Remedial Writing on Computers: Evaluation by Students and Faculty of a Pilot Project, Fall 1985

44(3) p. 35
Remedial Writing on Computers: Evaluation by Students and Faculty of a Pilot Project, Fall 1985

Goran "George" Moberg

As an experiment, the English department at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (part of the City of New York University system) in the Fall of 1985 introduced word-processing equipment in its remedial-writing curriculum. I taught the first two sections in this new program, spending half the instructional time in a regular classroom and half in a computer lab where the students wrote their compositions on PCs. In the end, the students evaluated the course in a 22-question survey--and were in turn evaluated on their final essays by faculty other than myself.

This article will first summarize our planning, methodology, and activities and then offer a three-fold evaluation of this experimental project: tabulation of the students' answers to the questionnaire; departmental grading of finals (the CUNY Writing Assessment Test); and my own opinions and conclusions.

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From late 1984 through Spring of 1985, Dr. Lee Gershuny and I (our department's tiny, two-person CAI committee) discussed using computers in English composition courses. We were already writing on word processors; but more importantly, by studying research in the field and by attending professional conferences, we learned that computer-assisted learning could become a boon to the English profession and its students by substantially increasing effectiveness, especially in teaching writing skills (Schwartz, 1984, pp. 239-247; Newman, 1984; Langendoen, 1984, pp. 31-32; Selfe and Kiefer, 1985; Wresch, 1984; Collins and Sommers, 1985).

Believing that a normal three-hour course might not offer enough computer time at least not in an experimental course we focused our interest on the six-hour English 090, a remedial writing course (hereafter simply "090"). In addition, most studies available at the time suggested that it would be most cost-effective to introduce computers in remedial classes. According to Brian Gallagher (1985), basic writers benefit more from computers than do advanced writers (p. 19). Similarly, Moore (1985) noted that "My experience with a class of first-year students at Texas Southmost College leads me to believe that . . . beginning writers stand to gain the most from the use of word processing."


One of the chief aims of the project was to develop methods for teaching 090 with the help of available word-processing equipment in one of the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) computer labs. Another objective was to evaluate the effects of computers on the students' writing skills. Specifically we wanted to see if students' progress in writing on the computer would carry over to their writing with pen and paper, a most desirable result, because the university-wide final exam in 090 had to be done in longhand. We were hopeful in this regard, having read Daiute and Taylor (1981); their experiment indicated that new writing skills nurtured on computers are likely to carry over to writing with pen.

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I volunteered to take the first plunge into machine-land and began the project in the fall of 1985 when I taught two 090 courses with computers.


Each of my two 090 sections (hereafter, sections A and B) met twice a week from 5:20 to 7:55 (a normal time slot for 090 classes at BMCC). Our period was divided into two half-sessions: one in a regular classroom, and one in a computer lab with 20 IBM PC machines and two Epson printers. There was no official break, but the move from the classroom to the lab provided a natural five-minute break.

Although the normal 090 load is 25 students, we received permission from the department chair to limit class size to 20 students. We had only 20 computers in the lab, and we felt that doubling up on the machines would unduly complicate the pilot project.

Enrollment figures for the sections involved in the study were as follows: In section A, 18 registered, 16 showed up for class, and 16 remained; in section B, 20 registered, 18 showed up, and 16 remained to the end. This attrition rate is not higher than average.


We gratefully accepted the IBM PCs that we were allowed to use in the Learning Resource Center. As software, our committee had selected the BANK STREET WRITER word-processing program because it seemed functionally appropriate; although easy to learn and use, it was powerful enough for the students' needs in writing short essays. The program was also inexpensive.

I had read in the literature (Gallagher, 1985, for instance) that most students quickly learn to write on a computer, even if they don't know how to type (p.22). Thus, our registration procedures did not stipulate any prerequisites for my computer sections. As a result, about half the students who signed up were unaware that computers would be involved. Even so, a majority had some experience with keyboarding--either typing or computing.

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Because the manufacturer's glossy manual that comes with BANK STREET WRITER is not simple and clear, I wrote a five-page introductory manual for the students. The main course text was also my own (Moberg, 1985). It was thus easy for me to adapt it for computers-- mainly with the help of discussion in our class "Bulletins" (see below). The committee had looked at Helen Schwartz's book (1985) the only computer-writing text yet published at that time-- but found it too advanced for our 090 students.

