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Digital Sense-Making: How SEEK Students Narrate their Transition

Philip Kreniske, Developmental Psychology
Faculty Advisor: Colette Daiute
NML Award: The New Media Lab Digital Dissertation Award (April 2014)

Digital Sense-Making: How SEEK Students Narrate their Transition

The transition to college is challenging for all students and particularly so for low-income freshman and transfer students. For students in their first semester at an elite college, and in an engineering program, writing about their transitions using pen and paper contributed to positive outcomes such as improved GPA, graduation rates and reported health. Today, especially for youth, writing is increasingly created in digital forums like blogs and other social media sites. With NML’s help, Kreniske  created a multisite WordPress network where a cohort of incoming CUNY freshman and transfer students will write about their new college experiences. Unlike pen and paper or a word-processor, the blog features a built-in comment section that emphasizes the explicitly social nature of writing. Writing to an active audience motivates writers and this may lead to increased investment of thought and emotions in their compositions. Researchers have only just begun to investigate how writing in social digital environments interacts with academic and emotional development. Given the importance of writing as a cultural and educational process, this research has implications for both teaching and research in the fields of writing and literacy and the ways that writing in different media contribute to the process of sense-making and subsequent academic adjustment and performance.

Transitions and Sense-Making

During major transitions people are greatly in need of tools to help them make sense of their changing circumstances. Sense-making involves figuring out how one fits into a context. Writing requires high levels of cognitive and emotional effort and it is through this act of sorting out how one fits into a new social and academic setting that sense-making occurs. The transition from high school to college is fraught with negotiations, especially for students from low-income households, a large proportion of whom drop out in the first year and whose college completion rates are 50% lower than those of students from upper and middle class households.

Method

The participants in the current study will be a cohort (N= 200) freshman and transfer students in the Percy Ellis Sutton Search for Education Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK) program at a CUNY college. SEEK is a pioneering program that provides support for students from families whose annual income is below $20,655. The SEEK programs at the 10 CUNY senior colleges serve thousands of low-income students each year. In the current study participants will be randomly assigned at the seminar level to either the blogging or word processing medium. The writing prompt, imbedded as an activity at the beginning, middle and end of the seminar, will direct participants to write a letter to their peers about their transition to college. In the blogging medium participants will also read and comment on their peers’ letters. Will word processing or blogging about this transition help students make sense of their changing circumstances and therefore more rapidly adjust to the college context? Can this improved rate of adjustment be charted over the course of the semester by measures of writing quality such as the expressive devices mentioned above in combination with a holistic writing assessment? Finally, will the current cohort evidence higher GPAs as compared to students in previous cohorts who did not write about their transition to college?

Significance

Youth today are plugged in, and the intersection of digitally mediated writing and cognitive and emotional development is ripe for exploration. Demonstrating how the sense-making components of blogging and word processing are linked to writers’ academic and emotional development and how such processes, documented through narrative analyses, can be related to changes in standardized measures of academic and emotional development will have immediate implications for instruction within and beyond the SEEK program. The transition to college is harrowing, especially for students from low-income families who make up a growing proportion of today’s incoming student population. The current work could offer a cost effective intervention that supports at-risk students during a critical transition in their lives by encouraging them to utilize writing in varied media as a tool for coming to terms with their new academic and social contexts.