University Park, IL,
09:29 AM

Writing to Learn

Professor Kerri Morris writes a popular blog about her life, academic research papers, and curriculum materials.

Now the director of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) at Governors State University wants to explore principles of writing with GSU faculty.

The Associate Professor of English is launching a Faculty Learning Communities program to assist professors who want to engage students in writing assignments, even though their primary discipline may be another subject.

“I want to provide my colleagues support as they deliver writing-intensive courses to students,” said Morris, who has led WAC at GSU since 2012. “Many of them have never been trained to teach writing—they may be a brilliant historian, but writing freaks them out. I want to make it easier for them.”

Ideally, professors would bring their questions and concerns to the learning communities, and Morris would connect them with resources and support to meet the goals of WAC, an initiative built on the concept that writing can help improve students’ learning.

Communities would be comprised of small groups of professors from one program or multiple disciplines who have a shared concern about writing—how much feedback should professors give students on writing? or what are best practices to develop writing intensive courses?

Some questions could be more fundamental.

“A professor might ask, ‘How do I write a good assignment to engage students?’” said Morris. “I can give them a short and sweet answer, but it’s better if we can come together as a group and find out if others are having this same issue—and if so, what have they tried?”

Learning communities are the latest instrument in the WAC toolkit, which also includes Writing Fellows and English 2920, a one-hour writing lab class. The entire program was built to support faculty who ask students to write in their courses as a means to build or assess knowledge.

WAC is an “infusion model” that GSU President Elaine P. Maimon writes about in her book, “Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation.” Dr. Maimon is a founding member of the 40-year old initiative, “… the first major example of infusion and integration—hallmarks of 21st century instruction and scholarship.”

GSU’s Department of Physical Therapy learned how writing could impact the student experience.

About 10 years ago, the department began requiring candidates for the Doctor of Physical Therapy  to write a capstone paper about a clinical experience they wanted to further explore, said Professor Roberta O'Shea, who leads the department’s capstone class.

Through writing, she has seen an increase in student engagement and watched their confidence soar as they present their ideas in professional settings.

“Many of these students haven’t written a paper since undergad, so they have to work with librarians to do literature reviews, and then they have to organize their thoughts and put them into a manuscript that isn't full of medical jargon. I do believe they get a deeper learning this way.”

Morris points out that PT students are writing to learn—not solely for the sake of writing. “We know it takes a campus to teach a writer, and that students are more engaged when they write about what they are learning. Our goal is to build better writers, not better writing.”

If the model works, and learning deepens, Jaguars may have a greater appreciation than their public institution peers, according to a recent study by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

The study of first- and senior-year students showed GSU students were writing more than students at other Illinois public universities. 

On average, first-year GSU students were writing 101 pages compared to 56.6 pages being written by students at other Illinois public universities. GSU seniors are writing less overall—an average of 84 pages—compared with an average of 77 pages being written at other schools, according to the NSSE study.

Ironically the NSSE study, released in September, comes just months after another national study revealed only two thirds of college students in the United States had written a double spaced paper 10 pages or longer.

The Primary Research Group found nearly a third of college students surveyed at four-year institutions (1,140 in total) haven’t completed a major writing assignment in college.

Morris is pleased—and a little curious.

“It looks like GSU is doing really well with asking students to write, and our students are writing more than their peers, but I want to know what it means for writing to be meaningful in a variety of disciplines.”

Sounds like a perfect topic to explore in a Faculty Learning Community.

For more information on how to form a Faculty Learning Community or other WAC Programs, contact Kerri Morris at