Best Practices for Teaching and Improving Success Rates in Developmental English Writing Courses

John Hansen received a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an MA in English literature from Oklahoma State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Summerset ReviewOne Sentence PoemsThe Dillydoun ReviewSchuylkill Valley JournalEunoia ReviewLitro MagazineWild Roof JournalThe Banyan ReviewDrunk Monkeys, and elsewhere. He has presented on a variety of topics at The National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD), The Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC—Regional), The American Comparative Literature Association, The Midwest Conference on British Studies, and others. He is an English Department faculty member at Mohave Community College in Arizona. Read more at

John Hansen
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Oftentimes, online developmental English students are tackling a multitude of issues while trying to improve their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. From managing family, employment, and money, to balancing time, homework, technology, and the academic system, they face an uphill battle right from the start. The first week of each semester, I carefully read my students’ introductory discussion posts, and I sit back, close my eyes, and try to reflect on their stories and experiences. Reading these stories doesn’t get any easier after almost nine years of teaching Transitional English at Mohave Community College—where I estimate 35 percent of the student demographic in this course are non-traditional students. They’ve shared stories of eviction, breakup/divorce, jail time, learning disorders, self-esteem issues, anxiety, addictions, and the everyday grind of life. They are tired, wounded, and unprepared.

I’m tempted to believe that I would have lost many of my previous students if I hadn’t implemented certain strategies. In Fall 2014, I taught one online section of TRE 089—Transitional English, with a total of 15 students—this is a pass or fail course at Mohave Community College. Only eight students passed the course—a 53 percent success rate. I felt disappointed and ashamed. I had never taught a developmental English class before this, and being a teaching assistant in graduate school didn’t prepare me enough for mitigating the specific types of issues that developmental writing students go through. After I learned about and applied these best practices (frequent communication, extra resources, challenging their mindset about writing, fostering metacognition, etc.) the following semester brought a substantial improvement. Out of a total of 16 students, 15 passed—almost a 94 percent success rate. I was shocked, to say the least. I needed to see that for my own psyche and well-being. Since then, I’ve taught 16 sections of Transitional English and have had a little over 270 students in those courses. The average success rates have hovered closer to 84 percent (not factoring in withdrawals). Moreover, I saw a steady increase in course success rates in ENG 101—Composition I by students who passed TRE 089, starting in the 2016 academic year. These rates varied from 80 percent all the way to 87.10 percent. Since then, this number has held steady.

What can faculty do to help these students succeed? I offer a few suggestions. One approach is handholding—yes, it should have a place in higher learning! Here’s what that looks like in my courses:

  • Weekly announcements about upcoming assignments or concepts I’ve noticed that students are struggling with in a particular module, which is then addressed through more practice and supplemental resources (more on that below).
  • Individual messages to students several times a week with reminders about assignments/essays and missing work, and check-ins on how they are doing.
  • Monthly phone calls brainstorming or conferencing about their writing.
  • Virtual office hours via Zoom.
  • Sending weekly text messages (an email might go unanswered, but a text message might receive a reply in five seconds).
  • The opportunity to revise and resubmit assignments without penalty (more on that as well).

In the opening module of Transitional English, I start by addressing what many of these students are thinking: “Writing isn’t that important. Why am I even here?” or “Why do I have to learn about writing again? I did this back in high school.” I do this by assigning a few foundational readings, such as “Ten Ways to Think about Writing: Metaphoric Musings for College Writing Students” by E. Shelley Reid and “The Power of Writing” by William J. Farrell. I’ll then pose a few open-ended discussion questions, which help students see why writing well is a skill that can help them in all areas of their lives. More importantly, I reiterate why the course is so significant and how it provides an opportunity to refine their writing skills. I even tell them that developmental writing courses have existed at Harvard University since the early twentieth century. They like that tidbit.

As the semester progresses, I pay close attention to students’ performance on smaller reading and writing assignments that culminate with a two- to three-page formal essay (descriptive, compare and contrast, cause and effect, etc.). If some students aren’t grasping certain concepts, I’ll provide extra resources (websites, handouts, videos, tutorials) and practice to these individual students through email, and try to prepare some type of assessment (usually a follow-up to a recent writing assignment but broken down into smaller parts, which gives them an opportunity to better comprehend the material).

One thing that I’ve noticed is that many of these students are more than capable of submitting high-quality work and writing a basic essay, but often lack any modicum of confidence and the growth mindset (see works by Carol S. Dweck or David S. Yeager), which is the belief that students can ameliorate their skills through hard work. Learning from past failures, finding purpose or value in the coursework, and making key adjustments can help them ultimately reach their goals. I’ll ask students to review resources on growth mindset (and to some degree, metacognition), but with an emphasis on writing: allowing for mistakes is okay and is needed to ultimately reach success, there is value in the writing process, and feedback is a type of coaching. Inviting students to perceive different approaches or strategies of learning to write can help change their way of thinking and develop a fresh perspective, which can lead to higher percentages of students completing these types of writing courses.

One useful pedagogical strategy to promote a growth mindset is the use of revisions and resubmissions of formal essays. These opportunities are listed on every essay assignment sheet. I always have a handful of students who can’t consistently submit assignments by the listed due dates. I’d guess that these students, on average, comprise at least 20 percent of the class. If I notice a student isn’t taking advantage of this policy, I’ll reach out to the student. Last semester, I messaged a student about submitting a revision of the descriptive essay (first essay in the course), and he was agog: “Wait, I can turn it in again for a higher score!?” When I reviewed this student’s initial draft, it was over a half-page short of the minimum page requirement and lacked the vivid details (five senses) in the descriptions. I then emailed this student and asked if he would be willing to revise the essay (addressing the changes and edits I suggested) for a higher grade because I knew he could do better. About a week later, I opened up the newly minted essay and it was like night and day—detailed descriptions that used all the senses and painted fantastic images in my mind. Although the work still wasn’t perfect, the grade went from a low D to a few percentage points short of an A. This student finished in the top 10 percent of the class. He could have easily earned a B or higher in ENG 101. I often wonder what would have happened in this case if I didn’t afford this opportunity to students or didn’t stay in constant communication with them. Would this student have stopped attending the course or dropped out of school altogether?

When teaching developmental writing, you often wear many hats: counselor, advisor, supervisor, tutor, life/soft skills coach, resource and assistance advocate, and cheerleader. It all can be both mentally and physically exhausting—so make sure to take time each day for yourself to avoid burnout (meditating, exercising, resting, and spending time outdoors are a few helpful activities). The aforementioned tips and methods help build trust with students. Trust goes a long way. It can help calm their fears and allow them to feel accomplished at the beginning of the course. I can honestly say that the students in TRE 089 have been some of the most rewarding to teach. They often show the most moxie and maturation as writers. While it may seem like a lot of extra work for faculty to continuously communicate, guide, and develop extra lesson plans (and grading) for students, it is worth the additional effort and time commitment. I didn’t always do all of these things when I first began teaching developmental writing, but now I can’t see myself teaching this course without having these measures in place—best practices, if you will, that can help students start and stay on the path to success on their academic journeys.

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