The Power of Writing in College

What is the biggest challenge college professors face in today’s collegiate classroom?

There may be no definitive answer to this question, but I bet if you surveyed professors nationwide you would find “engaging students” to be a popular response.

Many professors long to see students interact more during class, discuss interesting lectures with their peers and deeply contemplate course material. Unfortunately, most see only a small handful of students actively engaged in learning. While it’s tempting to place the blame on passive undergrads, instructors have tremendous influence over the student experience through the format of their class and the assignments they offer.

A 2008 study at 386 four-year colleges and universities found that writing might be able to help professors out. The study conducted by the National Survey of Student Engagement and published by USA Today found that “writing in college is associated with the kinds of learning that professors and higher-education institutions say they believe is most significant.”

Learning, as suggested by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, happens when students are engaged in the process of drafting, reading and revising their work through dialogue, reflections, and formative feedback from peers and instructors.

Our own studies with SAGrader show students improve their writing performance when encouraged to revise their work. Revision itself, however, is not enough to improve learning. Students need to receive timely, substantive feedback on their work in order to properly reevaluate their rough drafts and create quality final products. The most powerful teachable moments occur when students have motivation, information, opportunity and feedback.

The real story is that good writing assignments are definitely a good thing. When courses provide extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, the NSSE report found, students engage in a variety of positive activities. They are more likely to analyze, synthesize and integrate ideas from various sources. They grapple more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. And they report greater personal, social, practical and academic development.

Why do multiple draft assignments work? Because students are urged to consider ideas more than once. A multiple draft assignment tells students the material they are learning is important and must be given ample consideration. In addition, students have the opportunity to go back and revisit their notes and lectures when they realize their first draft has missed vital pieces of information for the assignment. This kind of writing process “is positively related to student gains in learning and to student-faculty interaction.”

So, if you need to jump start your college course, try incorporating multiple-revision writing assignments. It’s one of the best ways to engage students.

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