Dordt College News

English 100 Giving students the chance to succeed in college

May 10, 2009

If you take the time during a graduation ceremony to look at people in the audience, you’ll find that it’s not just the parents who have looks of pride on their faces.

In fact, Dr. Bill Elgersma thinks he sometimes feels that pride as poignantly as the parents do.

Elgersma teaches English 100, Developmental English, a class required of all students who are allowed to enroll with grade point averages or ACT scores that put them at risk in college. Those students usually fall into one of four categories: those who haven’t applied themselves in high school, those who are underprepared, those with learning difficulties, and a few who may have difficulty doing college-level work but are granted provisional admission.

Students who complete Dr. Bill Elgersma's English 100 class feel confident that they'll be able to do the writing needed on the job.Elgersma expects his students to be successful even though he knows that the statistics say only thirty percent of them will graduate. His students beat those percentages. Fifty-two percent of them will go on to graduate. But it is not without hard work by students and a program from Elgersma that some find too tough at first and some are never able or willing to complete.

“If I had known it would be this much work, I would have worked harder in high school,” said one student who admitted he hadn’t worked much before college. For such students, the willingness to develop habits and strategies necessary for learning are enough to get them out of provisional status. Other students need more than just applying themselves.

Elgersma’s students don’t get graded on how hard they try but on how well they can write.

“They need to have the competence to do the writing that will be required of them in their job and the confidence that they can do it,” he says, adding that students leave the course with a fairly clear idea of what they do well and what they don’t do as well.

Working with these students becomes very personal for Elgersma, yet some of his students would probably confess to a love-hate relationship with their professor. Known locally as a jack-of-all-trades, Elgersma is as quick to help them fix their cars as he is to help them fix their writing. Some are deeply appreciative; some never get to that point. On his bulletin board, Elgersma keeps posted a sample of a harsh e-mail that keeps him grounded in reality.

“These aren’t bad or dumb responses; some students just aren’t in the right place now to make the extra effort it takes to catch up,” says Elgersma philosophically, yet caringly.

He speaks from experience, having left college twice before earning his B.A. and getting a job teaching in high school. Later, he finished a Ph.D. and now teaches in college.

“Sometimes you have to fail before you realize that you are limiting your possibilities,” he says. He believes that persistence is the greatest determiner of whether a student will be successful, and he’s convinced that English 100 gives students the opportunity to succeed if they want to and are able.

English 100 students meet with Elgersma three times per week and write eight different papers over the course of the semester. He always has them write in styles and on topics that will help their work in their major. Topics need to be worthwhile, giving them new knowledge, helping them answer “so what?” questions, and helping them think critically. He has no patience for busywork.

The class is highly structured—because it has to be, Elgersma believes.

“Some students have manipulated their way through school without doing the work that is needed to really learn,” he says. Others have difficulty setting priorities or thinking through ideas or going through the process needed to complete an assignment. Here they read books and novels and respond to them in ways that force them to think about what they’ve read and articulate their thoughts in writing.

Much of the course is run as a workshop, although Elgersma hits grammar hard, too. Students not only write their own papers, but they read and give comments on their fellow students’ papers. This is a good opportunity for students to learn by having to explain what they find,  and it is a way for them to realize that Laurissa Boman and Emily Stam say that their work as writing assistants has given them experience they will certainly carry into their classrooms.they have something valuable to contribute.

But students have much more help than what Elgersma can give by himself. One student tutor is provided for every three students in the class, and each student meets one-on-one with a tutor each week. Tutors attend classes, they go over writing assignments for the class, and they have their students turn in at least two pages of writing per week.

“The TAs (teaching assistants) are almost on call for their students,” says Elgersma. They provide support and encouragement as well as writing assistance. They reinforce what happened in class that week, and in some cases do their own research to find better ways to help a fellow student become a better writer.

“TAs are the English 100 students’ greatest advocate,” says Elgersma, who frequently has tutors point out individual needs they’ve discovered. Some of these ten to fifteen TAs are secondary education majors, others are students he and his colleagues identify as both good writers and good tutors.

“However challenging this job may be, I enjoy meeting with the students, grading papers with fewer errors by the end of the semester, and above all seeing my students understand the value of writing,”  says education major Laurissa Boman. She worked with students on such things as word recognition, correct and incorrect grammar, comprehension, writing craft, academic documentation, analysis, paper formatting, organization, accountability, and participation. “This could make the course seem an impossible task, but the students walk away with an ability and a confidence to write,” she says.

Having their own personal tutor doesn’t cost them anything extra, but it is a privilege, Elgersma reminds his students—and one that they will lose if they don’t meet the work requirements of the course. They can complete the course without a tutor, but Elgersma is so convinced of the importance of this part of their learning that he bases thirty percent of the grade on students’ work with their tutor.

“It takes way too much of a tutor’s time, but at the same time it is the best experience in perseverance for any future teacher, and it can be immensely rewarding,” he says. He looks for students who care about others and who are disciplined themselves.

“It was a joy to see the students improve over the semester, especially when they recognized their own improvement and began to find some pleasure in writing,” says English secondary education major Emily Stam.  As an aspiring English teacher, this position provided me with experiences I would not otherwise receive. They say teaching is the best way to learn and…this workstudy position has had an impact on the way I view writing, collaboration, and most importantly, teaching—knowledge that I will certainly carry into my own English classroom someday.” 

The fact that students required to take English 100 must pass it in order to graduate puts pressure on all of those involved. Students must want to do the work to succeed, and tutors need to do their best to help. Elgersma and his tutors feel a personal sense of satisfaction or failure for almost all of them. Yet that pressure also makes teaching the class exciting for Elgersma.

“It’s a challenge to motivate students who have no desire to be in your class,” he says. He is always thinking of new—sometimes extreme—tactics to get them engaged and thinking, to push them from what’s comfortable, to apply things they hear to their lives. He’ll hear something on the radio and ask a student to explain what it means; he’ll make an outrageous statement and expect students to give a counter argument.

“I have to risk if they are to risk,” Elgersma says, in the next breath acknowledging that “you can’t push a rope—students need to be willing to learn.” Yet, in order to sleep at night, he needs to know that he’s done all he can to help his students succeed and get their tuition’s worth if they really want to.

Developmental Courses

Eighty percent of colleges and universities have introduced developmental programs for students in the past two decades. Developmental writing courses are designed to teach students basic writing competence, something that a generation ago was assumed when students enrolled.


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