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.