July 16, 2013

The Impact of Digital Tools on Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools

A survey of 2,462 Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers finds that digital technologies are shaping student writing in myriad ways and have also become helpful tools for teaching writing to middle and high school students.  These teachers see the internet and digital technologies such as social networking sites, cell phones and texting, generally facilitating teens’ personal expression and creativity, broadening the audience for their written material, and encouraging teens to write more often in more formats than may have been the case in prior generations.  At the same time, they describe the unique challenges of teaching writing in the digital age, including the “creep” of informal style into formal writing assignments and the need to better educate students about issues such as plagiarism and fair use.

The AP and NWP teachers surveyed see today’s digital tools having tangible, beneficial impacts on student writing

Overall, these AP and NWP teachers see digital technologies benefitting student writing in several ways:

  • 96% agree (including 52% who strongly agree) that digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience”
  • 79% agree (23% strongly agree) that these tools “encourage greater collaboration among students”
  • 78% agree (26% strongly agree) that digital technologies “encourage student creativity and personal expression”

The combined effect of these impacts, according to this group of AP and NWP teachers, is a greater investment among students in what they write and greater engagement in the writing process.

At the same time, they worry that students’ use of digital tools is having some undesirable effects on their writing, including the “creep” of informal language and style into formal writing

In focus groups, these AP and NWP teachers shared some concerns and challenges they face teaching writing in today’s digital environment.  Among them are:

  • an increasingly ambiguous line between “formal” and “informal” writing and the tendency of some students to use informal language and style in formal writing assignments
  • the increasing need to educate students about writing for different audiences using different “voices” and “registers”
  • the general cultural emphasis on truncated forms of expression, which some feel are hindering students willingness and ability to write longer texts and to think critically about complicated topics
  • disparate access to and skill with digital tools among their students
  • challenging the “digital tool as toy” approach many students develop in their introduction to digital tools as young children

Survey results reflect many of these concerns, though teachers are sometimes divided on the role digital tools play in these trends.  Specifically:

  • 68% say that digital tools make students more likely—as opposed to less likely or having no impact—to take shortcuts and not put effort into their writing
  • 46% say these tools make students more likely to “write too fast and be careless”
  • Yet, while 40% say today’s digital technologies make students more likely to “use poor spelling and grammar” another 38% say they make students LESS likely to do this

Overall, these AP and NWP teachers give their students’ writing skills modest marks, and see areas that need attention

Asked to assess their students’ performance on nine specific writing skills, AP and NWP tended to rate their students “good” or “fair” as opposed to “excellent” or “very good.”  Students were given the best ratings on their ability to “effectively organize and structure writing assignments” with 24% of teachers describing their students as “excellent” or “very good” in this area. Students received similar ratings on their ability to “understand and consider multiple viewpoints on a particular topic or issue.”  But ratings were less positive for synthesizing material into a cohesive piece of work, using appropriate tone and style, and constructing a strong argument.

These AP and NWP teachers gave students the lowest ratings when it comes to “navigating issues of fair use and copyright in composition” and “reading and digesting long or complicated texts.”  On both measures, more than two-thirds of these teachers rated students “fair” or “poor.”

Figure 1

Majorities of these teachers incorporate lessons about fair use, copyright, plagiarism, and citation in their teaching to address students’ deficiencies in these areas

In addition to giving students low ratings on their understanding of fair use and copyright, a majority of AP and NWP teachers also say students are not performing well when it comes to “appropriately citing and/or referencing content” in their work.  This is fairly common concern among the teachers in the study, who note how easy it is for students today to copy and paste others’ work into their own and how difficult it often is to determine the actual source of much of the content they find online.  Reflecting how critical these teachers view these skills:

  • 88% (across all subjects) spend class time “discussing with students the concepts of citation and plagiarism”
  • 75% (across all subjects) spend class time “discussing with students the concepts of fair use and copyright”

A plurality of AP and NWP teachers across all subjects say digital tools make teaching writing easier

Despite some challenges, 50% of these teachers (across all subjects) say the internet and digital tools make it easier for them to teach writing, while just 18% say digital technologies make teaching writing more difficult.  The remaining 31% see no real impact.

