Spring 1986, Volume 3

Joanne Kurfiss
Do Students Really Learn from Writing?

Professor Simon Stricklen, Jr., offering "A Note of Caution" in the May 1985 issue of Writing Across the Curriculum, is rightly concerned that a movement which is gaining so much ascendency may ultimately prove to be simply another academic fad. He raises several provocative questions, probably the most important of which is whether students will benefit from all this writing they are now being urged to do. That questions can be answered from empirical evidence, but before going into that, I would like to suggest that Professor Stricklen's own philosophy about using writing is closer to the basic tenets of this pedagogy than he may realize. In fact, his own conclusion puts it well: "We ought to assign writing where it fits naturally." Writing Across the Curriculum is a program intended not to "push" writing "artificially," but to broaden and deepen our conceptions of where writing "fits naturally."

Dr. Stricklen's first paragraph reveals an understandable misconception: that the objective of Writing Across the Curriculum is to require writing to be examined by the instructor. From this, his other concerns flow quite readily: writing must be the "paramount" skill, everyone will have to teach it and not everyone is qualified to do so, and it will take time away from course content. Let me suggest two alternative foundational propositions: (1) Writing can help students learn and think about content in any discipline, thus helping to achieve the goals of the instructor. (2) Writing used for learning does not require explicit teaching of writing only use of writing as a pedagogical tool.

These assumptions lead to a model of Writing Across the Curriculum very different from the image evoked by Dr. Stricklen. This model highlights not writing for Its own sake, but writing for the discipline's sake, i.e., writing for content mastery. One characteristic of writing used in this way is that much of it is not graded, and only some of it is "examined" by the instructor. Take the case of notes on reading. Research on reading has demonstrated that notetaking aids content recall more than underlining'. Encouraging students to take notes on their reading, just as they do on lecture, is an unobtrusive yet helpful Writing Across the Curriculum strategy. Showing them some "trick of the trade" for notetaking in a special field may make their notes even more helpful.

Another writing-for-learning strategy is to assign short essays for various purposes. Essay writing can be used to help students learn from reading, and is more effective than notetaking (see below). Writing short essays can also be used to help students prepare for class discussions, and students are more likely to do them if the topic relates to material that will figure prominently on an exam. Assignments may also be structured to provide practice for essay exams, or to build a foundation for a position paper or other, longer writing assignment normally used in the course. Students can be encouraged, in class or out, to exchange their essays and respond to them before turning them in. Such exchanges, structured so that criteria are clear and emphasis is on ideas rather than grammar, give individual students an opportunity to see how others are making sense of the course content, and can stimulate clarifying discussions unobtainable through other means. To motivate the grade-conscious, a check or a few points for turning in the essay can be awarded. The essays do not necessarily have to be read by the instructor though it may be useful to look them over. When students see that they are writing for a clearly defined purpose related to their ultimate course grade, they are likely to complete the assignment even though it is not read or evaluated by the instructor.

However, as Dr. Stricklen suggests, many students see no value in completing assignments not specifically read and evaluated by the instructor. The "microtheme," a short, highly structured essay, can be graded fairly easily'. These findings are supported by Kirkpatrick and Pittendrigh3. Developed at Montana State University for use in large introductory physics courses, microthemes can support instruction in any discipline. Microthemes require students to figure out in writing a problem posed by the instructor. The problem is designed to assess students' ability to apply a fundamental concept or to use a particular cognitive skill, such as drawing conclusions from data. Students write their responses on a single 5 x 8 index card. To facilitate grading, students summarize their answer in a single sentence at the top of the card. Dozens of these cards can be leafed through in a very short time, comments can be jotted on a note pad, not the students' cards, as common misconceptions emerge or fresh solutions appear that could be highlighted in class. If someone offers a totally "off-the- wall" response, the card can be set aside for individual comment later, often a short note will do. While mechanics or spelling may not be emphasized here, there is a premium on clarity and brevity, challenging students to think clearly. If a response is incomprehensible, the card may be returned with an appropriate message (e.g., "Get thee to the writing center" or "Please make your next microtheme readable"). Next day, the responses can be discussed as a whole, pointing out any misconceptions identified and answering remaining questions. But won't some students "cheat" if they copy each others' work? Probably but if they get together and talk through the solution, then write their own, where's the harm? Their academic "time-ontask" has been increased far more than the time it has cost to read over their solution. And in general, more time-on-task means more learning.

Microthemes and short-essay study questions may not be appropriate in all courses, but neither do they begin to exhaust the options available to the teacher who wants to help students master content through writing. Some teachers use journals to help students clarify concepts by trying to express them in writing, or to explore controversial material or keep records of ideas for a major paper. Some teachers pause in the middle of a lecture and have students write down questions stimulated by the topic; these can be turned in or discussed right then. Additional suggestions can be found in a delightful booklet, "The Busy Professor's Travel Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum"4 and in Griffin5.

