The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools by Kristen Purcell, Judy Buchanan, Linda Friedrich

Summary of Findings

Overview

A survey of 2,462 Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers finds that digital technologies are shaping student writing in myriad ways and have also become helpful tools for teaching writing to middle and high school students.  These teachers see the internet and digital technologies such as social networking sites, cell phones and texting, generally facilitating teens’ personal expression and creativity, broadening the audience for their written material, and encouraging teens to write more often in more formats than may have been the case in prior generations.  At the same time, they describe the unique challenges of teaching writing in the digital age, including the “creep” of informal style into formal writing assignments and the need to better educate students about issues such as plagiarism and fair use.

The AP and NWP teachers surveyed see today’s digital tools having tangible, beneficial impacts on student writing

Overall, these AP and NWP teachers see digital technologies benefitting student writing in several ways:

  • 96% agree (including 52% who strongly agree) that digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience”
  • 79% agree (23% strongly agree) that these tools “encourage greater collaboration among students”
  • 78% agree (26% strongly agree) that digital technologies “encourage student creativity and personal expression”

The combined effect of these impacts, according to this group of AP and NWP teachers, is a greater investment among students in what they write and greater engagement in the writing process.

At the same time, they worry that students’ use of digital tools is having some undesirable effects on their writing, including the “creep” of informal language and style into formal writing

In focus groups, these AP and NWP teachers shared some concerns and challenges they face teaching writing in today’s digital environment.  Among them are:

  • an increasingly ambiguous line between “formal” and “informal” writing and the tendency of some students to use informal language and style in formal writing assignments
  • the increasing need to educate students about writing for different audiences using different “voices” and “registers”
  • the general cultural emphasis on truncated forms of expression, which some feel are hindering students willingness and ability to write longer texts and to think critically about complicated topics
  • disparate access to and skill with digital tools among their students
  • challenging the “digital tool as toy” approach many students develop in their introduction to digital tools as young children

Survey results reflect many of these concerns, though teachers are sometimes divided on the role digital tools play in these trends.  Specifically:

  • 68% say that digital tools make students more likely—as opposed to less likely or having no impact—to take shortcuts and not put effort into their writing
  • 46% say these tools make students more likely to “write too fast and be careless”
  • Yet, while 40% say today’s digital technologies make students more likely to “use poor spelling and grammar” another 38% say they make students LESS likely to do this

Overall, these AP and NWP teachers give their students’ writing skills modest marks, and see areas that need attention

Asked to assess their students’ performance on nine specific writing skills, AP and NWP tended to rate their students “good” or “fair” as opposed to “excellent” or “very good.”  Students were given the best ratings on their ability to “effectively organize and structure writing assignments” with 24% of teachers describing their students as “excellent” or “very good” in this area. Students received similar ratings on their ability to “understand and consider multiple viewpoints on a particular topic or issue.”  But ratings were less positive for synthesizing material into a cohesive piece of work, using appropriate tone and style, and constructing a strong argument. 

These AP and NWP teachers gave students the lowest ratings when it comes to “navigating issues of fair use and copyright in composition” and “reading and digesting long or complicated texts.”  On both measures, more than two-thirds of these teachers rated students “fair” or “poor.”

Figure 1

Majorities of these teachers incorporate lessons about fair use, copyright, plagiarism, and citation in their teaching to address students’ deficiencies in these areas

In addition to giving students low ratings on their understanding of fair use and copyright, a majority of AP and NWP teachers also say students are not performing well when it comes to “appropriately citing and/or referencing content” in their work.  This is fairly common concern among the teachers in the study, who note how easy it is for students today to copy and paste others’ work into their own and how difficult it often is to determine the actual source of much of the content they find online.  Reflecting how critical these teachers view these skills:

  • 88% (across all subjects) spend class time “discussing with students the concepts of citation and plagiarism”
  • 75% (across all subjects) spend class time “discussing with students the concepts of fair use and copyright”

A plurality of AP and NWP teachers across all subjects say digital tools make teaching writing easier

Despite some challenges, 50% of these teachers (across all subjects) say the internet and digital tools make it easier for them to teach writing, while just 18% say digital technologies make teaching writing more difficult.  The remaining 31% see no real impact.

Figure 2

Positive perceptions of the potential for digital tools to aid educators in teaching writing are reflected in practice:

  • 52% of AP and NWP teachers say they or their students use interactive whiteboards in their classes
  • 40% have students share their work on wikis, websites or blogs
  • 36% have students edit or revise their own work and 29% have students edit others’ work using collaborative web-based tools such as GoogleDocs

In focus groups, teachers gave a multitude of examples of the value of these collaborative tools, not only in teaching more technical aspects of writing but also in being able to “see their students thinking” and work alongside students in the writing process.  Moreover, 56% say digital tools make their students more likely to write well because they can revise their work easily.

These middle and high school teachers continue to place tremendous value on “formal writing”

While they see writing forms and styles expanding in the digital world, AP and NWP teachers continue to place tremendous value on “formal writing” and try to use digital tools to impart fundamental writing skills they feel students need.  Nine in ten (92%) describe formal writing assignments as an “essential” part of the learning process, and 91% say that “writing effectively” is an “essential” skill students need for future success. 

More than half (58%) have students write short essays or responses on a weekly basis, and 77% assigned at least one research paper during the 2011-2012 academic year.  In addition, 41% of AP and NWP teachers have students write weekly journal entries, and 78% had their students create a multimedia or mixed media piece in the academic year prior to the survey. 

Almost all AP and NWP teachers surveyed (94%) encourage students to do some of their writing by hand

Alongside the use of digital tools to promote better writing, almost all AP and NWP teachers surveyed say they encourage their students to do at least some writing by hand.  Their reasons are varied, but many teachers noted that because students are required to write by hand on standardized tests, it is a critical skill for them to have.  This is particularly true for AP teachers, who must prepare students to take AP exams with pencil and paper.  Other teachers say they feel students do more active thinking, synthesizing, and editing when writing by hand, and writing by hand discourages any temptation to copy and paste others’ work. 

Complete report

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