Monday, April 4, 2011

2008 study of college freshman writing finds papers have gotten longer, more analytical

Even though this study is three years old (and the data is even older having been collected in 2006), you may still find it interesting. "Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study" by Andrea Lunsford & Karen Lunsford published at 59 College Composition and Communication 781 (2008). Contrary to many reports that students are assigned shorter and less analytical writing projects by their college professors, this study found just the opposite as compared to similar data gathered during the mid-80's. Here's an excerpt:

What We Found: Two Major Shifts

Before we turn to a discussion of the particular formal errors in these essays, we want to note two major shifts that have taken place during the last two decades. First, we found that our sense that these papers were quite a bit longer than those in the Connors and Lunsford study was accurate: in fact, these papers turned out to be, on average, over two-and-a-half times longer than those in the previous study. In a further analysis, we found that papers in our sample ranged from a scant 1.5 pages to a densely written 23 pages, and we calculated from the total pages that the average length was 4.15 pages. Assuming the standard 250 words per full page, we calculated that the average number of words was 1,038 per paper. Thus, as Table 5 indicates, research across the decades demonstrates that college student essays have grown longer and longer with time.


The second trend we noted is a sea change in the types of papers teachers are asking students to write in first-year writing classes. Although the first study included some reports and a fair number of readings of (mostly) literary texts, the majority of the papers were personal narratives. When we analyzed the kinds of papers represented in this study, we found a range of paper types, as indicated in Table 6.


These results strongly suggest that emphasis on personal narrative has been replaced by an emphasis on argument and research. This finding is supported by Richard Fulkerson's recent map of our discipline, which points to the tremendous growth of argumentation-based textbooks in the last twenty years, despite wide differences in approaches to composition courses (672). Likewise, these results confirm a finding offered by Kathi Yancey and her colleagues: in a national survey of writing programs, an "overwhelming" majority of teachers indicated that they focus on argument- and research-based writing. Together, the two shifts we have identified suggest that student writers today are tackling the kind of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection and that students are writing more than ever before.

Has this trend reversed in recent years as the result of mobile communication technology (did texting even exist in 2006?) - I'm sure some would argue that's the case.

You can read the full Lansford and Lansford study here.


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