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Anderson et al. Contributions of Writing to Learning. RTE, Nov. 2015. Posted 12/17/2015.

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Anderson, Paul, Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, and Charles Paine. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale, Multi-institutional Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.2 (2015): 199-235. Print

Note: The study referenced by this summary was reported in Inside Higher Ed on Dec. 4, 2015. My summary may add some specific details to the earlier article and may clarify some issues raised in the comments on that piece. I invite the authors and others to correct and elaborate on my report.

Paul Anderson, Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, and Charles Paine discuss a large-scale study designed to reveal whether writing instruction in college enhances student learning. They note widespread belief both among writing professionals and other stakeholders that including writing in curricula leads to more extensive and deeper learning (200), but contend that the evidence for this improvement is not consistent (201-02).

In their literature review, they report on three large-scale studies that show increased student learning in contexts rich in writing instruction. These studies concluded that the amount of writing in the curriculum improved learning outcomes (201). However, these studies contrast with the varied results from many “small-scale, quasi-experimental studies that examine the impact of specific writing interventions” (200).

Anderson et al. examine attempts to perform meta-analyses across such smaller studies to distill evidence regarding the effects of writing instruction (202). They postulate that these smaller studies often explore such varied practices in so many diverse environments that it is hard to find “comparable studies” from which to draw conclusions; the specificity of the interventions and the student populations to which they are applied make generalization difficult (203).

The researchers designed their investigation to address the disparity among these studies by searching for positive associations between clearly designated best practices in writing instruction and validated measures of student learning. In addition, they wanted to know whether the effects of writing instruction that used these best practices differed from the effects of simply assigning more writing (210). The interventions and practices they tested were developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), while the learning measures were those used in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This collaboration resulted from a feature of the NSSE in which institutions may form consortia to “append questions of specific interest to the group” (206).

Anderson et al. note that an important limitation of the NSSE is its reliance on self-report data, but they contend that “[t]he validity and reliability of the instrument have been extensively tested” (205). Although the institutions sampled were self-selected and women, large institutions, research institutions, and public schools were over-represented, the authors believe that the overall diversity and breadth of the population sampled by the NSSE/CWPA collaboration, encompassing more than 70,000 first-year and senior students, permits generalization that has not been possible with more narrowly targeted studies (204).

The NSSE queries students on how often they have participated in pedagogic activities that can be linked to enhanced learning. These include a wide range of practices such as service-learning, interactive learning, “institutionally challenging work” such as extensive reading and writing; in addition, the survey inquires about campus features such as support services and relationships with faculty as well as students’ perceptions of the degree to which their college experience led to enhanced personal development. The survey also captures demographic information (205-06).

Chosen as dependent variables for the joint CWPA/NSSE study were two NSSE scales:

  • Deep Approaches to Learning, which encompassed three subscales, Higher-Order Learning, Integrative Learning, and Reflective Learning. This scale focused on activities related to analysis, synthesis, evaluation, combination of diverse sources and perspectives, and awareness of one’s own understanding of information (211).
  • Perceived Gains in Learning and Development, which involved subscales of Practical Competence such as enhanced job skills, including the ability to work with others and address “complex real-world problems”; Personal and Social Development, which inquired about students’ growth as independent learners with “a personal code of values and ethics” able to “contribut[e] to the community”; and General Education Learning, which includes the ability to “write and speak clearly and effectively, and to think critically and analytically” (211).

The NSSE also asked students for a quantitative estimate of how much writing they actually did in their coursework (210). These data allowed the researchers to separate the effects of simply assigning more writing from those of employing different kinds of writing instruction.

To test for correlations between pedagogical choices in writing instruction and practices related to enhanced learning as measured by the NSSE scales, the research team developed a “consensus model for effective practices in writing” (206). Eighty CWPA members generated questions that were distilled to 27 divided into “three categories based on related constructs” (206). Twenty-two of these ultimately became part of a module appended to the NSSE that, like the NSSE “Deep Approaches to Learning” scale, asked students how often their coursework had included the specific activities and behaviors in the consensus model. The “three hypothesized constructs for effective writing” (206) were

  • Interactive Writing Processes, such as discussing ideas and drafts with others, including friends and faculty;
  • Meaning-Making Writing Tasks, such as using evidence, applying concepts across domains, or evaluating information and processes; and
  • Clear Writing Expectations, which refers to teacher practices in making clear to students what kind of learning an activity promotes and how student responses will be assessed. (206-07)

They note that no direct measures of student learning is included in the NSSE, nor are such measures included in their study (204). Rather, in both the writing module and the NSSE scale addressing Deep Approaches to Learning, students are asked to report on kinds of assignments, instructor behaviors and practices, and features of their interaction with their institutions, such as whether they used on-campus support services (205-06). The scale on Perceived Gains in Learning and Development asks students to self-assess (211-12).

Despite the lack of specific measures of learning, Anderson et al. argue that the curricular content included in the Deep Approaches to Learning scale does accord with content that has been shown to result in enhanced student learning (211, 231). The researchers argue that comparisons between the NSSE scales and the three writing constructs allow them to detect an association between the effective writing practices and the attitudes toward learning measured by the NSSE.

Anderson et al. provide detailed accounts of their statistical methods. In addition to analysis for goodness-of-fit, they performed “blocked hierarchical regressions” to determine how much of the variance in responses was explained by the kind of writing instruction reported versus other factors, such as demographic differences, participation in various “other engagement variables” such as service-learning and internships, and the actual amount of writing assigned (212). Separate regressions were performed on first-year students and on seniors (221).

Results “suggest[ed] that writing assignments and instructional practices represented by each of our three writing scales were associated with increased participation in Deep Approaches to Learning, although some of that relationship was shared by other forms of engagement” (222). Similarly, the results indicate that “effective writing instruction is associated with more favorable perceptions of learning and development, although other forms of engagement share some of that relationship” (224). In both cases, the amount of writing assigned had “no additional influence” on the variables (222, 223-24).

The researchers provide details of the specific associations among the three writing constructs and the components of the two NSSE scales. Overall, they contend, their data strongly suggest that the three constructs for effective writing instruction can serve “as heuristics that instructors can use when designing writing assignments” (230), both in writing courses and courses in other disciplines. They urge faculty to describe and research other practices that may have similar effects, and they advocate additional forms of research helpful in “refuting, qualifying, supporting, or refining the constructs” (229). They note that, as a result of this study, institutions can now elect to include the module “Experiences with Writing,” which is based on the three constructs, when students take the NSSE (231).


Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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