As supplements, I also produced, with the students' help, "Class Bulletins" (short, twice-weekly newsletters), which partly replaced the lecturing that would be nearly impossible in the lab setting (it's foolhardy to interrupt a whole class working by their computers). The computer-created bulletins also served as a publishing vehicle for selected student writings.

Once I had the schedule, the equipment, and the text in place, I proceeded to teach my two 090 courses chiefly the way I have been teaching them during the last few years: I turned the course into a series of writers' workshops with much rewriting and collaborative peer criticism. The students sat in the same groups of five in both classroom and lab. I had hesitated grafting groups onto the totally new machinery of computers, but I saw support in my readings (Herrman, 1985; Gallagher, 1985, p. 21; Barile, 1985).

I intentionally did not introduce the students to any of the outlining, heuristics, vocabulary, or grammar-drill programs now becoming available. I felt such specialized programs might keep the students away from the practice they need most: composing. So I kept things simple and had my students use the computers as a writing tool, as a supplemental, labor-saving, and exciting variant of the old pen-and-paper way of writing.

I required two types of writing assignments: (a) 300 to 500 word essays done on the computer with several revisions; and (b) short, timed 5-minute essays done in the classroom with pen, simulating the final--the CUNY Writing Assessment Test (WAT).

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In training the students to edit their writing for correct syntax, inflections, and mechanics (fixing errors), I used the method employed by our BMCC Writing Center--"editing aloud," pioneered here by Dr. Milton Baxter and Mr. John Short, a method that juxtaposes the visual and the auditory impressions of the writer's own text while scanning it aloud. It was my hypothesis that this technique would work even better with screens and printouts in our lab than it had in traditional pen-and-paper environments.


All 32 students filled out the questionnaires, 16 in each section. The figures printed after each question indicate percentages. Most of the time the figures add up to 100%; when they do not, one or more students didn't answer.

Questionnaire and Response You are a pioneer. You belong to a group of students who have taken English 090 with computers for the first time at this college. Future students will benefit from your experience if you share some of your thoughts and feelings here below. For each question, first circle the objective answer that comes closest to your view. Next, please write down some specifics to amplify your response. 1. Did you know how to type before coming to this class?


A:			50			50		0
B:			44			50		0
Both:			47			50		3

MY COMMENT: The one student who claimed no typing skills at all passed the WAT, thus supporting my supposition that typing skills are not necessary in a computer-writing course (though these skills may well be desirable).

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2. Had you had experience with computers before in this class?

A:			44		    31		    25
B:			25		    56		    19
Both:			47		    44		    22

MY COMMENT: Two-thirds of the students who claimed no experience with computers passed the WAT. Although the sample is too small to be generalizable, this result does suggest that computer novices can do well in a computer-writing course. 3. What was the degree of difficulty in learning to write with B STREET WRITER on the IBM PC computer?

A:		50		 44		 6	 
B:		19		69		13
BOTH:		35		57		10
4. How do you feel about writing on the computer today?
		  VERY 		   MODERATELY		       NOT
 A:		94			6			0
 B		69			25			0
 Both:		82			6			0
5. (This question is not about the computer but about writing in general.) How would you best describe the attitude you had whe you came to this class?

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A:		6			50		  44
B:		13			50		  38
Both:		10			50		  41
6. Today, how would you best describe your attitude toward writing?
A:		50			44			6
B:		88			13			0
Both:		69			29			3
7. How much did writing on the computer help improve your skill in DEVELOPMENT (content and organization)?
A:			56		31		13
B:			75		25		 0
Both:			67		28		 6
8. How much did writing on the computer help improve your EDITING skills (correcting grammatical errors)?
A:		50			50			0
B:		44			56			0
Both:		47			53			0

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9. How much did "collaborative learning" (group work) help you write on the computer?

A:		56			25			13
B:		63			38			0
Both		60			32		 	6
10. Have you changed any of your writing habits (your "process") since you began using the computer? If YES please explain under "Comments."
			YES			NO
A:			63			25
B:			 5			25
Both:			69			25
11. Was there anything about the computer work that you feel could have been done in a better way? If YES--please explain "Comments."
				YES			NO
A:				6			94
B:				12			88
Both:				9			91 
12. We were 16 students in this class. Do you think this size was
A:		0		100		0
B:		0		100	   	0
Both:		0		100		0
13. Did you learn anything from the writing on computers done by other students?

