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Grounding Teaching in Research

posted: 1.13.11 by Andrea Lunsford

My last post detailed principles that have guided my teaching over the last thirty-five years. One additional principle has also been important to me:  the best teaching of writing is thoroughly grounded in research.  I use the term “research” fairly broadly, to include research in the histories and theories of rhetoric and writing as well as on the writing practices we see all around us.

In fact, I first became interested in textbooks because of some research I was doing on student writing in Canada and Scotland in the last part of the 19th century: what I found was that teachers were commenting on and marking “errors” that were very different from the ones I saw in student writing in this time and place. I still remember one professor wringing his hands over the inability of students to properly distinguish between “shall” and “will.” Those research findings led Bob Connors and me to our national study of error in student writing—back in 1984. (Those research findings on errors, and additional research we did on teacher response, informed the first edition of The St. Martin’s Handbook.)

Some 25 years later, Karen Lunsford and I decided to replicate the study Bob and I had done, a study that yielded some very interesting findings as well as some significant changes. We found, for instance, that the student writing we gathered for this second study was two and a half times longer than the writing we examined in 1984.  Moreover, typical writing assignments in first-year writing had shifted from predominantly personal experience essays to argument and research-based essays.

These changes led to changes in the problems students were having: not surprisingly, we found lots and lots of difficulty with citations—students wanted to know how to cite an interview done for a local television show that they watched on YouTube, for example. Most significant to us was our finding that the ratio of errors per 100 words has not risen in the last 100 years—at least not according to every study we uncovered.  Thus we concluded, in an essay reporting on the study, that “Mistakes are a Fact of Life” (which my fellow Bits blogger Nedra Reynolds covered here).

The latest Top Twenty list appears here, along with a link to the original research findings. You can request a free copy of From Theory to Practice, a collection of articles I’ve written or co-written, here.

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2 Responses to “Grounding Teaching in Research”

  1. Linda Aragoni, You-Can-Teach-Writing Says:

    The original top 20 list has been my writing mechanics grading guide since it first appeared. Using the top 20 list lets me have one standard set of error symbols regardless of the class or the institution at which I’m teaching. (When I’m an adjunct at more than one college at a time, that’s important.)

    Rather than flag every kind of error in students’ writing, I flag only errors on the top 20 list, highlighting the error and adding a number that refers students to a master list. My master list is a table with the error number, name, and sources that deal with that specific error. More recently, I’ve developed a web page that includes online sources dealing specifically with the top 20 errors on the 1984 list.

    The first week or two of a semester, I have students keep track of the errors they make in their written work to identify the three they make most often. For the rest of the semester, I hold each student responsible for reducing the number of his/her most common errors to a specified level.

  2. Andrea Lunsford, Stanford Says:

    I think having students keep a log of the mistakes they are prone to make is a wonderful way to put a spotlight on issues of grammar and convention–and to help students understand where these errors are coming from and what they can do about them.