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How Much Writing Will You Do As A College Undergrad?

One element considered by the National Survey of Student Engagement, an annual survey done at 1,300 4-year colleges every year, looks at the type of work that college freshmen and seniors do.

The 2008 survey found that first-year students, on average, wrote 92 pages during the academic year, while seniors wrote 146 pages. For freshmen, the majority of these papers were around 5 to 10 pages, with some first-year students writing papers 20 pages or more. When considering majors, students in the social sciences, arts, and humanities wrote much more than other students, such as those majoring in physical or biological sciences.

Writing In Actual College Classes

My working directly with students has helped to give more detail to these findings. The amount of writing you can expect not only varies by class level, such as freshman versus junior, but also by class type, major, and others. For example:

-The majors that can expect the least amount of traditional writing are STEM majors, such as engineering, computer science, and mathematics. The reason is that a great deal of their curriculum is geared toward their major, and not general education courses where most writing tasks are found. However, these majors may find themselves writing computer code a great deal, which is not the traditional writing most people think of for college.

-Majors like Biology, Chemistry, and other sciences may find themselves writing laboratory reports of varying lengths. Depending on their program they may be few general education courses that they have to take, and instead have to take supporting courses like physics, calculus, and others.

-The exception for these above majors is that most colleges require at least one college-level writing class, and some programs offer a dual-purpose course that meets that requirement but keeps the topics within the major. For example, “Writing For Engineering Majors” would meet the university-level writing requirement yet the course would count for credits toward the engineering degree.

-Within general education courses, students will find themselves doing a broad variety of writing tasks. Online journals or discussion posts are very common, as are reaction papers for course readings, response papers for various topics, and short answer assignments for many classes. Position papers are often assigned, and these usually run three to five pages in length. Graded essays are frequently used for classes like English, history, humanities, and similar courses, and full-length term papers of 10 or more pages can be expected for many classes like psychology, anthropology, and other behavioral sciences.

Problems Students Have With Writing

The common problems that students encounter for writing in college are all understandable:

  • Getting stuck on picking a topic and not asking for help.
  • Having problems planning out the sections and flow of the paper, which can lead to a failing grade.
  • Difficulty using a new format they never encountered before. For example, writing a position paper or reaction paper if they never had to do so in the past.
  • Finding good research sources to use as citations for a paper. This usually happens when a student picks a paper topic without checking the available sources first. “Working backward” from the resources to derive a topic, rather than come up with one and hope there’s research available, is usually the best way to avoid this.

The Perks Of College Writing

The upside of all this writing? Students who wrote more were more achieved higher levels of deep learning, student-faculty interaction, and were otherwise more “engaged” in their own learning process. Student engagement is associated with higher levels of satisfaction as a student, and therefore increases a student’s odds of continuing his or her education.

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