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A:			13		56		25
B:			19		69		13
Both:			16		63		19
14. How much did you REVISE your essays on the computer compared to the amount of rewriting that you used to do with pen a paper? (Remember, revising is not editing for correct gra but changing the content.)
A:		38		50		13		0
B:		69		25		0		0
Both		54		38 		6		0
15. How much did you use the editing function called MOVE (moving blocks of text around)?

A:		0		44		56
B:		25		44		31
Both:		13		44	    	44

MY COMMENT: The fairly negative response to this question about using the editing function MOVE tells me that I must teach its use more carefully in the future. 16. How did you find the computer-lab attendants?

A:			72		25		0
B:			63		31		0
Both:			69		28		0

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17. Would you have liked a writing tutor in the computer lab in addition to your instructor?

A:		13			38			50
B:		3			31			56
Both:		6			35			53

MY COMMENTS: Amazingly, over half the students felt that they would not use a tutor in the computer lab if one was made available. Perhaps they enjoyed standing in line to see me with their questions.

18. Did you find that the TWO PRINTERS in the lab were adequate for your writing needs?

A:			38		56		6
B:			19		69		13
Both:			29		63		9

MY COMMENTS: Again, I was surprised that most students felt comfortable with only two functioning printers, even though they often had to stand in line. Perhaps this waiting time provided some kind of natural break that they needed.

19. Could you describe something negative in your experience using the computer for writing? (If YES, please be sure to ex under "Comments"!)

			NO			YES
A:			88			12
B:			81			19
Both:			85			15

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MY COMMENT: This question was too general and thus did not evoke useful responses.

20. Has it been easier for you to write with pen and paper as a result of your experience with the computer?

A:		38		25		31		31
B:		31		38		25		6
Both:		35		32		28		6

21. Would you recommend this computer-writing English 090 to students who need to take English 090?

A:		44		44		6
B:		69		25		0
Both:		57		35		3

22. Now that you know how to write on a computer, do you plan in the future to use the computers in the Learning Resource Center for writing assignments in other courses?

A:			38			56		6
B:			50			44		0
Both:			44			50		3

Clearly the students valued their computer-writing class highly. Let's now move on to two more sources of evaluation: first, the objective scoring of final exams by the English department; and then, at the end, my own observations and subjective impressions.

p. 46


The City University of New York Writing Assessment Test is a time-limited composition test. Each student's essay is read holistically and scored by at least two teachers. To insure objectivity, instructors do not evaluate their own students' essays. At the time of my project, moreover, no evaluator knew which essays had beer written by my computer-writing students.

By section, students' performance on the WAT were as follows: In 090 A ten out of 16 passed (62.5%). In 090 B fourteen out of 16 passed (875%). Combined--24 out of 32 passed (75%).

The 75% passing figure is higher than the department's average (ca. 47%), and also higher than my own students' usual passing rate in the past (ca. 51%). Objectively, then, the scores on the CUNY WAT supported the positive impressions of the participants. The sample is too small however, and the variables involved too many for us to know the extent to which the computers contributed to the high scores. The somewhat smaller class size alone, for instance, might well have improved the learning rate. Nevertheless, as the department opens up more and more computer sections each term and as additional instructors participate, the cumulative record in the near future should be more conclusive.


As the teacher, I praise the experience. I enjoyed my enlarged role as instructor/lab-attendant. I found teaching these two 090 sections a most rewarding experience in my professional career. The lively spirit of adventurous learning enveloped most sessions both in classroom and lab. If I have a choice, I will continue to teach basic writing with computers.

More specifically, I believe I have met the objective of at least beginning to develop a methodology for teaching 090 with computers, such as the organization of time and place, the selection of tools and materials, and the division of writing assignments into longer essays on computers and short practice tests with pen in

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longhand. I was especially delighted to see that students quickly learned to operate the machines so that I was freed to act as a tutor or consultant and could hold conferences with individuals right in the lab. The students often praised this opportunity for instant feedback on their writing.

Before I give specific examples of my experience, I want to stress that the remarks that follow are basically impressions, not objective data. Having my hands full teaching a new type of course, I didn't have time to measure and tabulate the proceedings-- though I did keep a personal journal. Thus, when I claim below that students revised more than usual, for example, that's based not on recorded statistics but simply on my memory of seeing all those revised drafts.


