Retired English faculty member strengthened university writing levels, leaves lasting impact at MSU
By Sam Kealhofer, A&S Coordinator, Communications & Research Support
STARKVILLE, Miss.— Longtime English faculty member Ann Spurlock, who retired in December after 33 years influencing college students at Mississippi State University, directed MSU’s quality enhancement plan (QEP)—Maroon and Write—now proven to have increased the writing skills of university students.
MSU’s regional accreditor, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), requires each institution to engage in a five-year QEP as part of its reaffirmation for accreditation. QEPs must focus on “a well-defined topic or issue(s) related to enhancing student learning.”
MSU chose student writing as the topic of its first QEP. Approved in December 2014, Spurlock began directing the project in 2014-2015, after a pilot year in 2013-2014. For more information about MSU’s QEP, visit https://www.qep.msstate.edu/.
The Maroon and Write initiative was designed to enhance undergraduate writing skills. By the end of the five-year project, data indicated the QEP not only closed the gap in scores, but also brought about a culture change toward writing as a tool to enhance learning and engagement in the classroom.
“With her three decades of teaching, mentorship and leadership, Ann Spurlock fundamentally shaped the nature of writing instruction at Mississippi State,” said Dan Punday, professor and head of the English department.
Spurlock said the purpose of Maroon and Write was “multi-fold.”
“We hoped to dispel certain notions about writing,” she said. “In particular, that writing instruction is the sole responsibility of MSU’s English Department; the idea of ‘writing’ means only long, formal, researched essays and reports; quality writing means only grammatical correctness and proper formatting; and writing has no purpose other than to convey information and belongs in only certain academic disciplines.”
Spurlock said the plan included promoting writing as a tool for learning and student engagement, and faculty discovered that short, informal writing activities tended to improve class discussion and critical thinking.
“They learned that through writing, students could better comprehend course content as well as connect existing knowledge with new information,” Spurlock said. “During the lifespan of Maroon and Write, we were gratified to witness the transformation in thinking and teaching strategies as represented by the implementation of writing in various forms.”
Before Maroon and Write was implemented, MSU performed lower than its Carnegie R1 and R2 peers, with 11% of students scoring the highest grade of level 3 proficiency on the ETS Proficiency Profile Exam. Through the QEP, MSU raised numbers to above 18% of students scoring level 3 proficiency, which is the peer average.
By coordinating across the university’s many colleges and schools, libraries, centers and organizations, as well as athletics, Spurlock and her team created a rejuvenated emphasis on teaching effectiveness. Faculty members revitalized their courses and programs to adopt writing-infused instruction. Both student and faculty focus groups reported the incorporated writing assignments had a positive influence on the learning process.
“I truly did learn to appreciate how writing can and does need to be incorporated into many other classes, including math,” said Kim Walters, a veteran faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, who participated in Maroon and Write’s intensive faulty training program, Maroon Institute for Writing Excellence.
“I learned that I didn’t have to be the grammar expert to encourage and facilitate my students’ writing. I actually learned how to be more intentional in my assignments and how to make them clearer to gain the information that I really wanted,” Walters said. “One thing it taught me was that how we communicate is vital to our student’s success.”
Walters said she continues to have students write a math autobiography. “I try to ask them to explain answers rather than simply provide a numeric answer,” Walters said. “Ann Spurlock and the program helped me to see that it doesn’t have to be a multi-paragraph paper that is written; students just need to learn to put thoughts on paper to convey what they are learning. Overall, a program that I did not think would fit with what I teach has turned out to be very beneficial and opened my eyes to alternatives to reach more students.”
For more information about MSU’s English department, visit www.english.msstate.edu.
MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.