Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Improving students' academic writing with the use of the word processor

Alison Bunker
Marianne Cronin
Edith Cowan University
In order to learn word-processing skills, Faculty of Arts students are currently advised to take a computer applications unit in the Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering. This unit teaches computing skills but does not address writing skills or writing in an Arts discipline.

In a pilot study, interviews were conducted, and questionnaires were presented to a small sample of students in the Arts Faculty to determine needs in both word-processing and academic writing skills. Using this information, workshops were conducted to improve writing in discipline based writing tasks, and to introduce students to features of word-processors useful at various stages of writing.

This project is seen as an important development in the Arts programme for developing academic writing skills in context and addressing computer literacy skills.


Tertiary students are increasingly expected to submit assignments that have been typed and/or word-processed rather than hand-written. Furthermore, some Departments and Schools in the University do not accept hand-written assignments. For most students this means typing out the final draft of their assignment on a word-processor, that is, using the word-processor merely as a typewriter.

Often tertiary students are offered support for either literacy or word-processing skills, but rarely are these two sets of skills offered together. In computer literacy classes, students are taught how to use the features of word-processors but they are not generally taught why or when those features might be useful. By linking teaching about the writing process with teaching of word-processing techniques, students can be taught to use the features of a word-processing package to improve their writing.

This paper presents an overview of the research literature followed by discussion of a pilot study conducted to teach writing strategies using word processing features.

Overview of the research literature

Much has been written about the potential of word-processors to facilitate the writing process, however the research evidence is not so clear. This is for a number of reasons: different measures have been used to reflect quality; varying notions of improvement have been used; a range of experimental conditions have been presented; different writing contexts have been investigated and different computer software has been used. In addition, it was noted that at tertiary level, the use of word processing has been researched fairly extensively in creative writing classes, but there appears to be little research about its use in teaching students the strategies of academic writing. Although the research seems to be somewhat conflicting and confusing, some aspects can be identified.

In the research, the stated outcomes about word-processing and writing seem to be counter-balanced. For example, ease of getting started means it is easier for a student to miss out the planning stage (Haas, 1987). The premise that word-processed work looks good from the start and so is encouraging for students contrasts with the premise that work looks finished before it is ( Schwartz in Schramm, 1989). The ease of editing word-processed text is set against the difficulty of calling it finished. The fluidity of the text means it is easy to revise work (Bangert Drowns, 1993) is offset by the difficulty of reading text on screen when only a part of the whole is visible (Haas, 1987). And finally, some writers claim it gives them a feeling of being closer to the text as a reader (Crozier 1986), whilst others feel it distances them from their work too much (Haas, 1987).

In studies comparing word-processing with writing with pen and paper in control situations, a range of variables have been used as indicators of quality. These include length, the number of revisions, the number of errors and neatness (Cochran, in Bangert Drowns, 1993). Using these kinds of quantitative variables, word-processed writing generally scores better than writing with pen and paper. Owston (1991), using holistic qualitative measures of overall competence and mechanics, also found that students wrote better with word-processors.

Research which measures students' attitude to writing as an indicator of the benefits of word-processing also reports in favour of word-processors. Schramm (1989) notes that positive student attitudes towards writing with word-processors are reported in the literature, and Snyder (1993) reports that students think they write better with word-processors and believe it enhances their capacity to write. However, as Schramm (1989) notes, these attitude changes are not generally associated with better writing in the research results. It is therefore argued that the experimental phase should be longer, on the basis that a change in attitude is a first step towards being a better writer, and that as apprehension decreases over time, so performance will increase. Conversely, Bangert Drowns (1993), notes the improvements in writing can occur for weaker writers without an attitude change.

When qualitative techniques are applied to the different stages of the writing process, the picture becomes more complete. At the planning stage of writing, individuals have their own preferred ways of working. Snyder (1993) reports that word-processors seem to suit the writer who plans extensively and then writes an almost complete first draft. In contrast, those writers who write to discover do not find word-processors so useful. Both Schipke (1986) and Haas (1987) suggest that the problem with word-processors for these writers is that they focus the writer at the sentence, word, and formatting levels too early in the writing process. Consequently, many writers miss out the planning stages completely when using word-processors.

At the revision stage of writing, there are similar problems. Whilst there are more revisions, Collier (in Haas 1987) notes that these are at word, clause and phrase level. Oliver and Kerr (1993) found tertiary students who chose to word-process their work made more revisions than students who used pen and paper. They suggest that this probably reflects the fact that the better assignments are from writers who understand the revision process well and therefore these students would understand the benefits of using a word-processor for revision. Consequently they choose to word-process their work. This argument is supported by a number of researchers, (Shanahan & Holmquist, 1994; Pennington 1993; Hill et al. 1991).

Similarly, in studies of novice and expert writers by Haas (1987), it is clear that expert writers use the word-processor differently. Haas argues that expert writers know about the writing process and therefore can make strategic decisions about when and how to use pen and paper or word-processing features or hard copies. Novice writers do not have sufficient knowledge of the writing process to make these sorts of decisions.