I did not feel the machines restricted the teaching methods used in my writing courses; on the contrary, the computers seemed an enrichment and probably would admit quite a variety of pedagogy. Yet the group system was a good choice for me because I was used to it. There is also, as I said earlier, some evidence in the literature that computers and collaborative learning go hand in glove: the method humanizes the machine, and the machine in turn refines the technology of composing, editing, and making final drafts. Arranging the students in groups not only in the classroom but in the lab was felicitous for us. Again and again, I saw the students teaching each other splendidly in front of their computer screens; apparently the illuminated text and blinking cursor promoted communication among them. Other teachers have found the same (Rodriguez 1985; Sommers and Collins, 1985; Sudol, 1985).

As to the second objective mentioned in the beginning of this article, "evaluating the effects of computers on the students' writing," the chief effect that I saw was increased motivation which, I believe, caused increased writing volume and increased revising. Incidentally, this strong motivation also resulted in somewhat better attendance and punctuality than normal in my previous 090 classes. For example, the students were so eager to use the computers that rarely did anyone "take the long way" in the march from

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the classroom on the seventh floor to the lab at the other end of the building on the fifth floor.

Because I don't feel the need here to argue the merits of revision, I'll just say that although some students sometimes would indeed make a new printout of essentially unrevised--but slightly edited--text, it was far more common to see writers go through three or more drafts before they were satisfied; in fact, often I had to stop them and tell them, "This is good--file it and go on to your next essay." I believe the magic of the fast, mechanical printer was partly responsible for this new perfectionism in 090.

One example of one of the revision-processes that I developed in the course deserves mention. After I returned each of six fifty-minute "practice" WAT's (simulations of the CUNY final) to the students with my evaluations and corrections, I required complete revision and re- editing on the computer. Amazingly, much of the basic human resistance to doing a piece of writing over almost vanished in these cases. I sensed that in these tasks, many students began to take personal interest, for the first time, in the fabric of their own text.


My hypothesis at the outset had been that this technique probably would work even better in the lab because of the students' threefold opportunity to scan aloud their text production not only in their own hand, but also on the screen and on their printouts. Though I think there's much we do not yet understand about how "proofreading" works, at the very least we can say that the mechanical requirement of reading one's text several times in different physical context (i.e., longhand, screen, printout) appears beneficial. The statement that progress in editing for correct grammar in the lab carries over to the editing of the writing in longhand is probably true, although more investigation is required.


Certainly not everything was rosy. In one of my journal entries I noted the following difficulties:

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  1. Often students are so eager to rip their papers out of the printers that they do so too soon and disrupt the printer's paper-feed mechanism.
  2. Students somehow manage to move their essays from the disk to their screens twice--or even three or four times - thus ending up with an over-long file. Then they're amazed that "the printer screwed up."
  3. Similarly, students rest their elbows on the ENTER key, creating 4050 "hard carriage returns" in the left margin and wondering "Where did my writing go?"
  4. The most common problem students encountered was forgetting to save. The student would meticulously correct errors or make some important revisions and then print, not having saved their changes or additions. Then they would blame the innocent machine. I could often be heard religiously shouting, "Save thy file and thou shalt be saved!"

Here are a couple of other journal entries that might suggest some of the emotions I experienced in stumbling along in this project:

Now into the fourth week, the big change is that I'm not as busy at all as I was during the murderous first 2-3 weeks. l actually have time to go to the bathroom and to chat a little with the lab attendant once in a while.

I feel very good about my computer classes. Students work hard both in lab and classroom (but not enough at home!). I have loved to see how well they all revised and re-edited their first practice WAT. They never did that in long-hand in the past, I mean, not so carefully. Some of them now revise several times.

I have seen several of the students' questionnaires--they are very positive. Actually, though, many of those good remarks do pertain to the computers directly--what the students say they liked the most about the course includes the following: automatic writing, editing aloud, getting instant feedback on their printouts in the lab, and working in groups.

Ah, yes, they also love the machines. Beyond their improved writing skills, they take great pride in having become "computer-literate."

And as for myself, I no longer fear unknown monsters hiding in the computer lab. 1986 and 1987?

Thus--while one swallow doesn't make a summer--this "pilot project" appeared successful, and our department is continuing to

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experiment with the use of computers in some of our remedial comp courses. At this writing (Fall 1986), we have six computer sections of English 090, involving four professors. If we receive the new English department computer lab next term, as we hope, particaption will grow even further.

Goran "George" Moberg teaches at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York.


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