Information Sheet #155

January 27, 2009

How College Students Develop as Writers

While millions of college students complete millions and millions  of writing assignments each year, we know relatively little about how students learn to write and how their learning is affected by instruction.  The dearth of insight on student literacy is not from lack of trying, but researchers are confronted with a complex topic, not easily dissected by most research practices. One challenge is constructing a research project that covers a sufficient time frame so it’s possible to see what transformations occur as students’ writing practices evolve.  As we might expect, most of that longitudinal research has occurred at large, R-1 institutions, but it’s not clear how applicable those findings are to the experiences of students at small, liberal arts institutions such as Coe. 

The research monograph that comes closest to assessing a WAC program comparable to Coe’s is Lee Ann Carroll’s Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers, a report on a four-year study of the writing experiences of 20 students at Pepperdine University in California. Her study attempts to determine how students were affected by their writing tasks (beginning with their first-year composition class) and how they developed as writers.  The following passages from Carroll’s book, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2002, summarize her primary findings.  ~Bob Marrs


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 What are usually called “writing assignments” in college might more accurately be called “literacy tasks” because they require much more than the ability to construct correct sentences or compose neatly organized paragraphs with topic sentences. . . .  The complexity and messiness of this critical literacy, with writing as only one component, makes it difficult to accurately assess a student’s writing ability at any given point in the student’s career and even harder to measure a student’s development over several years. . . . Any assessment of writing ability must examine the interplay between the writer and the learning environment and take into account the writer’s perception of the task, as well as the “objective” reality of the situation. 

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[Carroll offers the following list of key conclusions derived from her research at Pepperdine.]

• Writing assignments in college generally call for high levels of critical literacy, typically requiring skills in researching, reading complex texts, understanding of key disciplinary concepts, and strategies for synthesizing, analyzing, and responding critically to new information, usually within a limited time frame.

• Faculty are likely to underestimate how much writing tasks differ from course to course, from discipline to discipline, and from professor to professor.

• Lessons learned in first-year writing courses do not directly transfer to students’ work in their major areas of study.

• Students who begin as fluent, effective writers generally continue to be successful, though their writing sometimes appears to be weaker when they encounter new and unfamiliar expectations.

• Students who demonstrate difficulty both in writing and learning content material, nonetheless, do come to better understand the genres and demands of their disciplines and show increasing (but not perfect) ability to write in these genres. . . .

• Students’ literacy develops because students must take on new and difficult roles that challenge their abilities as writers.  In fact, student writing may sometimes need to get “worse” before it can get “better.”  Because many college writing tasks are essentially new to students, they will need repeated practice to become proficient. 

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 A preliminary analysis of students’ portfolios of writing and their reflections on that writing indicates that our study group did learn to write differently in college and to write better in the sense of producing new, more complicated texts, addressing challenging topics with greater depth and complexity. . . . A cultural or environmental view of development explains the almost “magic-like” power of new environments and new roles to “alter how a  person is treated, how she acts, what she does, and thereby even when she thinks and feels.” 

The cultural view of development is outlined by psycholo-gist Urie Bronfenbrenner in his 1979 book, The Ecology of Human Development, and further developed by Jerome Bruner, Michael Cole, and others. . . . Bronfenbrenner defines development as “the person’s evolving conception of the ecological environment, and his relation to it, as well as the person’s growing capacity to discover, sustain, or alter its properties.”  Bronfenbrenner’s definition challenges us to rethink the notion of development as simply getting better at the same task over a period of time.  The college students . . . did not necessarily get better at some predetermined type of academic writing.  Instead, they acquired a “more extended, differentiated, and valid conception of the ecological environment. . . .”

Bronfenbrenner emphasizes that development . . . takes place during periods of transition. . . . each course, each professor, each task represents a more or less different ecological environment. Transitions promote development because “they almost invariably involve a change in role, that is, in the expectations for behavior associated with particular positions in society.”  The variety of these expectations is often under-estimated by faculty who fantasize writing as a stable skill that can simply be applied in different circumstances rather than as a complex set of abilities developing unevenly through many periods of transition.


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 Students are actively involved in figuring out “what the professor wants” and how they, as young adults, can accomplish their own goals within the college environment.  Students employ literacy strategically as they find their own ways through the curriculum articulated by faculty.  As other researchers have noted, this “experienced curriculum” is often at odds with the official curriculum described by faculty. . . .

Jerume Bruner describes the ideal environment promoting learning as a “mutual community,” which models ways of doing or knowing, provides opportunities for emulation, offers running commentary, provides ‘scaffolding’ for novices, and even provides a good context for teaching deliberately. . . . Dialogue between the learner and more proficient members of the learning community focuses not only on cognitive tasks, how to do the job at hand, but also creates metacognitive awareness.


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 Writing is always learned in communities that contain both written texts and more experienced practitioners. . . . Students who move from course to course, from teacher to teacher, from one discipline to another, often have a broader view of writing in college than the faculty does.

[The evidence in this study] challenges the myth that writing is a stable, unitary skill that can be learned once and then simply applied in new circumstances.  It shows that the problems students face in writing in college are not primarily grammatical. . . . even writers who enter college proficient in constructing simple reports or arguments will struggle with tasks that require more complex analysis and methods of presentation.  However, it is precisely in struggling with these challenging tasks that they develop new skills.


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Students teach us that student learning is not identical to the written text, a principle that professors are apt to forget. Professors tend to evaluate student papers as text and as representative of what students know or what they have learned in a course and representative of their ability as writers. . . . Yet, students in our study repeatedly discussed papers that in the student’s own assessment were not great writing but did represent significant learning. It may be comforting for professors to know that even mediocre papers can represent good learning.


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“Achieving skill and accumulating knowledge are not enough. The learner can be helped to achieve full mastery by reflecting as well upon how she is going about her job and how her approach can be improved.” [Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education, 1996]

 Although students value learning specific literacy skills, developing metacognitive awareness is equally valuable.  As Jerome Bruner argues, in subcommunities that specialize in learning, experienced practitioners and peers can help the student “to achieve full mastery by reflecting . . . upon how she is going about her job and how her approach can be improved”. . . . A focus on developing metacognitive awareness as well as developing new writing skills is as useful for students who already know “how to write” as it is for less well-prepared writers.  Without such awareness, “good” writers may find it especially difficult to change writing strategies that have worked for them in the past.


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[Some instructional recommendations that Carroll derives from her study.]

• Rethink student work as “literacy tasks” and not “writing assignments.”  Focus on writing “differently,” not just “better.”

• [Faculty should] think through all of the things a student must know and be able to do to complete an assigned task.  What makes a successful response?  When we compare the work of successful and unsuccessful students, what does the successful student know and do that is missing from the work of less successful students.

• Students need to see examples of successful and unsuccess-ful work within their disciplines. . . . examples of student work illustrate the kinds of writing they themselves can reasonably be expected to produce.  Most important are examples showing students how one makes assertions and supports them in the discipline or how one reports data and analyzes them.  This balance between reporting information and constructing an argument or analysis is the most difficult for students to maintain.

• Provide scaffolding to support development by directly teaching discipline specific research and writing skills, using grading strategically to reward improvement, scheduling interim deadlines for longer projects, and requiring classroom workshops, study groups, and teacher conferences.

• Encourage experiments with writing in different forms for different audiences, writing that resists or reinterprets disciplinary conventions, writing that explores students’ values and ethics as related to discipline-specific issues.

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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.