Studies Explore Whether the Internet
Makes Students Better Writers

Studies Explore Whether the Internet Makes Students Better Writers

As a student at Stanford University, Mark Otuteye wrote in any medium he could find. He wrote blog posts, slam poetry, to-do lists, teaching guides, e-mail and Facebook messages, diary entries, short stories. He wrote a poem in computer code, and he wrote a computer program that helped him catalog all the things he had written.

But Mr. Otuteye hated writing academic papers. Although he had vague dreams of becoming an English professor, he saw academic writing as a ”soulless exercise“ that felt like ”jumping through hoops.“ When given a writing assignment in class, he says, he would usually adopt a personal tone and more or less ignore the prompt.

”I got away with it,“ says Mr. Otuteye, who graduated from Stanford in 2006. ”Most of the time.“

The rise of online media has helped raise a new generation of college students who write far more, and in more-diverse forms, than their predecessors did. But the implications of the shift are hotly debated, both for the future of students’ writing and for the college curriculum.

Some scholars say that this new writing is more engaged and more connected to an audience, and that colleges should encourage students to bring lessons from that writing into the classroom. Others argue that tweets and blog posts enforce bad writing habits and have little relevance to the kind of sustained, focused argument that academic work demands.

A new generation of longitudinal studies, which track large numbers of students over several years, is attempting to settle this argument. The ”Stanford Study of Writing,“ a five-year study of the writing lives of Stanford students —including Mr. Otuteye —is probably the most extensive to date.

In a shorter project, undergraduates in a first-year writing class at Michigan State University were asked to keep a diary of the writing they did in any environment, whether blogging, text messaging, or gaming. For each act of writing over a two-week period, they recorded the time, genre, audience, location, and purpose of their writing.

”What was interesting to us was how small a percentage of the total writing the school writing was,“ says Jeffrey T. Grabill, the study’s lead author, who is director of the Writing in Digital Environments Research Center at Michigan State. In the diaries and in follow-up interviews, he says, students often described their social, out-of-class writing as more persistent and meaningful to them than their in-class work was.

”Digital technologies, computer networks, the Web —all of those things have led to an explosion in writing,“ Mr. Grabill says. ”People write more now than ever. In order to interact on the Web, you have to write.“

Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor of English at Florida State University and a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, calls the current period ”the age of composition“ because, she says, new technologies are driving a greater number of people to compose with words and other media than ever before.

”This is a new kind of composing because it’s so variegated and because it’s so intentionally social,“ Ms. Yancey says. Although universities may not consider social communication as proper writing, it still has a strong influence on how students learn to write, she says. ”We ignore it at our own peril.“

But some scholars argue that students should adapt their writing habits to their college course work, not the other way around. Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, cites the reading and writing scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which have remained fairly flat for decades. It is a paradox, he says: ”Why is it that with young people reading and writing more words than ever before in human history, we find no gains in reading and writing scores?“

The Right Writing

Determining how students develop as writers, and why they improve or not, is difficult. Analyzing a large enough sample of students to reach general conclusions about how the spread of new technologies affects the writing process, scholars say, is a monumental challenge.

The sheer amount of information that is relevant to a student’s writing development is daunting and difficult to collect: formal and informal writing, scraps of notes and diagrams, personal histories, and fleeting conversations and thoughts that never make it onto the printed page.

The Stanford study is trying to collect as much of that material as possible. Starting in 2001, researchers at the university began collecting extensive writing samples from 189 students, roughly 12 percent of the freshman class. Students were given access to a database where they could upload copies of their work, and some were interviewed annually about their writing experiences. By 2006 researchers had amassed nearly 14,000 pieces of writing.

Students in the study ”almost always“ had more enthusiasm for the writing they were doing outside of class than for their academic work, says Andrea A. Lunsford, the study’s director. Mr. Otuteye submitted about 700 pieces of writing and became the study’s most prolific contributor.

The report’s authors say they included nonacademic work to better investigate the links between academic and nonacademic writing in students’ writing development. One of the largest existing longitudinal studies of student writing, which started at Harvard University in the late 1990s, limited its sample to academic writing, which prevented researchers from drawing direct conclusions about that done outside of class.

In looking at students’ out-of-class writing, the Stanford researchers say they found several traits that were distinct from in-class work. Not surprisingly, the writing was self-directed; it was often used to connect with peers, as in social networks; and it usually had a broader audience.

