Most college faculty, regardless of their discipline, recognize that writing plays an important role in student learning. Writing enables students to investigate and communicate knowledge gained through research, it allows them to engage with and synthesize new ideas, and it gives them practice with genres and conventions relevant to their fields of study. These strong ties between writing and learning are why TCU requires all students to take two Writing Emphasis (WEM) courses. To qualify as WEM, a course must use writing to help students gain a working knowledge of the rhetorical conventions of a discipline, acquire and express understanding of disciplinary content, reinforce writing strategies learned in ENGL 10803 and ENGL 20803, and produce writing that demonstrates clarity and precision of thought. Even though we know that writing in content courses is good for students, incorporating writing in our classes effectively can sometimes seem like a daunting task. Is it worth it? Definitely.

In 2007, AAC&U’s LEAP Initiative identified writing as an essential competency for success in the twenty-first century (College Learning for the New Global Century AAC&U 2007). To achieve competency, writing must be “[p]racticed extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance” (Essential Learning Outcomes). Extensive opportunities for writing increase not only skill in writing, but also investment in learning. The AAC&U has consequently identified writing- intensive courses as one of ten high-impact educational practices with the potential to increase student engagement and retention, especially for students from historically underserved groups (Kuh).

What makes experiences such as first-year seminars, writing- intensive classes, internships, service learning, and capstone projects high impact? They require students to participate in active learning, push them beyond their comfort zone, connect them to the world outside school, and take advantage of students’ predilection for social learning.

Of course, merely assigning writing in content classes is no guarantee that students will learn more or better. In “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-institutional Study,” Paul Anderson et al. analyzed survey data gathered from 29,634 first-year students and 41,802 seniors representing 80 institutions in order to identify the features of students’ writing experiences that most strongly correlate with “deep learning,” as defined by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). When students experience deep learning, according to NSSE, they are able to synthesize new ideas and apply theories to new situations (higher- order learning); they integrate different perspectives and connect learning across different classes and experiences (integrative learning); and they critically analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their own positions and identify how their thinking has changed in response to learning (reflective learning). Anderson et al. found three features of students’ writing experiences that correlate significantly with deep learning: 1) interactive writing processes (opportunities to engage with others while writing), 2) meaning-making writing tasks, and 3) clear writing expectations (220). These writing experiences were also meaningfully related to three other NSSE scales for Practical Competence, Personal and Social Development, and General Education Learning.

Perhaps surprisingly, Anderson et al. found that “The amount of writing had practically no additional influence on any of the deep learning variables for first-year students or seniors” (222). This finding seems to undercut Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s lament in their 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses that half of the students in the study’s sample “had not taken a single course during the prior semester that required more than 20 pages of writing.” Based on Anderson et al.’s analysis, it is not the amount of writing but the nature of the writing experience that makes a difference in student learning. This is good news for faculty who dread grading stacks of long term papers at the end of the semester. If improved student learning is the goal of writing in content classes, faculty time could be better spent creating clear assignments and evaluation rubrics; guiding students through the process of choosing topics, conducting research, organizing their findings, and applying appropriate genre conventions; and providing opportunities for feedback, from peers and others, while students are in the process of writing, not after.

For faculty who want to use writing to maximize students’ engagement in learning, consider trying these strategies:

  • Make your expectations explicit.
  • Connect the assignment, learning outcomes, and assessment.
  • Assign writing that emphasizes meaning-making.
  • Provide opportunities for feedback while students are writing.
  • Value student reflection on their writing and learning.

Students have more to gain from writing than just success in school. In “Writing: A Ticket to Work… Or a Ticket Out” (2004) business leaders report that writing is seen as a “threshold skill” for hiring and promotion. Of course, claims about the importance of writing are perhaps outstripped only by complaints of students’ lack of writing competence. As Doug Hesse, Professor of English and Director of Writing at the University of Denver, recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, these complaints about the poor quality of students’ writing—and questions about how to improve it—have persisted since the beginning of required writing instruction in the 19th century. Thankfully, according to Hesse, after 50 years of research, we know what works in teaching composition: “Students learn to write by writing, by getting advice and feedback on their writing, and then writing some more.”


Anderson, Paul, et al. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-institutional Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.2 (2015): 199–235.

Arum, Richard and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. U of Chicago P, 2011.

College Learning for the New Global Century. AAC&U, 2007.

Essential Learning Outcomes.” AAC&U.

Doug Hesse, “We Know What Works in Teaching Composition.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Jan. 3, 2017.

George D. Kuh. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter, AAC&U, 2008.

The LEAP Vision for Learning: Outcomes, Practices, Impact, and Employers’ Views.” AAC&U. 2011.

National Commission on Writing, “Writing: A Ticket to Work… Or a Ticket Out.” College Board, 2004.

The TCU Core Curriculum Essential Competencies “Writing Emphasis.”

Written Communication Value Rubric.” AAC&U.

Carrie Leverenz

This article was written by Carrie Leverenz, Professor of English and Director of Composition for the Fall 2017 Issue of Insights Magazine.