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While I'm on the road this week, I asked Susan Schorn to weigh in on an issue that's long been a concern of mine and many other writing instructors. Susan Schorn is the Writing Program Coordinator, School of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, as well as the author of Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Life of Living Fearlessly. - JW

"Teaching in Thin Air"

Mountaineers call it "the death zone."

Around 26,000 feet above sea level—3,000 feet below the peak of Mt. Everest—the Earth's atmosphere becomes too thin to sustain human life. If we climb above this altitude, we encounter insufficient oxygen to run our metabolic processes. Our brains become hypoxic; we grow confused and disoriented. If we don't descend to a more hospitable altitude, coma and death will follow. Humans can function in the death zone, barely, for a short while. But as long as we remain there, we're dying by degrees.

Though I've never climbed Everest, I've spent considerable time in academia's version of the death zone: the super-sized writing classroom. I've taught writing-intensive courses in "overflow" sections with 26 students or more; I've worked with instructors who regularly taught sections of 32, 40, or even 60 students. Of course, "teach" is probably the wrong verb—any instructor who has helmed one of these mega-classes knows it's virtually impossible to teach the students much about writing. There simply isn't enough instructional oxygen to sustain learning.

Teaching students to write well requires intense, individualized teacher-student interaction. Effective writing instructors read every word a student has written (including those that don't mean what the student intends them to mean), puzzling through incomplete, tangled, or overstuffed sentences. They piece together the idea the student was most likely trying to communicate, and judge how well the resulting document fulfills the goals of the assignment. Then they respond—perhaps in one-on-one meetings, perhaps in writing—describing what the student has done successfully, and how he or she might make the writing stronger, more complex, more clear. Rich Haswell, Emeritus Professor at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, has calculated that the average writing instructor spends about 40 minutes per paper doing this work—a conservative estimate, in my opinion—and an additional 70 minutes assisting each student individually during the semester.

For a class requiring three papers, that's 190 minutes per student, which means that adding five students to a typical writing course adds about 16 hours to a teacher's workload—two full work days. Responding effectively to student writing takes far more time and thought than you'd spend running computerized test sheets through a scanner, or even skimming essay questions to see if students did the reading. Despite what the educational technology industry would like us to believe, machines cannot do this work, which is why writing classes have typically been limited to around 20 students. In larger classes, instructors' energy is diffused among more students, resulting in less feedback and learning. Lower writing class enrollments, like lower altitudes, provide a normal, healthy environment. Higher enrollments, like higher altitudes, do not.

Data from schools that track writing class size and outcomes show the effects of the death zone with startling clarity. Between 1999 and 2004, for example, Arizona State University lowered its first-year writing class enrollments from an average of 24 to a cap of 19. The result? Pass rates and retention improved, fewer students withdrew or failed, and student evaluations went up.

Or consider this chart from Texas State University-San Marcos, tracking class size and student non-completion rates in first-year composition over a 10-year period:


Class Size and Drop/Fail/Withdraw Rates for First-Year Students Enrolled in English 1310


Fall Semester

Average Class Size

% Drop/


Avg. # DFW/class










































The correlation between class size and student failure in writing courses is obvious: in larger classes, a higher percentage of students failed to complete the course. The data also suggest a specific limit, a boundary above which the available oxygen dwindles to sub-life-support levels. Somewhere around the step from 24 to 25 students, we enter a different environment, one that is significantly more hostile to learning than the lower reaches of enrollment. In the dataset above, the math at this transition point is stark: Add one student to your average class size, lose two to failure. This would appear to be the lower boundary of the death zone for writing instruction.

And yet writing programs face constant pressure to increase class sizes above the ideal. Sometimes the upsizing is presented as an "emergency" action in response to "the current budget crisis" (though it sets a precedent that is hard to undo). Sometimes it's the result of policy, a desire to "optimize our teaching," or implement some new technology that will magically compensate for the loss of instructors' attention.

From the outside, such upsized classes may appear successful, especially if no one tracks the outcomes. The curriculum may be stripped down, retrofitted with quizzes and other non-writing activities, to reduce the instructor's workload. Instructors may focus more on "content," requiring less writing and providing less feedback on it—"hollowing out" the course, as the University of Arizona's Ed White has described it. It's possible that a good number of students will survive the course, and only they and their future employers will know that they haven't learned much about writing. But the damage is real nonetheless.

We can mitigate it, to some extent. Well-trained TAs, structured peer review, and writing centers can provide something like supplemental oxygen in a large writing class. Ultimately, however, our ability to compensate fails, and our students will struggle unaided in a hostile environment. Unlike Everest, however, this death zone is one we've created.

How many students are we willing to lose up there?