The writing was also often associated with accomplishing an immediate, concrete goal, such as organizing a group of people or accomplishing a political end, says Paul M. Rogers, one of the study’s authors. The immediacy might help explain why students stayed so engaged, he says. ”When you talked to them about their out-of-class writing, they would talk about writing to coordinate out-of-class activity,“ says Mr. Rogers, an assistant professor of English at George Mason University. ”A lot of them were a lot more conscious of the effect their writing was having on other people.“

Mr. Rogers believes from interviews with students that the data in the study will help show that students routinely learn the basics of writing concepts wherever they write the most. For instance, he says, students who compose messages for an audience of their peers on a social-networking Web site were forced to be acutely aware of issues like audience, tone, and voice.

”The out-of-class writing actually made them more conscious of the things writing teachers want them to think about,“ the professor says.

Mr. Otuteye, who recently started a company that develops Web applications, says he paid close attention to the writing skills of his peers at Stanford as the co-founder of a poetry slam. It was the students who took their out-of-class writing seriously who made the most progress, he says. ”Everybody was writing in class, but the people who were writing out of and inside of class, that was sort of critical to accelerating their growth as writers.“

Although analysis of the Stanford study is still at an early stage, other scholars say they would like to start similar studies. At the University of California, several writing researchers say they are trying to get financial support for a longitudinal study of 300 students on the campuses in Irvine, Santa Barbara, and Davis.

Curricular Implications

The implications of the change in students’ writing habits for writing and literature curricula are up for debate. Much of the argument turns on whether online writing should be seen as a welcome new direction or a harmful distraction.

Mr. Grabill, from Michigan State, says college writing instruction should have two goals: to help students become better academic writers, and to help them become better writers in the outside world. The second, broader goal is often lost, he says, either because it is seen as not the college’s responsibility, or because it seems unnecessary.

”The unstated assumption there is that if you can write a good essay for your literature professor, you can write anything,“ Mr. Grabill says. ”That’s utter nonsense.“

The writing done outside of class is, in some ways, the opposite of a traditional academic paper, he says. Much out-of-class writing, he says, is for a broad audience instead of a single professor, tries to solve real-world problems rather than accomplish academic goals, and resembles a conversation more than an argument.

Rather than being seen as an impoverished, secondary form, online writing should be seen as ”the new normal,“ he says, and treated in the curriculum as such: ”The writing that students do in their lives is a tremendous resource.“

Ms. Yancey, at Florida State, says out-of-class writing can be used in a classroom setting to help students draw connections among disparate types of writing. In one exercise she uses, students are asked to trace the spread of a claim from an academic journal to less prestigious forms of media, like magazines and newspapers, in order to see how arguments are diluted. In another, students are asked to pursue the answer to a research question using only blogs, and to create a map showing how they know if certain information is trustworthy or not.

The idea, she says, is to avoid creating a ”fire wall“ between in-class and out-of-class writing.

”If we don’t invite students to figure out the lessons they’ve learned from that writing outside of school and bring those inside of school, what will happen is only the very bright students“ will do it themselves, Ms. Yancey says. ”It’s the rest of the population that we’re worried about.“

Writing in electronic media probably does benefit struggling students in a rudimentary way, says Emory’s Mr. Bauerlein, because they are at least forced to string sentences together: ”For those kids who wouldn’t be writing any words anyway, that’s going to improve their very low-level skills.“

But he spends more of his time correcting, not integrating, the writing habits that students pick up outside of class. The students in his English courses often turn in papers that are ”stylistically impoverished,“ and the Internet is partly to blame, he says. Writing for one’s peers online, he says, encourages the kind of quick, unfocused thought that results in a scarcity of coherent sentences and a limited vocabulary.

”When you are writing so much to your peers, you’re writing to other 17-year-olds, so your vocabulary is going to be the conventional vocabulary of the 17-year-old idiom,“ Mr. Bauerlein says.

Students must be taught to home in on the words they write and to resist the tendency to move quickly from sentence to sentence, he says. Writing scholars, too, should temper their enthusiasm for new technologies before they have fully understood the implications, he says. Claims that new forms of writing should take a greater prominence in the curriculum, he says, are premature.

”The sweeping nature of their pronouncements to me is either grandiose or flatulent, or you could say that this is a little irresponsible to be pushing for practices so hard that are so new,“ Mr. Bauerlein says. ”We don’t know what the implications of these things will be. Slow down!“

Deborah Brandt, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who studies the recent history of reading and writing, says the growth of writing online should be seen as part of a broader cultural shift toward mass authorship. Some of the resistance to a more writing-centered curriculum, she says, is based on the view that writing without reading can be dangerous because students will be untethered to previous thought, and reading levels will decline.

But that view, she says, is ”being challenged by the literacy of young people, which is being developed primarily by their writing. They’re going to be reading, but they’re going to be reading to write, and not to be shaped by what they read.“

By Josh Keller

The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 11, 2009