Roger Graves and Theresa Hyland
University of Alberta / Huron University College
This study began, for us, in 2006. The writing program Roger directed at that time offered two versions of the introductory writing course: one for all students, and one (under a different course number) for students in the media or communications programs. As a program development goal, he thought that the sections for the media students could be tailored to the assignments that they would be writing in their subsequent media classes. After all, it was the media unit who requested that we create these sections for them with the idea being that this course would prepare students to write for the media courses; so it seemed to follow that adjusting the course to this end would be beneficial to all. Before we could redesign the writing course, however, it seemed prudent to explore what kinds of writing assignments students would face in their subsequent media courses. What writing assignments did professors give to media students?
We never did find that answer to that question. It turned out that the media instructors would not divulge to us anything about their instructional practices, including anything about the writing assignments they gave to students. But Theresa Hyland, a colleague at Huron University College and co-editor of this collection, was interested in gathering this kind of information from her institution with an eye toward improving the instruction she delivered through the writing centre she ran there. Her colleague, Boba Samuels, who at that time was a graduate student, instructor, and tutor at Western and other institutions, was interested in this research project, too, and so we began with the support of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at that time, Dr. Trish Fulton. Using data from nearby institutions, we published our first inventory of writing assignments in 2010 in Written Communication.
In that study we reported on all of the writing assignments given out to students in every course that the college offered--179 courses in all. We identified 448 writing assignments unevenly distributed across 17 departments in a wide range of genres--anything from briefing notes to concept maps to feasibility studies. We also found almost half of all assignments were named generically as essays, papers, or “assignments.” One surprising finding was that students were not asked to write more as they progressed through their degree: the number of writing assignments given to first year students was very similar to the number of writing assignments given to students in any other year. When instructors specified the length of assignments (about 60% of the time), we found that almost half of the assignments (45%) were less than 4 pages long, and almost three-quarters (73%) were less than 10 pages long. We also found that many instructors (44%) were using the tactic of creating linked or “nested” assignments where one assignment leads to another, subsequent written task. Few instructors gave explanations of grading criteria for their assignments in the syllabus, and few made any mention in the syllabus of giving feedback to students before assignments were handed in for grading. Students in first and second year courses were given the least amount of detail about expectations of instructors for their written work.
That investigation proved fruitful in many ways and lead directly to the work reported in this book. We wanted to know if what we had found in this one small, liberal arts college would be similar to departments at larger, more research-based universities. We also wanted to know if we could replicate the results from one smaller institution at other smaller institutions. Did the wide range of assignments we found also occur within other academic units or was it the product of the liberal arts context? In the second half of our Written Communication article we described two program profiles, one from a humanities department and one from a social sciences department. We took our cue from an article by Anson and Dannels (2009) who pointed us toward the idea that students experience a curriculum through their degree progress in an academic program. Consequently, we needed to map the writing assignments according to how different departments organized these degree programs. Put another way, this meant that while overall trends and results were interesting, results that were organized by curricular unit (departments, faculties or colleges, or programs/units) were more significant because students would progress through these courses to a degree.
As we continued to collect data from the course syllabi and present that data to the faculty, we began to realize that we needed to say more about faculty interaction with the research and the researchers and the follow-up measures that were taken or planned as a result of the research. Two chapters deal specifically with this theme: Conversations in the Attic questions faculty about how they viewed students’ writing, what growth they expected to see in senior writing assignments, and how they conveyed their expectations to the students. This material was then analysed to look at the differences that exist in the ways that professors talk about writing in the different disciplines, the metaphors they use when they teach students to meet the various tacit and explicit assumptions that they made. and how they vary in their use of external resources to educate students in disciplinary writing. In the chapter “Cross-Talk and Crossed Boundaries,” Theresa Hyland turned to Gifford’s theories of social dilemma awareness and Stern’s values, beliefs and norms theory to explain how and why faculty resisted some research initiatives and embraced others. These themes also figure in the Parker, Slomp and McKeown articles. All three researchers worked very closely with the faculty in order to understand the results of the research and to fashion strategies that would address problems that had been uncovered. In Parker’s case, new genres were added to the curriculum and the definition of good communication skills for engineers was refined. McKeown worked with faculty in focus groups to communicate the findings of the research but also to gauge faculty interest and to incite faculty to action to refine the writing practices in their departments. Departments agreed to have presentations from the writing researchers to look at the data and to determine a course of action for better integration of writing expectations into the course syllabi and the adoption of techniques such as nesting assignments. McKeown also looked to the students to understand the impact of faculty strategies on their writing. Her survey of graduating students confirmed some of the assertions that faculty made about the usefulness of verbal instructions over written instructions, and the need for specific audiences for some of the assignments. Williams’ article also mentions funding for follow-up studies and plans to develop departmental guidelines for writing assignment design and writing workshops for undergraduate students. Slomp’s article uses the course syllabi analysis as a starting point for the redesign of assignments, based on the data analysis of faculty and student comments. He described the process of creating and validating awareness in the faculty for a need for change and described how that change was initiated.