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Study finds a lack of structure and cohesion in how writing is taught at university

HEQCO report raises concerns over the quality and design of writing assignments across disciplines.


A new report suggests universities and university instructors are doing a poor job of addressing undergraduate writing skills. A team of writing experts from Wilfrid Laurier University’s writing centre analyzed course syllabi, surveyed instructors and conducted focus groups to examine if and how writing assignments are being offered to first- and second-year students in business, kinesiology and history departments at five Ontario universities. Their findings were published last month by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

The researchers determined that on average students were given just 2.5 writing assignments per course, or about 12 assignments a year. The overall quality and design of these assignments, however, raised particular concerns for the team. Principal investigator Jordana Garbati said she was troubled by the fact that only 7.4 percent of syllabi they examined included a grading rubric for writing assignments. “Giving clear expectations of the assignment’s goals and the professor’s expectations in the form of a rubric or checklist would help communication between student and professor go a little bit more smoothly,” she said.

Another issue uncovered by the syllabi review was a lack of opportunity for students to receive early and consistent feedback on writing through peer-review exercises, instructor comments on early drafts, or through “nested” assignments (assignments broken down into several low-stakes components – an annotated bibliography followed by a proposal, a draft then the final report, for example). On average, one in five assignments was a nested assignment while only one in 20 explicitly offered opportunities for early feedback.

Dr. Garbati noted that several respondents suggested they often offered early feedback informally through email or office-hour consultations. “They left it up to the learner to come to them rather than providing feedback in class or through a peer-review session or through written comments on a draft,” she said. “When I was an undergrad … it was a really intimidating thing to do, to go talk to a professor during office hours,” she said.

The researchers outlined in the report several barriers that prevent instructors from engaging in writing instruction in their undergraduate courses, including a lack of time and resources (such as teaching assistants); little or no instruction or professional development in writing instruction; a perception of student disengagement and a lack of skill; and inconsistent departmental support.

While history students were expected to write almost twice as much as undergrads in the other disciplines, Dr. Garbati pointed out that the kinesiology faculty they tapped for a focus group offered a strong model of departmental cohesion and consistency in approaching undergraduate writing. “They knew what their expectations of students were in Year one versus Year two and so on. There was continuation,” she said. This was in contrast to the other departments investigated, which seemed to take a more “piecemeal” approach, she said.

As for the perception that students are underprepared and uninterested in writing, Dr. Garbati suggests instructors and departments focus instead on the skills and aptitudes students bring to the table. “Nobody wakes up one day knowing APA citation style … or the way that a scientist writes, or a historian writes,” she said. “Well, what do they know and how can we build on what they already know?”

That’s why John Cairney has assigned a blog-writing assignment in the second-year human growth and development course he’s teaching at McMaster University this fall. “I have a sense that most of the students taking the course know what a blog is and have read one. They understand that world and it makes sense to them,” he said. The assignment requires the 200-plus students in the course to read a few research articles and write a 500-word post for a concerned parent or coach on the issue of sport specialization in young children. The goal of the assignment isn’t to critique the readings but to synthesize the research and effectively communicate it to a non-specialist audience, Dr. Cairney said.

Very few of these students will go on to graduate-level training to become a researcher, he said, “but virtually all of them at some point in their lives will have to take very technical information and communicate that effectively.” To guide them, he’s presented his students with examples of general-audience research blogs, including the blog for his own Infant and Child Health Lab.

It’s just this kind of modelling that Dr. Garbati and her team suggest is needed to begin improving the quality of undergraduate writing. Dr. Cairney adds that improving and updating writing instruction is a responsibility that should be shouldered by those with tenure. “It’s important for tenured professors to come up with some solutions, to try things, to model those ideas and promote that sort of work so that it gives people the opportunity to see that there are degrees of freedom here that maybe they didn’t see before,” he said. Echoing the report’s conclusions, he added that this individual effort must be supported by change at the departmental and institutional levels. “It’s also about creating the appropriate structures so that the work that people do is recognized and rewarded in a fair way,” he said. “If you choose to do this, it’ll be recognized as a worthy pursuit and something that faculty members should be investing their time in.”

For those instructors who don’t know where to begin improving their writing pedagogy, Dr. Garbati recommended they approach writing from a co-teaching model in which the professor is the content expert and a writing centre consultant is the in-class writing expert. She said that at the very least, instructors and department heads should consult their school’s writing centre for support in identifying student writing goals, designing effective assignments, and developing strategies for approaching writing instruction.

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  1. Kevin Brushett / October 14, 2015 at 13:29

    While I agree with, and indeed practice, most of the recommendations here I think that post-secondary instructors also need to be careful of too much hand-holding. Part of engaging in university education is to encourage students to become more responsible for their own learning and to get them to work outside of their comfort zone. Yes, talking to professors can be intimidating, but isn’t asking questions and engaging others a life skill we should be encouraging? Rubrics, which are used extensively at the primary and secondary level, can also be useful, but they also have their limitations and can be crutch for both students and faculty where real engagement should be taking place. Overall, I agree that the best way for students to advance their writing skills is to practice, practice, practice and for professors to develop grading schemes that reward final achievements rather than abide strictly by the calculations of their mark spreadsheets.

  2. Andrea Williams / October 15, 2015 at 11:43

    Glad to see this report and its thoughtful recommendations get the attention it deserves. Writing specialists (whether located in writing centres or writing-across-the-curriculum programs) have an important role to play in supporting disciplinary faculty by directing them to evidence-based teaching methods such as the importance of providing students with timely and effective formative feedback. All too often faculty and TA hours are squandered making extensive comments on end-of-term papers that languish (unread) in filing cabinets instead of giving students feedback on work-in-progress when it still matters. We know a great deal about how students learn to write, but we need to ensure that faculty are are given the support they need to do so.

  3. Yenny Muñoz / July 14, 2021 at 02:36

    I believe it is interesting that the study finds a lack of structure and cohesion in how writing is taught at university because it means it could be improved. Moreover, it considers different main points to enhance writing. For instance, professors clear grading rubric with the student to have a realistic expectation, the early feedback to improve the student performance, and the bilateral communication between professor and student. Furthermore, if universities are focusing on this topic they may offer a strong model of departmental cohesion and consistency in approaching writing.