Writing Excellence Initiative: Study finds non-academic writing helps Elon students grow as writers

Elon students do a great deal of writing in their everyday lives. Their non-academic writing is an important element of their college experience and can positively impact their academic writing as well. 

This is one in a series of articles showcasing the successes of Elon’s Writing Excellence Initiative, the university’s 5-year Quality Enhancement Plan to enhance the teaching and practice of writing in academic, professional, and co-curricular contexts.

In spring 2017, The Center for Writing Excellence conducted a study of the non-academic writing lives of Elon students. Survey data (141 student responses) revealed that Elon undergraduates find their non-academic writing to be meaningful, important and a major contributor to their growth as writers during their college years.

“I’ve learned much more about writing from positions of leadership outside of class than inside class. Inside classes and for academic purposes, I am writing as a student, but outside of class I learn how to effectively write as a leader within a community,” one survey respondent replied.

Indeed, 87 percent of those who took the survey somewhat or strongly agreed that “writing is an important part of my non-academic life at Elon,” and 85 percent indicated that they put moderate, significant, or very significant effort into their non-academic writing projects during their college years.

Elon students write for a range of non-academic reasons. Beyond emails, text messages and social media posts, Elon students frequently write proposals (for grants, projects, etc.), keep personal journals, write presentations or speeches and create posters, flyers and infographics. These types of writing are directed to a wide array of audiences, including colleagues, supervisors, friends and online readers.

Preliminary analysis of survey data revealed three main ways that students learn from their non-academic writing experiences. Importantly, students can transfer these understandings and practices to enhance and improve their writing in academic situations as well.

  1. Audience: Students reported learning to meet the needs/expectations of specific audiences. For instance, one survey respondent reported that her non-academic writing taught her “different writing styles that appeal to popular and/or professional audiences.”
  2. Time Management, Effort, and Writing Process: Students call attention to the importance of putting time and effort into writing. They reported that working on non-academic writing projects helps them develop effective strategies to organize their writing processes. For instance, one student wrote, “My non-academic writing has taught me the importance of proofreading, as well as taking the time away from pieces before going back and revising.”
  3. Self-Reflection and Growth: Students see their non-academic writing as a resource for self-reflection. For instance, in response to the question of what students learned from the writing they do outside of class, one student wrote, “I’ve learned about who I am as a person.” Many students indicate that their non-academic writing also helps them develop creativity, voice, and self-expression.

Heather Lindenman, assistant professor of English, and Paula Rosinski, professor of English and director of Writing Across the University, conducted the study and are working on a publication to share their findings. They welcome questions about their research project and connections with the Writing Excellence Initiative.