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FAQ: Does regression happen in writing instruction at the college level? Can a composition teacher expect students to get worse in some writing skills when they start attempting new skills?

Definition of regression In studies of learning, “regression” or the “U-shaped learning curve” usually refers to an apparent decline in previously learned skills or knowledge due to an effort to learn unfamiliar skills or knowledge. What may appear to be synonyms for the phenomenon may describe somewhat different situations: “backsliding,” “escape,” “retreat,” “décalage,” “slippage,” or “learning plateau.” Sometimes the phenomenon can be explained in terms of information overload or “mental dazzle,” when the learner is deluged with too much new information to process. Sometimes it can be explained as a kind of safe harboring, a “fallback” or flight back to the comfort of familiar ground when threatened with new challenges (e.g., taking recourse in a five-paragraph theme format when assigned a paper in complex argumentation). Sometimes it is a panicky switch to more elementary level of expression when challenged with a higher level, as in the “functional breakdown” encountered in second-language Oral Proficiency Interviews. More often regression is explained in terms of complex interactions among new knowledge frames and learning routines. An especially clear example is the stage that many children go through when they start making mistakes in strong verbs that they had not been making earlier: “Mommy speaked on the phone with Grandma.” This happens when they start internalizing the rules for forming the past tense in regular verbs and at first overregularize. Among learning theorists it is widely assumed that regression is a normal and even necessary part of development and learning, not an aberration.

Some answers The question is whether regression may sometimes occur with students in college writing classes. Is it sometimes normal for students, at least momentarily, to write worse under writing instruction? There is a fairly consistent body of formal studies that answers yes to this question.

And there is support from teacher experience and commentary.

Further implications These findings and experiences lead to other issues connected with post-secondary composition.

Summary Regression has been seen with college students in terms of punctuation, syntax, vocabulary use, critical-thinking, essay organization, genre knowledge, and other aspects of writing instruction. The bottom line is that writing teachers should expect some backsliding in X qualities of writing performance when they challenge students with Y strategies that are new and difficult for the writer.

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Page last modified on May 25, 2006, at 10:39 PM