Figure 2

Positive perceptions of the potential for digital tools to aid educators in teaching writing are reflected in practice:

  • 52% of AP and NWP teachers say they or their students use interactive whiteboards in their classes
  • 40% have students share their work on wikis, websites or blogs
  • 36% have students edit or revise their own work and 29% have students edit others’ work using collaborative web-based tools such as GoogleDocs

In focus groups, teachers gave a multitude of examples of the value of these collaborative tools, not only in teaching more technical aspects of writing but also in being able to “see their students thinking” and work alongside students in the writing process.  Moreover, 56% say digital tools make their students more likely to write well because they can revise their work easily.

These middle and high school teachers continue to place tremendous value on “formal writing”

While they see writing forms and styles expanding in the digital world, AP and NWP teachers continue to place tremendous value on “formal writing” and try to use digital tools to impart fundamental writing skills they feel students need.  Nine in ten (92%) describe formal writing assignments as an “essential” part of the learning process, and 91% say that “writing effectively” is an “essential” skill students need for future success.

More than half (58%) have students write short essays or responses on a weekly basis, and 77% assigned at least one research paper during the 2011-2012 academic year.  In addition, 41% of AP and NWP teachers have students write weekly journal entries, and 78% had their students create a multimedia or mixed media piece in the academic year prior to the survey.

Almost all AP and NWP teachers surveyed (94%) encourage students to do some of their writing by hand

Alongside the use of digital tools to promote better writing, almost all AP and NWP teachers surveyed say they encourage their students to do at least some writing by hand.  Their reasons are varied, but many teachers noted that because students are required to write by hand on standardized tests, it is a critical skill for them to have.  This is particularly true for AP teachers, who must prepare students to take AP exams with pencil and paper.  Other teachers say they feel students do more active thinking, synthesizing, and editing when writing by hand, and writing by hand discourages any temptation to copy and paste others’ work.

About this Study

The basics of the survey

These are among the main findings of an online survey of a non-probability sample of 2,462 middle and high school teachers currently teaching in the U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, conducted between March 7 and April 23, 2012.  Some 1,750 of the teachers are drawn from a sample of advanced placement (AP) high school teachers, while the remaining 712 are from a sample of National Writing Project teachers.  Survey findings are complemented by insights from a series of online and in-person focus groups with middle and high school teachers and students in grades 9-12, conducted between November, 2011 and February, 2012.

This particular sample is quite diverse geographically, by subject matter taught, and by school size and community characteristics.  But it skews towards educators who teach some of the most academically successful students in the country. Thus, the findings reported here reflect the realities of their special place in American education, and are not necessarily representative of all teachers in all schools. At the same time, these findings are especially powerful given that these teachers’ observations and judgments emerge from some of the nation’s most advanced classrooms.

In addition to the survey, Pew Internet conducted a series of online and offline focus groups with middle and high school teachers and some of their students and their voices are included in this report.

The study was designed to explore teachers’ views of the ways today’s digital environment is shaping the research and writing habits of middle and high school students, as well as teachers’ own technology use and their efforts to incorporate new digital tools into their classrooms.

About the data collection

Data collection was conducted in two phases.  In phase one, Pew Internet conducted two online and one in-person focus group with middle and high school teachers; focus group participants included Advanced Placement (AP) teachers, teachers who had participated in the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute (NWP), as well as teachers at a College Board school in the Northeast U.S.  Two in-person focus groups were also conducted with students in grades 9-12 from the same College Board school.   The goal of these discussions was to hear teachers and students talk about, in their own words, the different ways they feel digital technologies such as the internet, search engines, social media, and cell phones are shaping students’ research and writing habits and skills.  Teachers were asked to speak in depth about teaching research and writing to middle and high school students today, the challenges they encounter, and how they incorporate digital technologies into their classrooms and assignments.

