Writing Assignments Are Scarce for Students in 2 Majors at Texas Colleges

Scott Dalton for The Chronicle

A student takes notes in a freshman composition course at a public university in Texas. For students at 10 Texas colleges who end up majoring in business or education, a Chronicle analysis found, that course could turn out to be one of the few in which they would be asked to write more than 10 pages.
January 18, 2011

Business people and schoolteachers build their vocations around words. But at some colleges, it is possible to earn a four-year undergraduate degree in business or education without ever doing much writing.

According to a Chronicle analysis of 10 public four-year institutions in Texas, business majors and education majors are typically exposed to only a handful of writing-intensive courses—fewer than five out of the 40 or so courses needed for a degree, on average, for business majors, and fewer than eight courses for education majors. By contrast, history majors typically take 14 courses that require 10 or more pages of writing.

The Chronicle's analysis echoes a critique of the college learning environment in the new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press). In it, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa describe a study that tracked more than 2,000 students enrolled at four-year colleges in the fall of 2005. Among those who graduated on time, in 2009, exactly half said they took five or fewer courses that required at least 20 pages of writing.

"If students are not being asked to read and write on a regular basis in their course work," Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa write, "it is hard to imagine how they will improve their capacity to master performance tasks ... that involve critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing."

But Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa's study has a limitation: They relied on the students' own memories of their writing assignments, a subjective gauge open to error. The Chronicle wanted to find a more-objective measure of students' course experiences. That came from hundreds of syllabi from Texas, where a recently enacted state law requires all undergraduate course information to be placed online. Chronicle reporters scrutinized a diverse group of 10 Texas institutions, including the flagship campuses of the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station. (See a fuller description of the methodology below.) The Chronicle focused on education and business because they are among the largest college majors, and because Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa found that students in those two majors tend to have weak gains on a national test of writing and reasoning.

Zane K. Quible, a professor emeritus of management at Oklahoma State University who is a longtime critic of the writing instruction offered to business students, says he is not surprised by the Texas patterns. "At most business schools," he said, "tenuring and promotion are awarded purely on the basis of research and publications. Most faculty members don't see it as a priority to help students improve their writing."

A Simplistic Approach?

Other scholars, however, say that it is a mistake for Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa (and for The Chronicle) to focus narrowly on simple page counts of writing. "I'm all in favor of writing-intensive courses," said Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement. "But that doesn't necessarily have to mean a huge number of pages. What we've discovered is that it is often more important to ask students to write multiple drafts and to get feedback on each draft."

Valerie M. Balester, executive director of the writing center at Texas A&M University at College Station, echoes that point. "For our writing-intensive courses, we require a minimum of 2,000 words of writing," she said. "That might sound low, but we've found that careful feedback is really what builds students' skills."

Others in Texas suggest that The Chronicle's analysis might be misleading because its working definition of "writing" is too rigid. The analysis does not include assignments in which students wrote collaboratively in small groups. It does not count assignments that had students compose most of the writing in the classroom. And it does not count assignments in which students were asked to write short reflections on each week's reading.

The Chronicle set those limits because Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa have argued that some of the most powerful ways to improve critical-thinking skills do not appear to be collaborative projects, but rather the assignments in which students slave away alone at the library, composing a sustained argument.

Relaxing those restrictions would alter the findings.

In the management major at Lamar University, for example, The Chronicle found that students were required to take just two courses that require 20 or more pages of writing, and four courses that require 10 to 19 pages. But if the analysis counted group projects, in-class projects, and reader-response projects, the number of courses that require 10 to 19 pages would double, to eight.

Similar large increases would occur in the bilingual-education major at Texas A&M's flagship campus. The Chronicle's analysis found that majors in that program are typically obliged to take no courses that require 20 or more pages of writing, and only six courses that require 10 to 19 pages of writing. But with the more lenient definition of writing assignments, the analysis estimates that those majors must take two courses that require 20 or more pages of writing, and 13 courses that require 10 to 19 pages.

Ambivalence About Shared Assignments

Ms. Balester, of Texas A&M, says she has mixed feelings about collaborative writing assignments. "Our writing center supports them because we know that many people will be expected to know how to write collaboratively in the workplace," she said. "But we are also realistic, and we understand that collaborative projects sometimes mean that not every student will do much writing." (For that reason, officially designated "writing intensive" courses at Ms. Balester's campus must have grades that are at least 35 percent based on individual writing.)

In any case, Ms. Balester says, writing requirements are much more substantial at Texas A&M than they were a decade ago. That point is supported by Emily Cantrell, a visiting assistant professor of education there. In an upper-level course last semester, she says, she assigned an eight-page research paper for which students had to submit multiple outlines and drafts. That kind of substantial writing assignment is far more common today than when she herself was an undergraduate in the same department a decade ago, Ms. Cantrell says.

