Learning from the Lunsfords’ “Mistakes”

A new national study on errors in student writing asks whether the top mistakes noted in previous studies have changed much in the digital era.

OMG! Turns out students aren’t making significantly more errors, rising from 2.11 mistakes per 100 words in a 1917 study to 2.45 in this 2006 data.

The big shift, though, is in what and how much students are writing. Compared to a similar study of first year writing conducted in 1986, papers are 2.5 times longer than they were twenty years ago. And the researched paper has edged out the personal narrative as the most common writing assignment. In 1986, over half of writing assignments were personal; now the most common assignments are researched argument or report, an argument with few or no sources, and close reading and analysis. The biggest single category is research-based, which accounts for 33% of the 877 writing samples used in the study.

Together, the two shifts are we have identified suggest that student writers today are tackling the kind of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection and that students are writing more than ever before.

This change leads to another kind of mistake. A large number of errors were in the use of sources, particularly in their documentation.

Such struggles seem to us a natural and necessary part of the practice that students must do to become familiar with, much less master, any one documentation style: after all, entering the conversation in a field, showing that you know the issues and have something to contribute to them, choosing among a huge range of possible sources, and using them to document the work related to any particular topic are not easy skills to develop, especially for novice writers.

Bottom line: We’re much more likely to have first year students who are asked to write from sources than twenty years ago, which in turn may suggest a greater commitment on the part of their instructors to information literacy, even if they’re teaching this kind of writing as a service to more advanced courses.

Non-hyper link: Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, “‘Mistakes are a Part of Life’: A National Comparative Study.” College Composition and Communication 59.4 (June 2008): 781-806.

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

8 thoughts on “Learning from the Lunsfords’ “Mistakes”

  1. Barbara, what a fascinating topic — thanks for blogging this.

    I know I had very few research papers as an undergraduate the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about 15 years ago. In the English Department, the emphasis was very much on our own analysis. And when we used sources, we were often given them, in a course pack or otherwise on reserve.

    As a librarian, I do see a lot of students struggling to do research that’s way over their heads, and thus we end up with students who will take the first three articles or books that seem even vaguely relevant. I think part of the problem is that we’re asking students to participate in scholarly conversations before they’ve even gained the confidence to formulate, and then argue, then own opinions.

  2. There’s a fascinating post over at Infofetishist about how we focus on argument rather than on truth-seeking. It has made me think a lot about how we frame the whole concept of evidence. It tends to be thought of as that which proves your point, not that which helps you decide what to believe.

    And – bouncing off your point – I do think confidence comes when students have some knowledge base to work from, which they don’t (typically) in the first year. Rushing to teach the format of researched writing – how to cite sources, for example – makes me wonder whether we aren’t emphasizing the wrong things, or at least taking them in the wrong order. A lot of students never get past the idea that “I have to cite something, so I’ll write my paper and then throw in some quotes” or “I’ll find some sources and smush them together, and that will be my paper.” They’ve learned rules of conversation that don’t actually engage them in the conversation at all.

  3. Barbara, you are exactly right. Many students write the papers first and then look for the article that supports their argument, which is, I’m sure, not what their professors intended, and certainly does not lend itself to good research or good papers.

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