Study: Texting, social media new writing platforms for students

First-year college students do most of their writing via text messaging and social networks, but it’s not always a type of writing they say they most value, according to new research co-authored by a team of Elon University professors. That leads to the next questions in what promises to be an ongoing project: why do they value what they value, and how can academia catch up with their use of writing technologies?

From left: Paula Rosinski, Jessie Moore and Tim Peeples

In collaboration with peers at Michigan State University and five other institutions, the Elon professors – Jessie Moore, Paula Rosinski and Tim Peeples – surveyed first-year students last year to measure what forms of writing they use, and for what purposes. Their survey is the largest multi-institutional project of its kind.

“Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students” is the co-authored white paper published this fall through the WIDE Research Center at Michigan State.

Many survey respondents indicated their use of text messaging on mobile devices as their primary mode of spreading the written word. Academic papers, lecture notes, research papers and emails followed close behind. It’s rare these days for students to use paper and pens outside of taking notes, the report found.

Websites, wikis and blogs also played a role in how and where students write, though to a smaller extent and, like writing on social networks, they weren’t as valued forms of writing. “Our research shows that students engage in a lot of digital writing for different purposes,” Rosinski said of the results. “It’s time for thoughtful changes in how we teach writing.”

(From left) Elon freshmen Bryn Khoury, Michelle Leibel and Anna Harris worked Monday morning on a class assignment in the Moseley Center.

More than 1,300 students at schools in Michigan, Indiana, Texas, North Carolina and Hawaii were surveyed, with more than 150 first-year Elon students participating. The results raised several sets of eyebrows.

• Students’ write for personal fulfillment nearly as often as for school assignments.
• Academic papers, lecture notes, and research papers are among the top five most valued forms of writing students do.
• Students mostly write alone. Writing alone is valued over writing collaboratively.
• Writing in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are not highly valued despite being the most frequent types of writing that students report they do.
• Speaking of Facebook, despite the popular image of social networks “indulging” students, most use the site to send personal messages and to comment on other posts – not, it seems, to write about themselves.

Professors from the seven participating institutions are now planning future research based on the same data. “We saw this as a good opportunity to find out what kind of writing our students are doing and what kind of writing they value,” Moore said.

Elon’s participation enriched the findings, since researchers discovered that institution type is related in a meaningful way to the writing experiences of participants, particularly what they write and the technologies used. Students at master’s institutions like Elon had experience writing in far more genres than their peers at other institution types.

Freshman Ryan Vaughn checked his Facebook account on Monday morning from his cell phone inside the Moseley Center.

Future findings can be used to help professors incorporate other forms of writing into their curricula using platforms that younger generations already employ and feel comfortable navigating. “Updated approaches to teaching writing with technologies also can help students learn to use these platforms and technologies with more rhetorical-savvy,” Moore added.

“We’re really excited and interested by how many students are writing, how much they’re writing, and the technologies they’re using to write,” Rosinski said, “but we need to dig deeper into it.”