Academic journal article Education

The Relationship between Writing Centers and Improvement in Writing Ability: An Assessment of the Literature

Academic journal article Education

The Relationship between Writing Centers and Improvement in Writing Ability: An Assessment of the Literature

Article excerpt


Since the early 1970s the writing center has become a ubiquitous feature of American universities, colleges, and high schools. Not only has the writing center "movement" enjoyed astounding momentum, its core theoretical assumption--that writing is a fluid learning "process" which takes place in an active social context--has received widespread adoption within academia and is rapidly supplanting the traditional "product" approach to composition teaching practice. In light of this growth and its transformational implications, the question naturally arises: Does student participation in writing center activities generate improvements in student writing ability?

A great deal has been written about writing centers during the past two decades or so. Indeed, Christina Murphy, Joe Law and Steve Sherwood note in their full-length bibliography on this topic that "the research on writing centers is vast and far-reaching" (1996 p.xi). Nevertheless, as Stephen North (1984a, 1984b, 1985) observed more than a decade ago and other scholars (e.g., Bell, 1989; Bushman, 1991) have since re-affirmed, there are enormous gaps in the existing literature on writing centers. An exhaustive search of the literature reveals that only a handful of researchers have attempted to evaluate the performance of writing centers in enhancing student writing skills through the use of empirical study designs. Furthermore, even these studies are of suspect validity and limited reliability.

In assessing the existing body of research on writing centers, one is tempted to make a comparison with the long-standing cornerstone of the self-help support group movement, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Given the anonymity of the program, it is very difficult to conduct quantitative analyses of outcomes, and empirical studies are few in number and limited in methodology. However, the testimony of individuals who credit AA with transforming their lives is legendary. Over more than 60 years, the organization has achieved international status, spawned dozens of self-help groups based on the 12 Steps or similar principles, and has been incorporated into numerous institutional programs.

In a similar fashion, writing centers proliferate on high school and college campuses. Today, Murphy, Law, and Sherwood have recently observed, "it is a rare high school, community college or university that does not have a writing center" (1996, p.vii). In addition to the physical writing facilities are the growing number of online writing labs (OWLS), virtual writing centers that provide students with easy access to online resources and tutoring, as well as the opportunity to hone their writing skills through e-mail communication (Anderson-Inman, 1997; Harris, 1995a).

Despite their very different agendas, both AA and writing labs have similar features that make them appealing. Both promote peer interaction and draw on the use of peer reinforcement and feedback. Both encourage their members to take ownership of a process, recovery in one instance, writing in the other. Herein lies the distinction that confounds the researchers on writing centers. While the structure of AA complicates empirical research, the desired outcome, sobriety, can be clearly defined and measured. The clear-cut assessment of writing performance is a far more elusive task. Hayes, Hatch and Silk (2000) note that not only do writing assignments of different types call on different skills, but because writing is less well-defined than most academic tasks, writing performance may be especially sensitive to student motivation.

In addressing the question of portfolio assessment, which is gaining increasing acceptance, Hayes et al. (2000) acknowledge two distinctively different approaches. In one perspective, the primary goal of writing assessment is the evaluation of writing ability, which should facilitate writing performance across a broad range of writing assignments. …

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