Far From Standard

New guidelines for teaching writing seek to build "habits of mind" instead of touting specific methods.
April 7, 2011

ATLANTA -- The task of assessing what college students learn has grown increasingly urgent in conversations about the future of higher education. For many, determining what happens in class can only be accomplished by measuring consistently applicable outcomes. It is notable, then, that the chief associations of faculty members who teach composition and writing have released guidelines for incoming students that advocate for more general approaches to writing rather than prescribing specific methods or ways to measure success.

The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” does not offer a set of standards, Linda Adler-Kassner, professor of writing at the University of California at Santa Barbara and president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, said here on Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Instead, she said, it seeks to define the concepts that are associated with “deep and permanent learning.”

These concepts foster what its authors call “habits of mind” in writing, reading and critical analysis, which can be cultivated by middle and high school teachers and serve students well once they enter college or the workplace. The authors of the framework identified and defined eight such habits:

  • Curiosity, the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness, the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking.
  • Engagement, a sense of being invested and involved in learning.
  • Creativity, the ability to use new approaches to come up with, explore and express ideas.
  • Persistence, the ability to sustain interest in a project.
  • Responsibility, the ability to understand the consequences of one's actions.
  • Flexibility, the ability to adapt to situations and demands.
  • Metacognition, the ability to reflect on one's own thinking and the ways knowledge is structured.

The framework was put together by writing faculty at two- and four-year colleges and at high schools, and vetted over a yearlong process at campuses nationwide. It is endorsed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English (to which the conference belongs) and the National Writing Project. The final product, said Kent Williamson, executive director of the NCTE, represents “the consensus view of what's valued in writing.”

The speakers added that those who teach writing in colleges and high schools and have seen drafts of the guidelines thus far have welcomed the framework's broad statement of purpose. But, if Wednesday's announcement was any indication, it also will be greeted with a thirst for more detail (of the kind, perhaps, that has been outlined at previous meetings on such matters as class size). At least one speaker asked to know what kinds of programmatic interventions the guidelines endorse in order to foster such habits of mind. Another praised the framework, but raised questions about how it might be assessed in ways policy makers might grasp. “How do you know engagement when you see it?” the audience member asked. “How do you know curiosity when you see it?”

But the framework's authors argue that standardized assessments too often have the effect of driving how writing is taught. “Writing activities and assignments should be designed with genuine purposes and audiences in mind,” they wrote, contrasting these with “formulaic writing for non-authentic audiences [which] will not reinforce the habits of mind and experiences necessary for success as students encounter the writing demands of postsecondary education.”

The authors hope that faculty members will take the guidelines back to their departments, debate their merits and judge whether their courses help to cultivate the habits of mind and other approaches that the framework describes. They also expect that cultivating these particular habits of mind will develop students' ability to think critically (through writing, reading and research), to write and edit fluidly and for different audiences, and to do so in different forms and media.

Rather than dictating a particular formula for writing, the speakers said that the approach to writing they were endorsing could be applied to different forms, whether it be a research paper, a piece of argument or a scientific report. Similarly, while the informal writing that can be found on, say, Facebook is not appropriate for an essay, writing teachers and professors can still capitalize on these forms of expression. “Students today write more -- and more often -- than in the past,” said Adler-Kassner.

The question of how much students write has arisen as a topic of concern elsewhere. The authors of the book Academically Adrift found that half of the college students whose transcripts they analyzed did not take a single course in which they had to write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.

While Wednesday's speakers were pleased that writing was seen as important enough to be measured by the book's authors -- Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia -- they disagreed with the bar the authors set. A student might write 20 pages, but, said Adler-Kassner, “it could be great or it could be dreck.”

The more important consideration, she said, is whether students are invested in their writing. Kathleen Blake Yancey, Kellogg W. Hunt Professor of English at Florida State University, pointed to research that suggests that frequent writing assignments -- and the multiple opportunities for feedback from the instructor that come with them -- are better predictors of growth in writing skills than the total number of pages assigned.

And, it seems, practice needs to begin well before college. To drive home the point that a student's success in higher education is, in many ways, determined well before he or she starts a postsecondary career, the session included the perspective of a local middle school teacher of English language arts. K-12 education has traveled much further down the path of standardized assessment than colleges or universities, and many in higher education view what has happened in elementary and secondary schools over the past decade as a cautionary tale.

Zsa Boykin, an eighth-grade teacher at Sutton Middle School in Atlanta, said there is good reason for such caution. She told the audience of mostly postsecondary writing professors why their students can't write once they reach college. “The issue is school reforms,” she said. Such efforts, she argued, too often devolve into canned and scripted coursework that downplays the role of the teacher and fails to foster deeper learning in students.

“Formulaic writing," said Boykin, "does not produce critical thinking."


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