Ochsner, Robert, and Judy Fowler. “Playing Devil’s Advocate: Evaluating the Literature of the WAC/WID Movement.” Review of Educational Research 74.2 (2004): 117-140.
Ochsner and Fowler offer a history and critique of the Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID) movements in higher education. They suggest that the research does not support the claimed effects for these writing programs to have improved student learning. However, they do suggest that various types of writing, when used well, can be tools to improve student learning, but writing alone in and of itself is not a magic educational solution for anything except maybe writing itself. They state that “written literacy is just one intellectual tool among many others” (123), and various students may learn best by a variety of methods including by “ideas in films, group discussions, audio recordings, [and] hypermedia” (125). Writing can be useful, but it must be accompanied by instruction and reading, as some studies have reported, which the authors note. For our purposes, Ochsner and Fowler’s points are good to keep in mind. Base writing assignments around your learning outcomes. If an outcome can be reached better another way, then don’t feel pressured to use writing. However, if you want students to write better, then they will have to write. But don’t expect writing to learn exercises (where students use writing as a means of engaging material, but aren’t expected to produce polished prose) to always translate to better student writing overall as students will need explicit instruction to handle new writing genres and tasks (or, learning to write, as such writing goals are referred to in WAC/WID). Expecting students to just figure things out on their own will probably just leave them and you frustrated. You may not be a writing instructor per se, but you likely know how writing works in your field of expertise, so try to be explicit about how writing in your field works when you expect students to produce those kinds of texts, and you and your students will likely be more pleased with the results. Although the authors claim that “no assessment offers incontrovertible evidence and that measuring student learning can be a vexing challenge” (131), I think we can also agree that we usually recognize a good piece of writing when we read one. Of course, as the authors remind us, we need to define our terms carefully, for what constitutes a good piece of writing may vary from situation to situation, and discipline to discipline. And, as the authors note, “Any faculty member in any discipline may acquire expertise in teaching [writing], but no one becomes a capable writing teacher without considerable investment of time, and no one teaches writing effectively without being willing to spend considerable time working with students” (134). So, don’t expect a miracle when you work with students on writing; just aim for slightly better writing. If you’d like to read the article, it is available through the library’s “Journal Finder” tool.