I hope Professor Stricklen will agree that such uses of writing are both natural and helpful, and that they focus on content rather than on the writing itself. Of course, as students write in a variety of settings, occasionally free of grade pressures, some of their anxiety about writing may dissipate, and their formal writing may also improve as they become accustomed to developing ideas on paper. Such improvements need not be the primary goal, although they might help counteract a self-perpetuating problem: student avoidance of courses requiring writing. Recent research suggests that students who are apprehensive about writing prefer classes where they can just "read and take notes. Then you can just put back down on paper what they give you."6 How many instructors have felt pressured to avoid writing assignments in the face of such attitudes on the part of our students? Selfe's research shows how these attitudes perpetuate themselves. She found that apprehensive writers have limited writing histories, i.e., they do little writing in high school outside their English classes. For such students apprehension fosters avoidance which limits opportunities for the practice needed to overcome their apprehension. Unfortunately, it turns out that most students have limited writing histories; Applebee7 found high school students' writing limited to a paragraph or less in all but about 3 per cent of their assignments. The apprehension that can result from such limited writing experiences may drastically limit students' learning options and ability to succeed both in school and beyond.

These examples help answer the question, "Do students learn from writing?" But they can only be suggestive, and Dr. Stricklen has wisely challenged Writing Across the Curriculum enthusiasts to cite hard evidence that writing aids learning or thinking. While research on this question is still in its infancy, several recent studies suggest that writing is a valuable learning tool. For example, Kirkpatrick and Pittendrigh8 report that beginning physics students who wrote microthemes each week performed significantly better on hourly essay exams than students who had not had such practice. Responses were clearer and easier to grade, and there were fewer "wretched answers." Furthermore, poor essays resulted from problems in understanding physics, not from deficient writing skills. And far from ob objecting to the extra work (20-60 minutes per essay), all but two students surveyed believed the amount of homework in the course was just right or too little. Most important, however, is that students perceived writing as a tool for mastering content: 38 out of 43 students surveyed believed that writing essays "had helped them understand the physics."'

Further support for a learning-from-writing hypothesis comes from two studies recently completed at Stanford. Langer'10 and Newell" had high school students read typical academic passages and then "study" either by taking notes, answering study questions in writing, or writing short "thought-question" essays. In both cases, topic knowledge increased far more for students who wrote essays than for students in either of the other two conditions: they knew more, and they had a more integrated concept of the material if they wrote essays. Further, the thinking processes evoked by essay writing were more complex and varied. For example, Langer found dramatically higher levels of hypothesizing, and also more instances of evaluating information or ideas, more comments on how to get at meaning, and more examples of "finding evidence and validating previous interpretations." These are among the sophisticated thinking processes colleges claim to develop in their students. These studies suggest that through writing used as a tool for learning, the claim can become an actuality rather than a vague hope.

Writing instructors are not suggesting that professors in other disciplines do their job for them. Rather, they are asking us to support and extend their efforts, not because of some inherent value in writing, but for the sake of our own disciplines and students' success in them. Writing about a specific content area presents unique problems which writing teachers acknowledge they are not qualified to address - only the content specialist is intimately familiar with the genres, conventions and audiences peculiar to her/his field. If students don't practice discipline-specific writing in college, where will they learn it? What roles in the working world will allow them to simply "put back down on paper what they give you?" The workplace is risky enough without leaving students on their own to learn the essential skill of communicating in writing. It is ironic that college professors in a variety of disciplines now acknowledge that writing is more important to success in the workplace than to success in college." Perhaps it's time we evened things out.


I Kulhvy, R.W., J.D. Dyer, and L. Silver. "The Effects of Notetaking and Text Expectancy on the Learning of Text Material." Journal of Educational Research 68 (1975), 363-365.

2 Bean, J., D. Drenk, and F.D. Lee. "Microtheme Strategies for Developing Cognitive Skills." Teaching Writing In All Disciplines. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 12. Ed. C.W. Griffin. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982.

3 Kirkpatrick, L.D. and A.S. Pittendrigh. "A Writing Teacher in the Physics Classroom." The Physics Teacher 22 (1984), 159-164.

4 Barry, L. The Busy Professor's Travel Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. La Grande, Oregon: Eastern Oregon State College, 1984.

5 Griffin, C.W... Ed. Teaching Writing In All Disciplines. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982

6 Selfe, C.L. "The Predrafting Processes of Four High- and Four Low-Apprehensive Writers." Research In the Teaching of English 1B (1984), 45-64

1 Applebee, A. Writing In the Secondary School. English and the Content Areas. NCTE Research Report No. 21. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1981.

8 Kirkpatrick and Pittendrigh, F. 163

9 Ibid.

10 Langer, J. "Learning through Writing:, Study Skills in the Content Areas." Journal of Reading, (in press.)

11 Newell, B. "Learning from Writing in Two Content Areas: A case Study/Protocol Analysis." Research In the Teaching of English 1B (1984), 265-287.

12 Bridgeman, B. and S.B. Carlson. "Survey of Academic Writing Tasks." Written Communication 1 (1984), 247-280