Volume 7 Number 1, October 2001
Well Designed and Taught, Writing-Intensive Courses Work
by Anthony Edgington, WR Assistant Coordinator
Our accreditor, The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), has changed its assessment of college writing from counting courses (i.e. students taking a pre-determined number of courses) to outcomes testing. How valuable can writing-intensive courses be in improving student writing and outcome test scores? One study focused on experienced raters assessing 183 papers written by students with similar SAT scores from regular and writing-intensive courses. The results showed more students in the writing-intensive course receiving a grade of “C or above” (Smithson, 1995).
The importance of writing across the curriculum has been documented in numerous other studies. Quesenbury et al’s recent study (2000) at Clarion University of Pennsylvania focused on the research question “What effect does taking writing-intensive courses have on students’ writing ability, when factors such as initial matriculation ability and total coursework are taken into account?” Holistically scored writing samples from freshmen through seniors determined the level of writing ability. Samples came from courses across disciplines including computer in-formation systems, history, and English; the students who wrote the papers were from 28 different declared and undeclared majors; and the raters groups were from across disciplines. Quesenbury et al found “completion of more writing intensive courses has a positive impact on students’ abilities to write.”
Harris and Schaible (1997) conducted an extensive review of evidence for and against writing across the curriculum (WAC). While studies do show an increased workload for WAC faculty, Harris and Schaible also found that writing improvement occurs most often when “writing was guided and written work was carefully and rigorously critiqued” and when students were able to write within their specific disciplines on subjects that mattered directly to them. Day (1989) found similar results in a study of pre- and post-tests. Focusing on the number of assignments and the attention to grading for each of those assignments, she discovered that increased assignments do not alone produce writing improvement, but “student writing did indeed improve when all assignments were graded for content, spelling, grammar and logic.”
Other studies have reported similar results when focusing on the importance of writing within the disciplines. Hughes-Weiner and Jensen-Chekalla (1991) performed holistic scoring on 1200 essays, finding a small but significant correlation between the number of WAC or WR courses a student had taken and the quality of their writing and essay scores.
Results of the Harvard Assessment Seminars (Harris and Schaible, 1997) found a “strong correlation” between student engagement and the amount of writing in a specific course. Fulwiler (1986), in a follow-up on Michigan Tech’s WAC program, cited evidence that fourth year students who had experienced WAC courses felt more secure about their writing and wrote better (based on a variety of tests) than those who had no exposure to the program.
Herrington (1985) studied a chemical engineering lab course and a chemistry course, observing both courses, interviewing students and professors, and analyzing papers written by students in both courses. She discovered that writing in the lab course not only taught students discourse conventions of the discipline, but also allowed them to clarify their understanding of abstract concepts.
Smithson (1995) set out to discover how effective WAC programs as a whole are. In one instance, an economics professor taught one regular introductory economics section alongside a writing-intensive program. Test scores from both sections indicated that the writing-intensive program strongly benefited students in the writing intensive course. These students saw their test scores increase in relation to the control group. Finally, Tchudi (reported in Ramey, 1997) found that faculty who teach WR courses or who incorporate a lot of writing into their course often find that they gain a deeper understanding of their students’ thoughts and struggles by reading and responding to their writing.
This research suggests that when instructors incorporate writing effectively, both student knowledge and writing in the disciplines improve. The courses mentioned in this article were carefully designed to incorporate numerous kinds of writing activities to achieve instructors’ pedagogical goals. But, as George Hillocks has pointed out, not all pedagogies are equally effective. The WR office specializes in teaching instructors the latest, most effective techniques of writing for all disciplines.
Fulwiler, T. (1986). Journals Across the Disciplines. English Journal, 69 (9): 14-19.
Harris, D.E. and Schaible, R. (1997). Writing across the curriculum can work. Thought and Action, 13 (1): 31-40.
Herrington, A.J. (1985). Writing To Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines. College English 43 (4): 379-389.
Hillocks, G. (1995) Teaching writing as a reflective practice. New York: Teacher’s College Press.
Hughes-Weiner, G. and Jensen-Chekalla, S.K. (1991) "Organizting a WAC Evaluation Project: Implications for Program Planning." In Stanley, L.C. & Ambron, J. (Eds.) Writing Across the Curriculum in Community Colleges. New Directions for Community Colleges, No73. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Quesenbury, L. et al (2000). Assessment of the writing component within a university general education program. http://aw.colostate
Smithson, I. (1995). Assessment of writing-across-the-
curriculum projects. ERIC ED 382994.
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