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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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