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Highlights: “Mistakes are a Fact of Life”

posted: 10.13.10 by Nedra Reynolds

It’s already October, and work continues on the seventh edition of the Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing. Jay Dolmage and I have learned so much from reading the books and articles suggested by the consultants!

With more articles and books coming out each month, you might be wondering what will give you the most insight into the current state of the field, or to choose for your limited reading time. The Bedford Bibliography serves exactly this function. It offers a concise summary of each article or book—without judgment or evaluation.

However, having written so many summaries lately, I wanted a chance to state my opinion, to read an article and say “hey, I just really like this one!”  So, if you’re interested in the everyday work of teaching writing, I’d recommend Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford’s, “Mistakes are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study” (CCC June 2008) [PDF].

Lunsford and Lunsford closely analyzed a stratified national sample of 877 papers. Their study sheds light on how composition teaching, students, and student papers have and have not changed since a similar study in 1988 (Connors and Lunsford), which examined patterns of errors.

Lunsford and Lunsford found two major shifts: students are writing substantially longer essays (over two-and-a-half times longer than the samples in the 1988 study, with an average paper length of 1,038 words), and they are writing different types of papers. In the 1988 study, the dominant type of paper was the personal narrative;  in 2006, there were more researched arguments and reports as well as arguments without sources.

What they call “a sea change in the types of papers teachers are asking students to write in first-year writing classes” might be explained, in part, by the amount of scholarly activity in “Genre Studies,” one of the newest categories in the forthcoming Bedford Bibliography.

Lunsford and Lunsford’s study concludes that the rate of error over the last century has not changed; they did not find evidence of “a precipitous decline in student writing ability,” which is certainly encouraging. The most frequent formal error these days is using an incorrect word, but their sampling also illustrated that students “are struggling with the use of sources on every front.”

One very interesting finding, at least in terms of my own teaching, is that 847 out of 877 papers in the coded sample were traditional print-based texts. With only 30 exceptions, there were no images, no sound, no video, no colored fonts or different type sizes, no hyperlinks, no blog entries. Nor are instructors are not using new technologies for commenting—the vast majority used pens and pencils.

This last finding makes me curious. Along with Lunsford and Lunsford, I wonder why the attention to multimedia texts hasn’t yet found its way into first-year writing.

Let me know if and how your own assignments, or expectations, of student writing have changed, or why you do or do not incorporate some of the newer writing tools into your own teaching.

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Categories: Genre, Handbooks, Teaching with Technology
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One Response to “Highlights: “Mistakes are a Fact of Life””

  1. Christy Scarborough Says:

    I occasionally use multi-media, but overall I believe my main job is to teach writing, not presentation. I am concerned more with the process of putting ideas into words that are effective and correct as far as grammar and usage are concerned. The students I have also do many media-oriented projects in other classes; in fact, sometimes they take the place of writing since they are easier to grade. Therefore I think it is even more important that my focus is simply on the written word, and that I help my students to become confident writers that do not need to have all the multi-media bells and whistles in order to express their thoughts.