How Students Feel about Writing Across the Curriculum
Teresa M. Redd, Associate Professor
Gerald Washington, Assistant Professor
Department of English
Washington, DC 20059
From the spring of 1993 to the spring of 1994, the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program at Howard University mounted its first 15 writing-intensive courses in the disciplines: six in the Humanities, four in the Social Sciences, and five in the Natural Sciences. A total of 181 students completed the courses. We believed these WAC courses would improve students' writing and learning, but how did the students feel about them? So far we have found that some students were "going wacky" because of the paper load, but most were "going WAC-ky" in a positive sense: They felt that the writing in WAC courses was worthwhile, especially as a tool for learning.
Survey of Writing-Intensive Courses
We collected anonymous questionnaires from all 15 WAC courses during the last week of class. Approximately three quarters of the students who completed the courses filled out a Likert-type attitude scale, and most also wrote comments. In general, the students agreed that their WAC courses had helped them think critically, read carefully, organize their thoughts, understand the lessons, and reinforce Freshman English writing skills. The pattern of results was similar across disciplines. On a scale of 1 to 4, students gave the highest ratings to WAC's effects on their thinking (M = 3.46) and reading (M = 3.41). Many of the students singled out the journal as an effective thinking tool. Overall, students felt that WAC courses were valuable (M = 3.37), particularly in the Social Sciences.
On the other hand, most students claimed that their WAC course had not helped them master the text conventions of the discipline (M = 2.86), especially in the Natural Sciences. The most strident complaints came from a number of students in the Evolution class who resented having to write so much. However, several students in other classes requested more writing assignments.
Focus Group Sessions
To explore the students' reactions further, we recorded focus group sessions with students in five courses, a biology lab course (Ecology), a math course (Calculus II), a political theory course (Political Analysis), a history course (Black Diaspora II), and a course on German culture (Individual and Society). With one exception, the majority of the students in each course participated.
All of the classes felt that writing had enhanced their learning. The writing assignments helped them understand and remember, as the following comments reveal:
Many of the students claimed that the WAC course had dramatically improved their thinking. For instance, a Political Analysis student explained, "[T]he writing is fairly important because when you're in a closed or isolated environment writing papers, it will just start to open up your thoughts and it will just start flowing."
Improved thinking was closely tied to improved reading. "Everything we read, you pay attention to . . . since we knew that could be a possible journal entry," an Individual & Society student recalled. "We said, 'Okay, let me highlight this sentence. . . .'"
Fewer students claimed to be better writers as a result of the WAC courses. The most positive remarks about writing improvement came from the Social Sciences classes. "I think I'm definitely a better writer from taking this course," a Black Diaspora student declared, "simply because it forced me to challenge my conventional methods of taking material [by] summarizing, synthesizing, critiquing it and then writing about it."
We have reason to believe that writing was improving the students' learning as they reported. We found supporting evidence when we looked at the final exam grades for paired classes (i.e., WAC and non-WAC sections of a course taught by the same teacher). The 8 students in the WAC section of Black Diaspora earned higher grades (M = 3.50) than the 14 non-WAC students who took the exam (M = 2.71). Likewise, the 7 students in the WAC section of Greek Drama earned more points on their final exam (M = 91) than the 16 non-WAC students who took the exam (M = 79).
Because of the small sample sizes, we cannot determine whether these differences are statistically significant. However, when we compared the classes, we found another noteworthy contrast: The Black Diaspora teacher gave the WAC term papers higher grades than the non-WAC term papers (M =3.75 vs. M = 2.91), and so did two holistic raters (M = 3.55 vs. M = 2.75). Yet the WAC section of Black Diaspora rated their writing instruction lower than the non-WAC section did. Perhaps the WAC students entered the course with higher expectations since the course was writing-intensive.
In general, students reported that the writing in their WAC courses was valuable, particularly as a tool for learning the subject matter of the discipline. However, they were not as satisfied with their writing improvement, especially their mastery of text conventions. We hope to pinpoint the problem as the program matures and research continues. In the meantime, such problems have not dissuaded our students from enrolling in WAC courses in increasing numbers: They have truly "gone WAC-ky."