Focus group discussions were instrumental in developing a 30-minute online survey, which was administered in phase two of the research to a national sample of middle and high school teachers.  The survey results reported here are based on a non-probability sample of 2,462 middle and high school teachers currently teaching in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Of these 2,462 teachers, 2,067 completed the entire survey; all percentages reported are based on those answering each question.  The sample is not a probability sample of all teachers because it was not practical to assemble a sampling frame of this population. Instead, two large lists of teachers were assembled: one included 42,879 AP teachers who had agreed to allow the College Board to contact them (about one-third of all AP teachers), while the other was a list of 5,869 teachers who participated in the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute during 2007-2011 and who were not already part of the AP sample. A stratified random sample of 16,721 AP teachers was drawn from the AP teacher list, based on subject taught, state, and grade level, while all members of the NWP list were included in the final sample.

The online survey was conducted from March 7–April 23, 2012.  More details on how the survey and focus groups were conducted are included in the Methodology section at the end of this report, along with focus group discussion guides and the survey instrument.

There are several important ways the teachers who participated in the survey are unique, which should be considered when interpreting the results reported here.  First, 95% of the teachers who participated in the survey teach in public schools, thus the findings reported here reflect that environment almost exclusively.  In addition, almost one-third of the sample (NWP Summer Institute teachers) has received extensive training in how to effectively teach writing in today’s digital environment.  The National Writing Project’s mission is to provide professional development, resources and support to teachers to improve the teaching of writing in today’s schools.   The NWP teachers included here are what the organization terms “teacher-consultants” who have attended the Summer Institute and provide local leadership to other teachers.  Research has shown significant gains in the writing performance of students who are taught by these teachers.1

Moreover, the majority of teachers participating in the survey (56%) currently teach AP, honors, and/or accelerated courses, thus the population of middle and high school students they work with skews heavily toward the highest achievers.  These teachers and their students may have resources and support available to them—particularly in terms of specialized training and access to digital tools—that are not available in all educational settings.  Thus, the population of teachers participating in this research might best be considered “leading edge teachers” who are actively involved with the College Board and/or the National Writing Project and are therefore beneficiaries of resources and training not common to all teachers.  It is likely that teachers in this study are developing some of the more innovative pedagogical approaches to teaching research and writing in today’s digital environment, and are incorporating classroom technology in ways that are not typical of the entire population of middle and high school teachers in the U.S.  Survey findings represent the attitudes and behaviors of this particular group of teachers only, and are not representative of the entire population of U.S. middle and high school teachers.

Every effort was made to administer the survey to as broad a group of educators as possible from the sample files being used.  As a group, the 2,462 teachers participating in the survey comprise a wide range of subject areas, experience levels, geographic regions, school type and socioeconomic level, and community type (detailed sample characteristics are available in the Methods section of this report).  The sample includes teachers from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  All teachers who participated in the survey teach in physical schools and classrooms, as opposed to teaching online or virtual courses.

English/language arts teachers make up a significant portion of the sample (36%), reflecting the intentional design of the study, but history, social science, math, science, foreign language, art, and music teachers are also represented.  About one in ten teachers participating in the survey are middle school teachers, while 91% currently teach grades 9-12.  There is wide distribution across school size and students’ socioeconomic status, though half of the teachers participating in the survey report teaching in a small city or suburb.  There is also a wide distribution in the age and experience levels of participating teachers.  The survey sample is 71% female.

About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Pew Internet Project takes no positions on policy issues related to the internet or other communications technologies. It does not endorse technologies, industry sectors, companies, nonprofit organizations, or individuals. While we thank our research partners for their helpful guidance, the Pew Internet Project had full control over the design, implementation, analysis and writing of this survey and report.

About the National Writing Project

The National Writing Project (NWP) is a nationwide network of educators working together to improve the teaching of writing in the nation’s schools and in other settings. NWP provides high-quality professional development programs to teachers in a variety of disciplines and at all levels, from early childhood through university. Through its nearly 200 university-based sites serving all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, NWP develops the leadership, programs and research needed for teachers to help students become successful writers and learners. For more information, visit www.nwp.org.

  1. More specific information on this population of teachers, the training they receive, and the outcomes of their students are available at the National Writing Project website at www.nwp.org.