Cary Moskovitz and David Bernay
This report describes the status of the Duke Reader Project, presents findings from an assessment study conducted in the spring of 2009, and lays out an agenda for future refinement and growth of the project. Since the Reader Project is a new and unique pedagogical initiative, a major aspect of our work over the last year and a half has involved experimenting with various aspects of the project, such as whether to make student participation in enlisted classes mandatory or voluntary, how much structure to provide for participant interactions, and how best to communicate with student and reader participants given the variations in timing and other factors across courses. We also investigated various avenues for recruiting suitable readers.
Following our pilot study of four courses in the spring of 2008, our goal was to enroll 8-10 courses in the Spring 2009 and Fall 2009 terms. Actual enrollment was 11 courses in the spring and 14 for the fall, which included courses from Arts and Sciences, Public Policy, and Engineering. In the spring term, 96 students and 74 readers (52 were alumni, 22 current Duke employees) participated. For the fall term, 96 students signed up, of whom we were able to match all but 7; 89 readers (85 alumni, 4 employees) participated. Our pool of readers has 267 volunteers (as of this report) who bring an impressive and diverse range of experiences: our students have worked with an FBI agent, a senior science writer, a national policy advisor, a radiologist, a Coast Guard officer, a venture capitalist, and a wildlife policy coordinator, just to name a few.
At the end of the spring 2009 semester we conducted student focus groups and an online survey of students and volunteer readers. Here are the main findings:
Eighty two percent of student respondents reported receiving some form of feedback on their work. Of those who did,
- Nearly two thirds indicated that they had developed a better sense of what it means to write for a particular audience, that they were better able to revise their writing to fit the demands of a particular context, and that they were more likely to get feedback on future writing projects as a result of their participation.
- Two thirds reported that they would be more critical of their own writing in the future.
- Two thirds felt that the final version of their paper was better.
- Seventy percent reported having a better sense of the importance of writing beyond the classroom.
- Over half indicated that they were motivated to complete drafts earlier than they otherwise would have.
- Over half indicated that their participation helped them develop a deeper knowledge of the topic on which they were writing.
- Almost all participating readers (96%) wanted to do so again.
- No readers wanted less interaction, and a majority (60%) wanted more.
- Twenty percent of readers reported having some amount of difficulty communicating with the student.
Based on this formal assessment, interaction with faculty, and informal communication with students and readers, we’ve drawn these conclusions about our initial implementation of the project:
- There is strong interest in the program among students and faculty, as well as among alumni and employees for serving as volunteer readers.
- The basic structure for student-reader interaction generally worked well and provided for a reasonable amount of interaction. We are experimenting with options to allow participants to have more interaction without expecting a greater level of commitment.
- Our method of communication was inadequate for the complex demands of the project. We are piloting a different approach this year that combines a more sophisticated primary website for general information and marketing purposes with individualized websites for each participating course.
- The Reader Project has been a productive venue for faculty engagement. All faculty members who enroll their courses meet at least once with the Director of Writing in the Disciplines to discuss their assignment and identify an appropriate type of reader. The project has facilitated conversations between the WID Program and many faculty members which would not have otherwise occurred; in a number of cases, these conversations resulted in faculty making pedagogically important improvements to course assignments.
There are a number of avenues for that we hope to pursue over the next couple of years:
- Foreign language: There is some interest in extending the Reader Project to provide feedback for students working on writing assignments in language classes. We plan to add an item to our reader sign-up survey asking about foreign language proficiency and then gauge our ability to provide suitable readers.
- Multimedia: We are experimenting this semester with having readers give feedback on a student video project. If assessment data from that course is positive, we will invite faculty who assign student projects in media other than writing to enroll their courses.
- Extracurricular student projects: We have been approached about the possibility of providing readers for students who are working on a writing task for an extracurricular project. We think this is a wonderful idea. We will consider whether we have the resources to support students in these contexts.
- Assessment: We plan to extend our assessment to collect data on students who have graduated from Duke—both to get their reflections on their experience with the Reader Project and to see whether that experience has positively affected their sense of connection to Duke as alumni.
 While most participants had positive experiences, a few participants reported problems—some student-reader pairs never made contact, some students reported getting no feedback, and some readers never received a draft or received it too late. We believe these issues were due in large part to inadequate commitment, follow-through, or communication on the part of the student partner.