Students Are Learning to Write, But Are They Writing to Learn?

Students Are Learning to Write, But Are They Writing to Learn?

For the first post in our series of interviews with Center for Postsecondary Research (CPR) leaders, CPR graduate assistant Samantha Silberstein tracks down the origins of the NSSE Experiences with Writing Topical Module in her conversation with Bob Gonyea and Chuck Paine.

Samantha Silberstein — What does it mean to incorporate writing into the curriculum? How do we know students are learning? I recently had a conversation with Chuck Paine, Associate Chair for Core Writing and the Director of Rhetoric and Writing at University of New Mexico, and Bob Gonyea, Associate Director for the National Survey of Student Engagement, about the importance of writing in higher education. Here’s what I learned.

How did this partnership to study writing get started?

Limited research in writing and student engagement lead Paine to seek a partnership with NSSE (and Gonyea), and eventually to invite fellow writing faculty Paul Anderson (Miami University) and Chris M. Anson (North Carolina State) to better understand how writing across the curriculum (WAC) influences the student experience. At a 2008 meeting of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the team workshopped with fellow experts in the field to develop dozens of potential survey questions that could comprehensively represent effective college writing. Questions were honed by the authors and beta-tested by NSSE, and eventually refined into a set of additional questions around which the NSSE Consortium for the Study of Writing in College was formed. This consortium participated in NSSE each year from 2009 to 2012, with 138 institutions taking part at least once over that time period. Using these data, Paine, Anderson, Anson, and Gonyea published a study that established three writing constructs – Interactive Writing Processes, Meaning-Making Writing Tasks, and Clear Writing Expectations – now utilized in the NSSE topical module Experiences with Writing.

What is the distinction between learning to write and writing to learn?

Understanding the impact of WAC is not simply about English and composition classes, or learning to write as a first-year student. Writing is believed to be a better way to learn the material of a course, no matter the course, including fields typically not associated with writing such as STEM. There is no such thing as universal writing. Students learn by doing diverse types of writing, meaning it is not only the composition professor who should be focused on writing, but the responsibility of all faculty. This is not to say that assigning a large quantity of writing assignments is necessary. Results from the aforementioned study suggest the focus should be on quality not quantity. All faculty can and should work to intentionally create opportunities to engage students in ways that help them to understand the communicative practices in their field. Writing should be genre-specific and contextualized. Students need to understand who their audience is and how writing is crafted for their field. Without this understanding, students are simply learning to write and not writing to learn.

So, how can institutions utilize the Experiences with Writing Module?

There are opportunities for schools to understand the role of writing in learning and engagement. With this module, faculty and administrators can compare construct scores with other institutions, which can be a conversation point for faculty development. Faculty can also use the three constructs to shape lesson plans or create rubrics around writing, as Paine has done with his courses. With enough data, institutions can compare results across majors to understand the role of writing in student development in different fields in order to enhance the curriculum. Utilizing complementary data can assist schools in gaining a broader understanding of writing and the student experience.

For institutions that participate in the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, a faculty-focused companion survey to NSSE, a complementary Experiences with Writing topical module can allow institutions to compare student and faculty perceptions. This information can be helpful when designing faculty development workshops, particularly when perceptions are misaligned. Institutions also have access to other student records, such as retention and grades, which can be analyzed using the raw data from the topical module each school receives. In a similar fashion, other indicators are also available to individual schools, such as writing samples and writing center visits, that can complement the module quite well. In a new article in Peer Review, the authors partner with several institutions who are already implementing many of these examples in the field.

What are the next steps?

We are well on our way to better understanding WAC and the student experience, but there is still more to learn. When asked what their next steps may be, Paine and Gonyea excitedly shared a few potential upcoming projects. Too often the focus has been on quantity of writing. More research is needed examining how page length is not a great estimate of rigor, as we too often get stuck focusing on what is countable. Additionally, the collected data can be looked at in new and unique ways, such as the association between engagement levels and student or faculty responses or looking at specific schools to see which have the largest effect sizes for future case studies. Paine and Gonyea are most interested in expanding the current writing study to use structural equation modeling – a method that helps reveal the patterns and pathways between all the variables, so that interesting direct and indirect findings are revealed. They hope to partner with institutions that can provide information on grades and retention. Moving forward, the focus is on expanding institutions’ understanding and support of WAC as well as improving the available data through the module. Overall, there are exciting opportunities within this area of research.