Screenshot of the research article from AACU.org

Research Shows Writing Enhances Learning

Author’s note: I wrote the following essay as a part of a class I’m taking on feedback and assessment in online writing courses. However, I decided to share it here on the blog since many of my readers are writers and/or teachers. Enjoy!

A team of distinguished writing professors and education researchers conducted a national study to answer the following question: Does writing contribute to student learning?

Discussing their findings in the Winter 2017 edition of Peer Review, a publication of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU), the team answered the question affirmatively.

[W]ell-designed writing assignments contribute to student learning.

Anderson et al., para. 13

Professors Paul Anderson, Chris M. Anson, and Charles Paine teamed up with Robert M. Gonyea, Associate Director of Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, to conduct the study over a period of eight years. The team set out to provide quantifiable national results in answer to their research question.

In “How Writing Contributes to Learning: New Findings from a National Study and Their Local Application,” the research team and fellow writing colleagues explain the context for the question: “Writing specialists have long argued that writing enhances learning” (para. 3). The article authors cite a variety of sources to support the premise that writing skills are “most valued” and “highly desired” across a variety of businesses and industries; however, of the 400 employers who ranked writing as a most desired skill in an AACU survey, only 25% believed recent college graduates up to the task. This failing, the authors contend, is likely because nearly half of U.S. four-year colleges and universities do not include a writing requirement beyond the first year in their curriculum.

[O]nly one if four [employers] said recent [college] graduates were well prepared in writing.

Anderson et al., para. 2

If we know businesses and industries value writing, why aren’t we doing more to prepare college graduates? The question isn’t one of quantity, but rather of quality. At least, that’s part of what Anderson et al.’s study concluded.

The research team partnered with the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) to collect data from a wide range of institution and student-types, “to identify characteristics of writing assignments that increase their learning” (para. 5).

The CWPA ultimately prepared a list of the 27 best practices in designing writing assignments that the research team developed into questions to append to the NSSE, an annual, nationwide survey. For 2010 and 2011, the modified survey collected data from 80 bachelor’s degree-granting institutions and more than 70,000 students.

Analyzing the data, researchers determined that many of the questions and responses could be categorized into 3 parts, which they referred to as constructs: interactive writing processes, meaning-making writing tasks, and clear writing expectations.

  • Interactive Writing Processes, which focuses on students’ collaboration during the writing process from assignment introduction to the final product;
  • Meaning-Making Writing Tasks, which focuses on students’ critical thinking and development of new ideas skills; and
  • Clear Writing Expectations, which focuses on instructors’ ability to communicate expectations and assessment criteria effectively.

The article authors highlight that all three constructs relate to how the instructor composes assignments and structures the course curriculum.


[The study results] demonstrate that writing assigned and carried out across the curriculum using the three constructs is associated with engagement in deep learning.

Anderson et al., para. 13

To me, these constructs speak directly to several key questions currently being considered by the community of online writing instructors: namely, using feedback to teach revision strategies, and encouraging reflection and metacognition in developing writers.

  • Developing writing assignments that require early versions and peer review and by modeling effective review through feedback, we can facilitate student collaboration while teaching substantial revision.
  • Creating writing assignments and curriculum that require students to write, reflect on what’s written, learn from it, and revise and by modeling this reflection and learning through feedback, we can encourage students to critically think while teaching them how to reflect.

In addition, the quality of assignments is more powerful in advancing learning than the amount of writing assigned.

Anderson et al., para. 5

The point is not to assign more writing but to assign writing that satisfies these constructs. These constructs are not exclusive to the writing classroom, but rather, can be implemented faculty in any discipline. Indeed, “[b]y incorporating well-designed writing assignments in courses for their majors, departments can teach students the conventions and expectations of the fields they will enter after graduation” (para. 15).

This research and its reach thus far “underscore the value of teaching faculty to focus on the quality, not just the quantity, of writing assignments they give students” (para. 31).

This is a breath of fresh air considering another current factor haunting faculty, whether online or in a traditional face-to-face classroom: how to effectively teach, e.g., provide quality feedback, while managing a heavy workload. It becomes increasingly difficult to provide feedback that will truly lead to quality revision when you are grading hundreds of papers. So, adapting writing assignments to focus on the quality of what’s written rather than the number of words or projects completed, we can alleviate some of the stress (on ourselves and our students, no doubt) while spotlighting the focus on substance and learning.

The authors conclude by sharing examples of three institutions that have begun to implement the findings from the study, particularly revising assignments in writing courses and school-wide to effectuate the three constructs. Further, North Carolina State University and Miami University (Ohio), home institutions for members of the research team, received funding from the National Science Foundation to improve student learning based on the study’s findings.

The research project certainly provides quantifiable data to support that quality writing assignments can lead to improved student learning. It also gives faculty in all disciplines a way to practically implement writing to enhance learning.

Works Cited

Anderson, et al., “How Writing Contributes to Learning: New Findings from a National Study and Their Local Application.” Peer Review, vol. 19, no. 1, Winter 2017. Association of American Colleges & Universities, www.aacu.org/peerreview/2017/Winter/Anderson.

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