What Students Write

August 21, 2014

Professors sometimes bemoan their students' writing skills. But how good are professors at creating quality writing assignments? There's no recent, national study of how and what professors are asking their students to write, despite lots of research suggesting that rich, varied writing assignments and opportunities for feedback mean better student papers. A new book seeks to fill that data void, and argues that what professors are asking their students to write is as important as what students end up writing.

“Writing assignments are revealing classroom artifacts,” says Dan Melzer, reading and writing coordinator at California State University at Sacramento in his book, Assignments Across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing (Utah State University Press). “I would argue that writing assignments […] are as rich a source of data about college writing as instructor comments or student papers” – and Assignments provides what Melzer calls a “macro-level view” of those tasks.

Melzer’s study, conducted over the course of a decade, sought to replicate and improve upon a British study of postsecondary writing assignments in the 1970s. He analyzed some 2,100 writing assignments for humanities, business and social and natural sciences courses at 100 U.S. colleges and universities. The sample excludes assignments from courses focused exclusively on writing. The book's analysis isn't the whole picture of undergraduate writing, he says, but the data set – taken from assignments posted on the internet – is a pretty good sketch.

For each assignment, Melzer noted its “rhetorical situation” (discipline speak for purpose and audience); genre; and “discourse community” (classroom setting). The story the data tell is “sometimes disheartening, sometimes encouraging, and hopefully always instructive to composition instructors,” he says.

First, the bad news: Most of the assignments were limited in purpose. Two-thirds asked students to inform the reader – overwhelmingly the “professor-as-examiner” – about details from a lecture or reading. While there was a good deal of exploratory writing (13 percent of the sample), poetic and purely expressive writing were “almost nonexistent.” Surprisingly to Melzer, that finding was consistent across institution types and course levels. One example of this type of question is “From my outline on earthquakes, explain the ‘effects of earthquakes.’ ” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that question on its own, but it's a problem if a student is never asked to write any other kind of paper for any other kind of audience, Melzer argues.

Distribution of Audiences for Writing

Audience

Number of Assignments

(out of 2,101 total)

Percentage

Student to examiner

1,343

64

Student to instructor

(general)

388

18

Wider audience

142

7

Peers

117

6

Self

111

5

Short-answer and essay exams made up about one-fifth of assignments in the study. Melzer said in an interview that the testing scenario makes sense, given the constraints on professors’ time. Offering multiple opportunities for feedback in a non-test scenario takes a lot more work, he said. But such opportunities are critical to writing development and lead to better student outcomes.

“There’s a lot more testing with the teacher-as-examiner going on than we probably think, and that’s a real negative to me because it’s such a limited kind of writing,” Melzer said. “It should make people think about how we can improve upon the situation and have student do richer kinds of writing.”

Professors are also “obsessed” with grammatical correctness, even when they claim to value critical thinking, the study says.

“Based on their discussions of grading criteria, instructors devote as much time to formal correctness as they do talking about content, and often grammatical correctness was a baseline for acceptability” – even when most syllabuses had typos or grammatical errors, Melzer says in the book; one of the “strongest patterns” in his research was the expectation of perfect grammar.

“At a minimum, your writing should be free of spelling errors and grammatical errors,” reads one sample assignment. Another business law professor’s assignment offers very specific guidance about how different grammatical and spelling errors will affect a student’s grade. Then, seemingly as an afterthought, the professor says: “Please offer analysis, also."

Melzer argues that such an apparent emphasis on surface-level writing sends students “mixed messages” about the value of higher-order writing skills. It would also impede many students’ ability to “let things flow" to build writing fluency, he says.

Now, some good news. Although most of the writing assignments asked students to explain something, most often to a professor, there were a “significant” number of exploratory assignments in the journal genre. Many of them were to be posted on online discussion boards or emails; Melzer said the internet has transformed this kind of writing for the college classroom. As one prompt says, “Think of it as a conversation in writing, or as pre-talking analogous to the pre-writing you do for papers. Our goal is not to produce expertly crafted individual treatises, but to develop the ability to think, respond and communicate through writing. Your contributions should be informal, spontaneous, informed and impassioned.”

Although personal journal entries were not part of the sample, Melzer says the idea of asking students to journal – even for audiences – has taken hold since the 1980s. That’s good news to advocates of methods such as "writing to learn," which emphasize the role of unstructured writing opportunities in becoming a better writer.

Even though most assignments asked students to write for the professor as an examiner, Melzer said he was pleased to discover that professors were experimenting with different forms of research papers. Most were not traditional papers, which are standard in form and largely ask students to report facts rather than come up with new ideas. Instead, a majority of assignments were “alternative,” or at least “alternative in spirit,” Melzer says.

Here’s one example: “The purpose of this paper is to stimulate your thinking about ‘social or distributive justice.’ You are to develop your own position on this topic. Specifically, what principles should guide government in determining what to guarantee its citizens?” Or: “As an integration course, cross-cultural psychology seeks to involve students in exploring the interrelationships between two or more disciplines. The purpose of the project is to help you do just that. The format of the project is open to your creative ideas as long as the project looks at culture from two or more disciplinary perspectives.”

Melzer calls the growth in alternative approaches the “biggest shift” he found in his research, and one of the most important findings over all. He said it was a testament to the “reach” of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the book also makes a strong case for WAC, in which professors in all disciplines are encouraged to see themselves as teachers of writing. Melzer found that the assignments from institutions that had active WAC programs “stood out dramatically” from the courses as a whole, in that they offered much richer writing experiences for students. Only half of the “transactional,” or persuasive or informative writing assigned in WAC-affiliated institutions was basic “writing to inform." That's compared to 66 percent over all. Study-wide, 64 percent of assignments were to be written for “teacher-as-examiner,” compared to 40 percent of the WAC-affiliated work. Assignments at WAC-affiliated institutions were also much more likely to ask students to personally reflect on their learning in assignments, ask students to write for wider audiences, and do more writing. The average number of assignments per course over all was about five, while the average number at a WAC institution was nearly nine.

“We need to persuade provosts, deans and faculty senates that every college should have a WAC program, and that these programs need time to grow and truly take root,” Melzer says. “We need carefully sequenced university writing programs, from the first semester to general education to writing in the major, with plenty of faculty development opportunities and options for students to seek out support in a university writing center and/or tutoring within departments or writing-intensive classes.”

Melzer said that being WAC-affiliated means having any type of presence in the college or university; sometimes it's just one faculty member. But the influence of the program in helping professors across a variety of disciplines craft better assignments and help students become better writers is clear, he said. Luckily, it appears that the program is growing.

Chris Thaiss, professor of writing at the University of California at Davis, tracks WAC programs and said colleges and universities are adding them all the time – despite the fact that the program is now nearly 50 years old. Thaiss said there are dozens of articles showing that better writing prompts and processes lead to better student performance, and that Melzer’s work is significant because it shows that the presence of WAC programs on campus makes a difference.

Beyond that, he said, the research challenges assumptions held by some that professors largely “mail it in” when it comes to writing great assignments for their students.

“There’s a richness and a lot of imagination out there, and a lot of faculty members are doing some really inventive things across disciplines,” he said.

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