Successful use of word-processors in writing seems to depend primarily on the writer's experience, style, and ability to use their knowledge of word-processing features strategically. Thus whilst using a word-processor will not make a student a better writer, learning about word-processing and about word-processing features can benefit a writer who understands the writing process. Thus "established rituals and habits and relative writing abilities and skills appeared to be more important factors in determining the value of the technology than any influence of the computer itself" (Schipke, 1986, p. 26). The corollary of this is that the "computer exacerbates problems in the absence of writing strategies" (Snyder, 1993, p. 54).

Teaching the writing process through word-processing may have advantages. Bangert Drowns (1993), drawing on the work of Saloman, argues that word-processing software is useful if and when it acts as a cognitive tool. He suggests that it can do this at three levels. Firstly, by allowing for easy writing and manipulation of text, a word-processor increases the capacity for more complex higher order tasks such as revision of meaning. This is supported by Daiute (in Snyder, 1993) who suggests that it allows the writer to become a reader sooner. Secondly, because a word-processor represents information, it can be used to model the thought process of a writer and this leads to its use as an instructional tool. Thirdly, it can be used as a metacognitive tool giving insight to the writer about personal style and idiosyncrasies. In addition, a number of researchers (Hartley, 1991; Snyder, 1994; Mitchell, 1987) predict that as a tool, the word-processor will lead to new patterns of composing and therefore a new kind of writer.

A further area of writing with word-processors worth exploring is the links between writing and the writing context. Snyder (1994) argues that in the teaching-writing context the choice of tool has minimal impact on the writing process: both pen and paper and word-processing are dependent on beginning strategies, planning techniques, conferencing patterns, and approaches to revision. The key factor in the word-processing environment for teaching writing is the social and public nature of the work on a computer screen, (Snyder, 1994; Kurth & Stromberg in Rodrigues & Rodrigues, 1986). This acts as a catalyst for conferencing with peers. The increase in the quality of product reflects the importance of peers and conferencing in the learning and writing processes.

Other context factors which affect the quality of writing with word-processors have been identified. Haas (1993) identified the purpose of writing as being an important variable. She found that with straight forward, simple tasks, expert writers write like the novice writers in her samples. Cochran (in Bangert, 1993), identified the time available for the tasks, the accessibility of hardware, and the features of word-processing software as other significant variables.

To summarise, if students are required to word-process their assignments, then it is important to teach them how to use a word-processor effectively for writing. Further, "the design of the instruction which creates the context could be critical" (Johanson in Bangert Drowns, 1993, p. 75). In a tertiary writing context this means teaching with an emphasis on the structures and styles required.

The project

A pilot study was developed to teach writing strategies using word-processing features. This study was in preparation for a project to improve the writing of students beginning tertiary studies by the use of word-processors. The study, held in second semester, involved students enrolled in a first year unit in Aboriginal Cultural Studies. This unit was selected because part of the assessment required the presentation of a good written argument. The students were provided with unit materials which stressed the importance of structure, drafting and clarity, and included a check-list for essay writing.

Two initial surveys were conducted. In the first survey, the students were given a list of academic writing tasks representing various stages of the writing process. They were asked to indicate their perceptions of the relative importance of different parts of the writing process. They were also asked to choose and rank three tasks in which they would like to improve their skills. The second survey asked the students about their current use of word-processors in relation to assignment writing and the writing process.

Two workshops were designed in response to the students' perceived needs. The workshops were planned for a duration of one hour each. However a delay in starting the first session meant the material had to be condensed into half an hour. The two workshops took place a fortnight apart. The software selected for the workshops was Microsoft Word, because it is widely available and runs on both the Windows and Macintosh platforms.

The first workshop addressed two pre-writing tasks: getting started and analysing the question. Students were given a template for each task. The first had a set of initial questions to encourage thinking about an issue, and the second template had headings to help in the analysis of a question. Students were taught how to use these templates. This was followed by modelling the use of the questions and headings to get started on a writing assignment. Students then used the templates with an essay question from their course work.

The second session examined the use of the outlining feature to introduce structure into an essay. Students were presented with a template containing a typical assignment structure. They then used the outline to develop the structure of an essay on which they were currently working. There was discussion amongst students and between the staff and students about both the content as it appeared on the screens, and about the processes involved. At the end of the second session, students were asked to evaluate the sessions in terms of usefulness. Those students who did not attend were also surveyed for their reasons for not participating.


In the survey on writing tasks, students identified getting started as the most important task to be included in the workshops. This was followed by, in order, analysing the question; developing an argument; and essay and report structure (see Table 1).

Table 1: Student ranking of assignment writing skills for the purpose of inclusion in a writing course.
Table 1

From the survey on student use of word-processors, the majority of students said they planned on paper (see Figure 1). However, the assumption that students and teachers have the same conception of "planning an assignment" may be false. There is a need for more qualitative data on what students mean by "planning an assignment" and how they do it. Further research with students who used mixed mode, that is, sometimes pen and paper and other times word-processor, may be useful to determine why these choices are made. In addition, it would be worthwhile investigating the quality of planning amongst students who always use word-processing and those who do not.