Melissa Hudler, director of the writing center at Lamar University, is also ambivalent about the kinds of collaborative and short reader-response assignments that The Chronicle excluded in its analysis. "To support critical thinking," she said, "you definitely need longer assignments that require the student to sustain a thought process. But there is also value in short assignments. If students are asked to write short summary sentences instead of taking a multiple-choice quiz, that definitely helps build the flow of thought and the ability to articulate ideas."

It is probably not realistic, Ms. Hudler and others say, to expect most instructors to assign more full-length papers. If anything, there may be movement in the other direction, as the recession puts upward pressure on class sizes in Texas and elsewhere.

"If class sizes increase, instructors are going to be that much less likely to assign papers and give feedback," said Salvador Contreras, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas-Pan American.

A Troubling Pattern

The Chronicle's analysis of Texas syllabi cannot reveal anything definitive about the relative rigor of various majors. From this distance, it is impossible to know whether the dearth of traditional writing assignments in business and education courses means that students in those majors are actually being harmed.

But the numbers are troubling, Mr. Arum says, because of a pattern he and Ms. Roksa found in their national study. In their project, business and education majors reported that they study significantly fewer hours each week than other undergraduates. (On average, business majors said they studied 9.55 hours per week outside the classroom, and education majors said they studied 10.64 hours. The average for the entire pool of students in the study was 12.15 hours.)

Ms. Roksa says that it is costly for business and education majors—or any other college student—not to have extensive exposure to the kind of long writing assignments that build critical-thinking skills.

"Do we want teachers, for example, to know pedagogical theory but not to know how to think and analyze?" Ms. Roksa asked. "How much is it worth to have the subject-specific knowledge but not to have the critical-thinking skills that allow you to analyze and apply that knowledge?

"People change occupations today very frequently, particularly young college graduates. So you can have specific skills, but the question is, Is that enough?" she said. "Is that what we should expect of college graduates?"

How the Texas Syllabi Were Analyzed

The Chronicle looked at the official model course sequences for a business major and an education major at 10 public four-year colleges in Texas. (Here, for example, is the sequence for the management major at Texas A&M University at Commerce.)

The Chronicle's analysis then tracked the syllabi for all the courses in those sequences. It included almost everything: not just courses in the major, but also freshman composition and most other general-education courses. (It did not look at syllabi for courses in mathematics and laboratory science, assuming that in most such cases there would not be any substantial writing assignments.)

For courses that were offered in multiple sections by different instructors, The Chronicle sampled three syllabi and averaged the writing requirements for each section.

In cases in which students could choose from among several electives in the major, Chronicle reporters randomly selected courses to analyze. But in cases in which students were required to choose general electives outside their major and outside the core curriculum, The Chronicle did not do any analysis, under the assumption that in most cases students choose courses without substantial writing requirements.

If a syllabus said, for example, that a paper must be between five and nine pages long, the analysis used the midpoint of that range: seven pages. If a syllabus said that a paper must be "at least 10 pages long," The Chronicle assumed that students would on average submit papers of 125 percent of that length (12.5 pages, in this case). If the syllabus said that a paper must be "no more than 10 pages long," the analysis assumed that students would on average submit a paper of 80 percent of that length (eight pages, in this case).

If the syllabus gave assignments in word lengths rather than page lengths, The Chronicle assumed that one page equals 250 words. In the case of assignments where students were asked to compose, for example, five-minute speeches, the analysis assumed that one minute equals one page.

The Chronicle did not include group assignments, assignments for which it appeared that students would do most of the writing in the classroom, or assignments for which students were expected to write short reflections on each week's reading or to post short weekly reflections online.

The following departments were included in the analysis:

Angelo State University
The management major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, reading and language-arts concentration).

Lamar University
The management major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, reading and language-arts concentration).

Texas A&M International University
The marketing major.
The early-childhood-education major.

Texas A&M University at College Station
The management major.
The Hispanic-bilingual-education major.

Texas A&M University at Commerce
The management major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, reading and language-arts concentration).

Texas State University at San Marcos
The marketing major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, generalist concentration).

Texas Tech University
The marketing major.
The language arts/reading/social studies (education) major (grades 4 through 8).

University of Texas at Austin
The management major.
The English-as-a-second-language (education) major.

University of Texas at San Antonio
The management major (international-business concentration).
The education major (early childhood through grade 6, generalist concentration).

University of Texas at Tyler
The human-resource-development major.
The education major (early childhood through grade 6, generalist concentration).

Tushar Rae and Ben Wieder contributed to this article.