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Skill Building with Content

I often hear from instructors that students desperately need to build basic skills, but there’s no time in a ten week course to develop these skills along with all the content that needs to be covered. And besides, don’t students need basic skills before they can really work with the intellectually challenging material. But is this dichotomy, skills vs. content, a fallacy? Can you build fundamental skills ( grammar, usage, organization, etc.) within the context of the core material? Might combining skill and content instruction actually help students retain these skills and be able to apply them in other courses?

Consider this from the student perspective; if you are used to practicing fundamentals with materials that present no challenge, when you begin grappling with difficult ideas, the formalities of language might be the first to go. I see this in writing courses all the time. Students write very clearly about topics they feel comfortable with and incoherently when they write about topics they are struggling to understand. Their difficulty with language is much more about a difficulty with forming and supporting their opinions than difficulty with dangling modifiers. So doesn’t it make sense to learn skills in situations similar to those they will encounter throughout their college career?

Mike Rose writes an article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed about a remedial writing skills program at his institution (UCLA)  that he and his colleagues designed. He writes,  ” (We) surveyed a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of assignments students… face in that crucial first year. We found similar readings from various disciplines and created assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them.”  The students in this program still focus on improving the basics of their writing, but they do it while engaged in academic writing tasks. These tasks build upon each other ( each new task incorporates a skill learned previously) and gradually increase in difficulty.  Over the course of the term, students “begin by reading a passage and writing a definition, by the end they were comparing  Benjamin Franklin and Malcolm X’s descriptions of becoming literate.”

So it seems entirely possible to use new and complex ideas as the medium in which to develop basic skills. And might these “basic” skills be just as valuable as content specific knowledge? And finally, what’s stopping you from integrating those skills into your class?

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