Whilst only two students used a word-processor for writing drafts, all students used a word-processor for their final version (see Figure 1). This suggests that most students are using the word-processor as a typewriter. Again, further research to investigate the reasons for these choices would be worthwhile.

Figure 1 part a

Figure 1 part b

Figure 1 part c

Figure 1: Student choice of tool for planning, drafting and final version of an assignment


The students' reception of the templates and style guidelines instruction was positive. Before the workshops they had considered themselves to be very unsure about useful structure or format. In addition, the pilot project provided an opportunity to trial and refine the questionnaires, and to obtain feedback on the materials which will lead to modifications for next semester.

The evaluation of the two sessions by the students suggests they believe their writing skills had been improved or would be improved, reflecting research findings by Snyder (1993). All the students found the sessions useful and intended to use word-processors more frequently for planning and structuring assignments. The students, who were not all new to study, were very enthusiastic about the project. Student comments included:

"I have been looking for something like this since I started"
"Wish I had had this at the beginning of the year"
"Some lights have finally gone on!"
"This should be compulsory for all students"
"An excellent unit to implement"
All the participants wanted more workshops. Some asked for specific help on computer skills, and others for help with writing skills.

Of the students who did not attend the sessions, two felt their writing and word-processing skills were adequate, but the majority did not attend because of too much pressure from course work. Some felt they had insufficient knowledge of what would be presented in the workshops or were unsure of the commitment required from them. Had they been more informed, they may have attended.

In the workshops, students were encouraged to plan and develop essays required for their course. Because of the social context of the workshop, there was discussion amongst students and staff about the work. Using peers to conference the writing process in this way was a factor which could have enhanced the word-processed product. This was not a planned aim of the project. Most students would, in the normal course of assignment writing, work on their own, though this may not be true of the Aboriginal students in the class who often work collaboratively.


A difficulty for some students was their lack of computer and word-processing skills, including knowledge of the keyboard. In preparing the templates for student use, a basic understanding of computers and word-processors had been wrongly assumed. The use of the "cooking recipe" instructions helped students become familiar with the features being introduced, but even so, unfamiliarity with word-processing features meant that the actual information relating to essay preparation and structure was only able to be developed at a slow pace.

The workshops were developed for students familiar with word-processors, however, they seemed to attract students with only a little word-processing knowledge. It is possible that those with some competence believed they had sufficient skills for their present requirements. When planning and marketing the workshops for 1997 these factors will be addressed.

Collecting written work from the students before and after the workshops was difficult. It had been stressed that the writing was required in order to get a snapshot of student writing and not for evaluation, but only two pieces of writing were collected. Comparisons of student writing before and after the workshops would confirm whether there had been qualitative changes.

Finding a suitable time to run the workshops was very difficult. The students studied on more than one campus, and were studying different combinations of units. After discussion with the lecturer and students, it was decided that the tutorial presentations would finish early and the one hour workshop would commence after a short break. This would take the students half an hour past their normal finish time for the lecture. However, finishing tutorials early was a problem.

Finally, just under half of the students in the class took advantage of the workshops. This reflects the pressure on students once semester has started, and yet this course is only really useful after semester has started and students have some writing to do. This is a continuing problem whilst such skills-based instruction is neither compulsory nor credited.


This pilot project intended to investigate aspects of student writing linked to the use of computers. This was in preparation for a series of workshops to improve tertiary student writing with word-processors. The results from the pilot project suggest that the project was a valuable one and needs to be continued. The students who attended the workshops were very positive about the usefulness of the approach to writing with word-processors.

Further planning will consider ways of offering the programme to a larger number of students with the intention of finding a convenient time and place for a sample of twenty students. An introduction to basic computer and word-processing skills will be offered in orientation week. This will be followed by a series of workshops presented during first semester during which information relating to essay preparation and structure will be developed in conjunction with appropriate word-processing features. Students who believe they have sufficient word-processing skills for their present study requirements will also be targeted for these workshops. Students will be asked to commit themselves for the duration of the project. A qualitative examination of resulting differences in student writing is still considered desirable, provided samples of previous student writing can be collected.

Three areas for future research have been identified as a result of this pilot project. Firstly, research which investigates student conceptions of "planning an assignment" and the planning methods employed; secondly, a comparison of the quality of planning between students who always use word-processing for this stage and with students who never do; and thirdly, on the circumstances which lead students to choose word-processor or pen and paper on different occasions for planning and drafting.


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Hill, C. A., et al. (1991). Revising on-line: Computer technologies and the revising process. Computers and Composition, 9(1), 83-109.

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Shanahan, M. & Holmquist, D. (1994). A comparative study of teaching proofreading and editing skills using the traditional method only versus the traditional method combined with computer-assisted instruction in Business Communications and Report classes. Delta-Pi-Epsilon Journal, 36(4), 203-214.

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Snyder, I. (1994). Teaching and learning writing with computers. In Wild, M. and Kirkpatrick, D. (Eds), Computer Education: New perspectives, pp.165-180. Perth, Western Australia: MASTEC.

Please cite as: Bunker, A. and Cronin, M. (1997). Improving students' academic writing with the use of the word processor. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p50-57. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/bunker.html

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