vrchota, Greenlee School, who is coordinating the consultant efforts.

The departments of materials science and engineering, accounting, mechanical engineering, and human development and family studies currently are working with the consultants.

Academic success
Each department decides what courses the consultants should review. In the case of accounting, consultants are evaluating the entire curriculum, while materials science and engineering requested help for a core of eight classes, Vrchota said.

Dorothy Winsor, English, has suggested several ways to improve written communication in materials science and engineering lab reports. If accepted by the department, they could be implemented this spring. Art and design faculty are preparing a Web site with suggestions on how materials science and engineering students can use PowerPoint in their classes. The Web site will be put into action in specific courses as soon as it is completed, Vrchota said.

Looking ahead
On the horizon for ISUComm may be electronic portfolios. The ePortfolios would consist of a Web site where students would display their best work.

"At present, ISUComm is considering the use of ePortfolios only in the foundation courses," Mendelson said. "Decisions about continuing their use in upper division courses will be made by the departments."

There is much to do before ISUComm can be fully instituted. The ISUComm steering committee currently is conducting discussions about the proposed new curriculum with all college curriculum committees, Mendelson said.

The Faculty Senate, which adopted the "Basic Principles of ISUComm" in 2001, will deliberate on more specific features of the proposed curriculum in March. A vote may come in April.

At that point, Mendelson said, "Students at Iowa State may be able to take advantage of one of the most innovative communication curricula in the nation."

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