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New Research Expands What We Know about How To Use Writing To Enhance Student Learning

by Paul Anderson

Educators have long appreciated the power of writing to enhance learning. In the United States and Canada, this knowledge has underwritten the forty-year growth of writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) and writing-in-the-discipline (WID) programs. More recently, it has supported the expansion of writing-for-academic-purposes programs in Europe and elsewhere.

Results of a new study will reorient the focus of these programs and inspire new ways of using writing to advance the goals of higher education.


For the past forty years, the central aim of WAC, WID, and similar programs has been to encourage instructors and institutions to increase the amount of writing they assign to students. Toward this end, these programs have advocated the introduction of writing into courses that have none, an increase in the amount of writing in courses that have some, and the establishment of requirements that students take courses designated as writing intensive in order to earn their degrees. The writing activities promoted by these programs range from one-minute essays and microthemes to major writing projects for which instructors design scaffolded sets of sub-assignments to help students gradually build their writing skills and final products.

The emphasis on the amount of writing in a course or program is supported by three large-scale studies. Each looked generally for the institutional and course-based factors that promote learning. Each used a different research method. All ended up discovering the special power of writing.

  • Astin (1992) surveyed 25, 000 students who completed four years at 217 baccalaureate institutions. He found that a focus on developing students’ writing skills correlated positively with a larger number of general education outcomes than any other course attribute.
  • Richard J. Light (2001) coordinated interviews with more than 1,600 students at 25 colleges and universities. He concluded that, “The amount of writing in a course has a stronger relationship with students’ level of engagement than does any other course characteristic.” The more writing a course includes, the more time students spend on it, the more intellectually challenging they find it to be, and the more personally invested they are in the course.
  • Arum and Roksa (2011) studied the performance of more than 23,000 students at 24 colleges on the College Learning Assessment. The researchers reached the discouraging conclusion that after three semesters of college, the students overall made “barely noticeable” improvement in critical thinking and complex reasoning (p. 35).  However, they also discovered one exception: Students made significant gains in both areas if they had taken courses requiring 20 or more pages of writing in a semester and 40 or more pages of reading per week.


The relationship that the three large-scale studies found between writing and learning has not been supported as uniformly or persuasively as one might expect in quasi-experimental studies that compared the outcomes for the same course taught with and without writing.  Some studies show positive outcomes. Others did not. Consequently, some researchers have questioned the underlying assumption that more writing inevitably leads to more learning (Ochsner and Fowler, 2004; Bangert­Drowns, Hurley, and Wilkinson, 2004).


Working in partnership, the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) conducted a study that resolves the discrepancy between the large-scale and small-scale studies. The research team added 27 questions about students’ writing experiences to the regular NSSE survey form for 80 U.S. colleges and universities. More than 70,000 students responded (Anderson, Anson, Gonyea, and Paine).

The results revealed the perhaps unsurprising fact that some writing assignments are more effective than others at increasing learning. Thus, mixed results of small-scale studies are to be expected. Those that use effective assignments would produce positive results. Those that used less-effective or ineffective assignments would not. This insight makes the results from the large-scale studies are even more impressive: The positive impact of the more-effective assignments is strong enough to show through even when they are mixed with less-effective and ineffective ones.


The most important outcome of the CWPA/NSSE study is that it reveals specific features that make some assignments more effective than others. Instructors can increase student learning by creating assignments in which they do the following.

  • Engage students in meaning-constructing writing tasks, such as summarizing, evaluating, arguing a position with evidence and reasoning, describing data collection methods, explaining numerical data, using the style of a specific discipline, and addressing real or imagined audience.
  • Encourage students to engage in interactive writing processes, such as having students talk about their assignments with their instructor, classmates, friends, and family members; obtain feedback about a draft from their instructor or other person; visit a campus-based writing or tutoring center; and exchange feedback on their writing with classmates.
  • Explain their writing expectations clearly to students, for instance by giving clear instructions about what students are supposed to do, describing what students are supposed to learn, and explaining the criteria that will be used to grade students’ work.

These results suggest that faculty and programs should focus to developing more effective writing assignments, not merely more writing (Bean).

In addition, because the results indicate that well-designed writing assignments are positively associated with self-reported gains in general education learning and in personal and social development (two areas not previously identified by research), they suggest the value of expanding writing initiatives into community service, leadership, and other co-curricular and extracurricular programs.


While the CWPA/NSSE study increases our ability to enhance student learning, it also challenges some deeply entrenched assumptions and practices related to engaged learning (Kuh). Rather than simply describing a broad array of writing activities instructors can use in their courses, WAC and other partners in faculty development must help instructors create effective assignments, ones in which they engage students in meaning-making tasks, develop interactive writing processes for their students, and explain their writing expectations more clearly.

The study also cautions us against becoming overconfident about what we think we know about instructor and institutional practices that promote student learning and development. What we “know” is what we know for now. We can know better. Even as we urge our colleagues and institutions to act on our current knowledge, we should undertake the research that puts that knowledge at risk and that might require us to advocate refined or different practices in the future.


Anderson, Gonyea, Anson, and Paine. (2009). Using results from the Consortium on the Study of Writing in College. Webinar handout. National Survey of Student Engagement. Retrieved July 22, 2013, from http://nsse.iub.edu/webinars/TuesdayswithNSSE/2009_09_22_UsingResultsCSWC/Webinar%20Handout%20from%20WPA%202009.pdf.

