Improving Student Writing
In Fall 2013, NMSU embarked on a 4-year project to improve student writing.
As part of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) Open Pathways to reaffirmation of accreditation, NMSU proposed a project to improve student writing in the disciplines. The plan included collecting institutional data about student writing, policies and practices that impact writing and student and faculty perceptions about writing; evaluating student writing at multiple levels; using data to facilitate campus-wide discussions and identify actions to improve student writing; implement interventions to improve student writing.
We chose this project because faculty across campus recognize the importance of writing to the future success of their students.
Employers nation-wide cite writing ability as a fundamental factor in gaining, sustaining and advancing employment opportunities. Writing is also critically important for students who choose to seek advanced degrees.
In order to understand why students weren’t writing as well as we thought they should be, we identified 10 questions we needed to answer.
- How frequently do students write?
- How much do students write?
- What types of writing do students do?
- How much instruction do we give?
- What resources do we provide?
- How clearly do we communicate expectations?
- How much feedback do we give?
- How important is writing?
- How well do students write?
- How do faculty think about and approach writing?
Through a collection of no less than 15 nationally standardized and locally developed tools and information sources, we were able to provide triangulated data that was remarkably consistent across findings.
- The frequency and quantity of student writing at NMSU is fairly consistent with peer-designated institutions, but varies widely by college and discipline. Types of writing also have a wide range across courses.
- Nationally standardized measures conclude our students are “average” in their writing ability; satisfaction with disciplinary writing varies across departments and programs. Nationally standardized and locally developed measures show that students are strongest in “grammar and mechanics” and weaker in organization, problem solving and effective rhetoric to argue a position.
- Students point to courses as the primary place where writing takes place, and have very strong associations between the amount of required writing and the perceived importance of writing in the respective discipline.
- Our framework for writing instruction is similar to that our of peer institutions, but the policies and practices around that framework may disadvantage writing success for some of our students.
- While we have structured writing support services for international students, we have limited support services for our significant population of domestic English Language Learners (English is not the first language).
- There are ample and identifiable opportunities to strengthen our communication to students about the importance of writing.
- Students identify formative feedback and clarity of expectations as having the most significant impact on their success in writing.
- Faculty are more inclined to assign writing if they believe it is in the best interest of students; however, faculty often view their own writing in terms of ‘process,’ while they tend to view student writing in terms of ‘product.’ This may insinuate that the gains they perceive (and research upholds) for themselves through the writing process, is not viewed as a potential gain for the student.
We are now facilitating discussions across campus designed to identify interventions that could positively impact student writing.
On October 28, a faculty forum was held to discuss findings, interpret implications, and identify institutional action items. Notes from that meeting are being compiled, and a follow up meeting will be scheduled to further develop ideas emerging from that forum. Additional conversations are being facilitated at the departmental level, also resulting in identifying and implementation of action items.
One specific effort across the past 4 years is the Writing-to-Learn Mini-grant project.
Additional resources for implementing low-stakes writing into courses are below. The majority of these require minimal time and effort on the instructor, but provide opportunities for students to practice disciplinary language and writing style.