How Much of an Effect Do University Writing Programs Have?

The list of top-rated college writing programs is dominated by private institutions. But North Carolina State University is one of only a few public universities to break through. It is well-respected for how it teaches writing. According to a 2017 U.S News & World Report poll, NC State’s writing program is #12 in the nation alongside Duke (#5), Harvard (#10), and Princeton (#13).

Clearly, NC State is well regarded by its peers for its writing program. Pamela Flash, co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Writing and the director of their Writing-Enriched Curriculum program, called the work done at NC State “very formative” in how she developed her school’s WEC. “We owe a debt of gratitude to NC State for the modeling that they did…I just take my hat off to them whenever I can,” she said.

However, one problem is that the ranking is based on the opinions of college administrators rather than any sort of empirical data. That data is hard to come by, so it is difficult to know how truly effective a college writing program is at preparing students for post-grad life. Measurement is burdensome. The quality of students entering the university can affect outcomes. And student effort is as important as faculty or institutional effort. Until students enter the workforce, it may be hard to know how good they really are at communicating—and gathering information post-graduation to draw conclusions about writing programs can be a daunting task.

NC State’s approach to writing takes three forms: a single four-credit hour freshman composition course, the Campus Writing and Speaking Program that works with faculty, and the University Tutorial Center that works with students.

Freshman composition is supposed to give students a foundation of knowledge they build upon in future classes. But NC State students can test out of it. This limited English requirement is not unusual for many universities and can have frustrating results for the faculty who teach it—along with disastrous results for students. NC State avoids at least one pitfall: class sizes for English 101 are limited to 17 students, so students aren’t doomed to large lecture halls taught by graduate students.

The hallmark of NC State’s writing program is its “writing across the curriculum” model. It is not a unique approach; rather, it is so ubiquitous that US News does not rank “writing” programs—it ranks “writing across the disciplines” (the same as across the curriculum). The idea is that writing instruction needs to be integrated into classes beyond English departments rather than teaching it directly. “Writing is a tool to learning and therefore is the shared responsibility of all faculty,” said Pamela Flash. Communication is key in all academic fields, the thinking goes, so writing instruction needs to be applied in different disciplines. However, some research has questioned just how effective WAC can be in practice.

How writing across the curriculum is implemented at NC State is part of the Campus Writing and Speaking Program. Directed by Chris Anson, an English professor, the CWSP works with faculty and academic departments to improve the communication skills that employers said newly hired graduates lack. “We needed to help teachers to learn how to design effective assignments, evaluate them effectively and efficiently,” Anson said.

The CWSP consults with faculty on syllabi and teaching methods, offers writing workshops to improve writing and editing skills, and conducts seminars that present research on topics such as student writing habits. But for WAC to have an effect, teachers need to engage students by making sure they see a link between their writing and the course material. “If they think for a minute it’s busywork, it’s just fluff assigned and nothing happens to it, they’re not going to want to do it,” Anson said.

However, WAC is not always successful in making students better writers. Some research has found no difference in student writing ability, or meaningful improvement only when “writing was guided and written work was carefully and rigorously critiqued.” As David E. Harris and Robert Schaible argued in a generally positive literature review, “Most importantly, these studies demonstrate that only the most rigorous applications of WAC are significantly more effective than traditional teaching methods.”

So the CWSP trains teachers to recognize student mistakes early. For example, the CWSP recently hosted Sandra Jamieson, a professor at Drew University, who is a principal investigator with the Citation Project. The Citation Project researches how students use sources and the mistakes they make when citing them. She found that many students struggle to summarize what they read when writing papers. They either directly quote sources or “patchwrite,” which is essentially a failed summary that results in unintentional plagiarism. Keeping up with new research helps the CWSP teach faculty how to address and correct errors that students often make.

Making WAC work requires individuals who are dedicated to the program to sell faculty on changing their teaching habits. By virtue of it being voluntary and decentralized, navigating office politics and committing faculty to a years-long process requiring extra work—when professors are rewarded for research more than teaching—is a struggle. And when only dozens of professors cooperate with the WAC approach in a university with hundreds of professors, its effect can be limited.

Faculty and tutoring can only do so much without students doing the hard work required.

There is also a limit to how much can be expected from professors. Students need to take agency and commit themselves to improving their writing. Faculty and tutoring can only do so much without students doing the hard work required.

Gathering accurate data on how useful the approach is can be difficult too. At NC State, they conduct surveys and gather faculty feedback, trying to measure how student writing is improving, but it is even hard to say whether student outcomes drive improvements or whether teaching methods do.

Given the above problems, it is important not to oversell WAC as a way to make students better writers. Pushing students through a semester-long freshman writing course, then expecting professors to work through their mistakes piecemeal is a tall order. “Proving” success may be elusive regardless of how colleges teach writing.

The third component of NC State’s writing program is for students who need additional help.  If students want direct assistance, they turn to the writing and speaking tutorial services in NC State’s University Tutorial Center (UTC). Wendy VanDellon, the UTC assistant director who oversees the writing and speaking tutoring, says the goal is to teach students how to self-edit rather than act as an editing center. Tutors are usually other students. “The tutor is more of a guide and helper and not necessarily someone that’s there to reteach the student. And part of the reason why we do that is because we are trying to create independent learners,” she said.

However, students tend to use these services when they need help with specific projects rather than to improve their overall writing. Many students do not seek help until they miss a deadline or wait until the last minute which limits how much effect the tutoring can have.

The way Anson and others in the CWSP think about how to improve student writing shows their awareness of the problem. Anson acknowledged that it is tough to collect the desired data. But a willingness to integrate new research into the CWSP seems to keep him level-headed and focused on its mission. “We want [students] to be strong writers, strong oral communicators because the world of work works better and more efficiently as a result of those abilities,” he said.  To do so requires tough questions about how NC State teaches writing, even if already has a strong reputation.