Disposition Awareness and Student Success

Kelsey Hixson-Bowles (BA ’12, MA ’14)

An upside of all the downsides of the pandemic? Once we realized we could teach and tutor via Zoom, we also realized we could use Zoom to connect with some of our visiting writers, scholars, and alumni — even those in different time zones.

The Writing Center staff invited one of our favorite graduates to share some of her latest research with Expository Writing Program teachers and tutors. On Monday, February 3, 2021, we welcomed Dr. Kelsey Hixson-Bowles (B.A., 2012, Kansas State University; M.A., 2014, Kansas State University; Ph.D., 2019, Indiana University of Pennsylvania). An Assistant Professor of Literacies & Composition at Utah Valley University, Kelsey presented an interactive workshop on “Teaching for Disposition Awareness in Difficult Times.”

Kelsey led us through a series of guided prompts to demonstrate how an awareness of teachers’ and tutors’ own struggles with teaching and learning during a global pandemic can help us understand our students’ own difficulties in fulfilling teachers’ expectations. Considering the question “What makes students seem underprepared?” Kelsey discussed how chronic stress interferes with the brain’s ability to access long-term memory, much less its ability to navigate multiple approaches to remote learning.

Kelsey stressed that it’s important for teachers and tutors to take care of ourselves so that we can extend empathy to our students. She reassured us:  we shouldn’t be expected to fix all our students’ problems. Nevertheless, empathizing with students’ situation (which is comparable to the anxiety and stress we all feel) can give us the capacity to identify our own learning dispositions — thereby gaining fluency in helping students navigate their own learning challenges.

We practiced identifying fixed mindsets in ourselves, as well as key aspects of a growth mindset. Kelsey shared a four-part strategy for “microcoaching” — Ask, Validate, Relate, Share (this strategy is part of an essay currently being reviewed for publication).

Kelsey also shared some activities that instructors can use to surface and adjust student dispositions, such as:

  • Free-writes with prompts about dispositions (“Write about a time you didn’t feel confident when writing. What was it like? How do you feel about this experience now?”
  • Self-reflection surveys on different dispositions, like self-efficacy
  • Asking students to create an “SOS Plan” early in the semester in which they identify what it would look like for them to start “slipping” and what actions they’ll take to get back on track if/when this happens. This plan can help them protect their investment (of time, money, academic credits, and energy) in the course.

The four steps of microcoaching and related activities should help teachers and tutors (writers ourselves!) gain a better understanding of students’ current practices and mindsets. With this understanding, we can help writers develop some more productive approaches to writing tasks.

I always learn something from Kelsey. I think others present at the workshop found a range of ideas they can apply in understanding their own dispositions as tutors, teachers, and writers. Thanks, Kelsey! Come back to see us when we can once again gather in person.

— Deborah Murray, Instructor

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