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The Value of Writing Classes

posted: 3.10.11 by Andrea Lunsford

Many of us listened to the NPR report on Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s exciting research, which is reported on fully in their Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press). The book is being widely reviewed and has also been the subject of an interesting thread on the WPA listserv, sparked by Nick Carbone’s summative posting. Arum and Roska monitored the development of critical thinking and writing ability of 2,300 students at 24 different colleges over the course of their college career, as well as the amount of writing they were required to do in their classes. The results were pretty dismal: nearly half of the students saw no improvement in these abilities from the first to fourth years in college.

I have ordered the book so I can read it carefully. I know I will have questions about the methods the authors used, about their definitions of writing and critical thinking, and about some of their interpretations. (Abilities were measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment test, taken three times over the course of college.) But I am grateful to them for doing the study and for raising these issues. And perhaps the negative implications of the study have been overemphasized in the reports and discussions that followed—because Arum and Roksa’s findings also confirm something positive about the value of writing classes: students who had at least one writing intensive course in college fared better than did their counterparts. This will not come as a surprise to anyone in our field. We know with complete certainty that writing goes hand in glove with thinking and that Cicero’s formula for improvement in speaking and writing (at least some natural ability added to good instruction and continuous practice) is as accurate today as it was in ancient Rome. That’s what is so heartbreaking about colleges and universities cutting requirements, raising class sizes, and underfunding the teaching of and support for writing—talk about penny wise, pound foolish!

At Stanford, we have just completed a study of our first-year writing course for accreditation, and we decided to look closely at students who seemed to our Admissions group to be weak in writing. We took a sample of first-year students, oversampling for the “at risk” students.  Then we tracked their progress and development during their first-year course and were very gratified to find that the rate of growth for the “at risk” students mirrored the rate of growth for those in the other group. While the average scores for the “at risk” students were a bit lower at the end of the term than their counterparts in the other group, students in both groups improved at almost exactly the same rate. In another study done with Stanford students, Paul Rogers developed a rubric to measure writing development across the college years and used it to train a group of readers (including me) to assess the writing of 200 students across all four years. Again, this study showed growth in almost all of the ten indices. Of course these are studies at one institution, but they suggest that students can and do improve in writing and thinking skills across the college years if they are given good instruction and an opportunity to write!

I will post again after I’ve read Arum and Roksa’s book, but in the meantime I’ll be using their findings to argue for the crucial importance of what we do in writing programs and writing centers. You can do likewise.

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3 Responses to “The Value of Writing Classes”

  1. Jack Solomon, CSUN Says:

    I recall how, over 25 years ago, my colleagues joked about how their students wrote best as freshmen and declined in writing ability each year. Though it was a joke, there was an underlying paradox. This paradox is the fact that students in freshman composition classes get intensive instruction in writing, along with required multiple draft writing, that enables them to produce finished papers that demonstrate much progress. When students move on through the course of their studies, they either are not assigned any writing at all, or, when they are, they do not receive the intensive writing instruction, and multiple draft requirements, of their composition classes. This is quite understandable insofar as the faculty in such classes do not, and cannot, regard their classes as writing classes. They have to assume that their students will make the connection between any current assignments and what they learned in freshman composition. This does not invariably happen, of course.

    And there is the paradox: that which is so helpful to student writers just beginning their college study may lead them to believe that the need for multiple draft work and great care in writing ceases with the end of their composition class. I therefore think that studies of the sort conducted by Arum and Roksa need to be assessed with great care, probably greater care than they will indeed receive in this blame-the-teacher environment.

  2. Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, NWP Says:

    Thank you for pointing out this very important observation about the value of writing intensive courses, and by implication about writing instruction rightly conceived. This point has not made it into the coverage in the popular press. This is a time when attention to writing is under assault in education policy. As Congress presents budgets that eliminate the National Writing Project (the only K-16 network focused on writing), I’ve had many occasions to interact with many in the policy arena who say “writing is nice, but STEM is what’s important”. Interestingly, I’ve never heard that from someone in a STEM related field. Those people invariably say that writing, including composition with image and data, is at the center of what they do all the time.

  3. Andrea Lunsford, Stanford Says:

    Thank you for these provocative and very interesting responses. Student development in writing is full of paradoxes, but it’s also great fun to watch happening. I despair over Congress . . . but I guess that’s ongoing for many of us these days.

    Sending all best wishes,

    Andrea