Recognizing challenges to developing undergraduate engineering students’ writing, our College of Engineering invited instructional innovation proposals to tackle this issue. Bringing together faculty and graduate students from engineering and writing studies, our team proposed first researching current undergraduate writing instruction in engineering at our large research university. We applied a mixed methods approach, including administering surveys, conducting discourse-based interviews, collecting course documents, and analyzing curricular pathways. Our team also examined best practices found in writing studies research. We found that current writing assignments are rarely well aligned with professional genres, that current writing instruction often does not employ best practices from the writing studies literature, and that departmental curricula do not distribute writing across the four-year programs.
Few genres are currently being taught to students, and these genres tend to be instructional rather than representing genres used by professionals in their fields . Fluency in professional genres is needed for students to develop communication skills within their disciplines and, consequently, their professional identities . Incorporating more professional genres and an awareness of genres in our courses will foster students’ genre flexibility, better preparing them for the workplace.
Our analysis of survey and course materials indicates that writing is viewed primarily as a product, not a process. Our engineering courses rarely facilitate awareness of the operations that lead to a written product, and writing assignments often do not include structured revision or opportunities for students to reflect on their writing processes. We conclude that, to effectively develop students’ writing skills, both instructors and students must shift their principal conception to writing-as-process [3,4], and writing instruction and assignments must embody that concept.
Our analysis also found that engineering instructors’ current response practices often do not incorporate evidence-based practices from writing studies. Many instructors reported inefficient and ineffective response methods, such as line editing. We believe that educating engineering instructors about well-established, more efficient writing studies practices [4,5,6], such as prioritized, selective feedback will benefit both faculty and students.
Survey data and analysis of curricular pathways suggest that writing instruction is sparse and scattered in majors, that some engineering undergraduates may not write within their discipline until their third or fourth year of college, and that some receive little or no disciplinary writing instruction during their entire college career. We argue that writing instruction and practice should be integrated into existing disciplinary courses across all four years of undergraduate instruction [e.g., 7,8].
These findings suggested the potential for substantive improvements. In the second year of our project, we are continuing the research and expanding our community of practice to other engineering faculty who teach courses that have a significant writing component. Specifically, we have organized a weekly working group to learn about and implement effective and scalable practices for writing instruction in engineering. We intend to use this faculty-working-group approach as a basis for implementing vertical integration of writing across all four years in two large test departments.
1. S. Conrad, and T. J. Pfeiffer, “Preliminary Analysis of Student and Workplace Writing in Civil Engineering” in 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC, CA, June 26-29, 2011. https://peer.asee.org/18801
2. M. Poe, N. Lerner, and J. Craig, Learning to Communicate in Science and Engineering: Case Studies from MIT. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
3. L. Flower, J.R. Hayes, “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing,” College Composition and Communication vol. 32 (4), pp. 365-387, 1981.
4. A. Herrington, “Assignment and Response: Teaching with Writing Across the Disciplines,” in A Rhetoric of Doing: Essays on Written Discourse in Honor of James L. Kinneavy, S. P. Witte, N. Nakadate, and R. D. Cherry, Eds. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. 244-260.
5. D. Ferris, Response to Student Writing: Implications for Second Language Students. New York: Routledge, 2003.
6. D. Ferris, “Responding to student writing: Teachers’ philosophies and practices.” Assessing Writing, vol. 19 pp. 6-23, 2014.
7. R. S. Harichandran, D. J. Adams, M. A. Collura, N. O. Erdil, W. D. Harding, J. Nocito-Gobel, and A. Thompson, “An Integrated Approach to Developing Technical Communication Skills in Engineering Students” in 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, IN, USA, June 15-18, 2014. https://peer.asee.org/20060
8. V.M. Jovanovic, D. Tombolato-Terzic, D. P. Richards, P. Pazos, M. McKittrick, J. Romberger, and O. Popescu, “Developing a Faculty Learning Community to Support Writing across Different STEM Disciplines” in 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, OH, USA, June 24-28, 2017. https://peer.asee.org/28130
John Y. Yoritomo, Nicole Turnipseed, Ashley Warfield-Oyirifi, S. Lance Cooper, Celia M. Elliott, John R. Gallagher, John S. Popovics, Paul Prior, and Julie L. Zilles
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