Writing—and Learning

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Sometime in mid-June 1977, I queued up with a whole lot of others in the Ohio State Stadium to receive my Ph.D. I had my first post-Ph.D. job—at the University of British Columbia—and the summer ahead to pack, move across the country, and relax.

But first, I had a bit of catch-up reading to do, like the May issue of College Composition and Communication, featuring Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” It’s a short article, and I remember reading it straight through and then straight through again. I knew Emig’s work, of course, and admired it (and her) tremendously. But this brief essay summed up so succinctly and so well the powerful connection between writing and learning that it practically took my breath away. In Emig’s view, writing “involves the fullest possible functioning of the brain.” With writing, she says, “all three ways of dealing with actuality are simultaneously or almost simultaneously deployed” (10). Those three ways, “enactive,” (learning by doing), “iconic,” (learning through images), and “representational or symbolic,” (restating in words) encapsulate the active, participatory, originary, collaborative view of writing that we celebrate today. But Emig wrote this almost forty years ago. I’ve gone back to that essay a number of times over the years, particularly to rethink what she says about speaking and listening. But as for writing and its deep interconnection with learning: she nailed it.

Much more recently, I’ve read with great interest Paul Anderson, Chris Anson, Robert Gonyea, and Charles Paine’s report on The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development,” a study conducted in collaboration with the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This study draws on data collected from some 30,000 frosh and 40,000 seniors at 80 U.S. undergraduate institutions. These individuals responded to special questions added to the NSSE survey, questions about writing and about learning, based on twenty-seven effective writing practices identified by a panel of WPA members. In analyzing the student responses, the research team confirmed many of Emig’s insights, eventually naming three factors that are particularly related to higher-order, integrative learning: interactive writing practices, meaning-making writing tasks, and clear writing expectations.

“Interactive writing practices” reflect the participatory, give-and-take ways of learning that the students in the Stanford Study of Writing identified as THE most important factor in their development as thinkers and writers. So learning by doing, as Emig noted, is crucial. In the recent study, writing assignments turn out to be crucial as well: those that call for rote response or for a paint-by-the-numbers approach do not forward student development in the ways that those asking them to make meanings of their own do. Another echo of Emig. I don’t remember Janet talking about clear expectations explicitly, but the protocols she used with the twelfth grade writers certainly embodied such expectations.

Teachers of writing will immediately recognize the importance of the factors identified in “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development.” Some may, along with me, hear echoes of earlier work, including that of Janet Emig. But what the current research team has done is to provide “hard” empirical evidence for the relationship between these factors and student learning, evidence that is extremely useful to all of higher education but especially to those who are struggling to build and sustain rigorous writing programs in a time of huge pressure to slash budgets. So I am very grateful for the work of Anderson, Anson, Gonyea, and Paine, and look forward to their ongoing work. If you haven’t already read it, check it out!

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.