Arum, R., & Roksa, J. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Astin, A. W. (1992). What really matters in general education:  Provocative findings from a national study of student outcomes. Perspectives, 22(1), 23-46.

Bangert-Drowns, R. L., Hurley, M. M., & Wilkinson, B. (2004). ”The effects of school-based writing-to-learn interventions on academic achievement: A meta-analysis.” Review of Educational Research 74(1), 29-58.

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Light, R. J. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard.

Ochsner, R., & Fowler, J. (2004). Playing devil’s advocate: Evaluating the literature of the WAC/WID movement. Review of Educational Research, 74(2), 117-140.


Paul Anderson is Director of Writing Across the University at Elon University and a leading scholar and advocate for excellence in writing. Anderson is the author or editor of four books related to writing and communication, and the author of more than 40 articles.

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Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer – Research Highlights (Part 2)

by Jessie L. Moore

Last month, we featured a few highlights from the Center for Engaged Learning’s research seminar on Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer. Multi-institutional research by seminar participants suggests that:

  • In first-year writing courses, content matters;
  • Students need reiterative opportunities for reflection throughout their education;
  • When considering students’ abilities to transfer or adapt writing strategies, personal identities matter; and
  • Across the university, expectations for student writing often are misaligned.

The first three findings offer hope that it is possible to teach in support of transfer and reaffirm an underlying assumption in university curricula that students can transfer what they learn in one course to future university, workplace, and community contexts. The fourth finding reminds faculty and administrators not to take that underlying assumption for granted; as last month’s preview hinted, writing transfer is not guaranteed for every student at every critical transition point.

Building on these findings, the two-year, multi-institutional research projects also demonstrate that:

Writing transfer is a complex phenomena, and understanding that complexity is central to facilitating students’ successful consequential transitions, whether among university writing tasks or between academic and workplace or civic contexts. Writing transfer is the phenomenon in which new and unfamiliar writing tasks are approached through the application, remixing or integration of previous knowledge, skills, strategies, and dispositions. Any social context provides opportunities and constraints that impact writers’ use of this prior knowledge, and writing transfer successes and challenges cannot be understood outside of learners’ social-cultural spaces. Furthermore, prior knowledge is a complex construct that can benefit or hinder writing transfer. Yet understanding and exploring that complexity is central to investigating transfer, which is why Randy Bass (in the video below) encourages researchers not to be paralyzed by that complexity.

Successful writing transfer requires transforming or repurposing prior knowledge for a new context (even if only slightly) in order to adequately meet the expectations of new audiences and fulfill new purposes for writing. Successful writing transfer occurs when a writer can transform rhetorical knowledge and rhetorical awareness into performance. Students facing a new and difficult rhetorical task draw on previous knowledge and strategies,  and when they do, they must transform or repurpose that prior knowledge. Students also must have relevant prior knowledge, which reiterates why first-year writing content matters. Students’ meta-awareness often plays a key role in transfer, and reflective writing promotes preparation for transfer and transfer-focused thinking.

University programs (e.g., first-year writing programs, writing across the curriculum programs, majors, etc.) can “teach for transfer.” Enabling practices that promote writing transfer include focusing on rhetorically-based concepts, asking students to engage in metacognitive awareness, and explicitly modeling transfer-focused thinking. With explicit rhetorical education, students are more likely to transform rhetorical awareness into performance. Giving students the tools to think about how writing functions in communities can potentially aid them in drawing effectively on prior knowledge when they encounter writing in new settings, whether writing for a major, writing in a workplace, or writing for extracurricular activities. Modeling application, remixing or integration of previous knowledge can demonstrate when and how “experts” draw on their prior knowledge to successfully navigate tasks in new settings. The transfer of rhetorical knowledge and strategies between self-sponsored and academic writing also can be encouraged by designing academic writing opportunities with authentic audiences and purposes and by prompting students to engage in metacognitive reflection.

Recognizing and assessing writing transfer requires using a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods looking at both critical transition points and longitudinal patterns of learning. Writing transfer studies use a variety of research methods to identify and measure transfer, including: surveys, focus groups, interviews, classroom observations, composing-aloud and think-aloud protocols, group discussion logs, and analyses of students’ course work and faculty comments. Using mixed methods across multiple contexts facilitates a “scalable” understanding of writing transfer – enabling teacher-scholars both to “focus in” on detail on specific communities of practice and activity systems and to “zoom out” to examine working principles of writing transfer that apply across multiple contexts (across colleges and universities, across disciplines, across workplaces, across community settings). Both short-term and longitudinal studies are necessary for a rich assessment of students’ writing transfer, particularly as scholars examine learners’ development as writers, not merely their transitions from one context to another. As Carmen Werder, Megan Otis, and others have argued about Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, adding student voices as participants, or even as co-inquirers, in writing transfer studies facilitates these more holistic examinations of learners’ development, boundary-crossing, remixing, and integration. This mixed-method, multi-perspective approach to recognizing writing transfer for research purposes also leads to dynamic, multi-faceted data collection for programmatic assessment.

Collectively, the Critical Transitions research seminar studies demonstrate that colleges and universities can teach (and assess) for transfer if higher education stakeholders remain attentive to the key concepts presented above. To learn more about these research seminar findings, visit the seminar showcase and review the materials shared by Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer conference presenters.


Jessie L. Moore (@jessielmoore) is the Associate Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University and associate professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric in the Department of English.

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