What role does writing play in a college education? Do students leave college as stronger writers than when they entered? To answer these questions and many others--to get a glimpse beyond the classroom, behind the page, and between the drafts--the Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing followed more than 400 students (25%) of the Harvard class of 2001 through their college careers to see college writing through their eyes.
Three weeks into their first semester, the entire class of 2001 was invited to participate in the study. Participation was voluntary, consisting of five Web-based surveys, two in the freshman year and one in each subsequent year; for completing each survey, students received a coupon for a free pizza. Four hundred twenty-two students joined the study, and 94% of the original sample stayed with it until graduation. From our sample of 422 students, sixty-five were randomly selected to be part of a subsample, the group we studied in depth. In addition to completing the surveys, these students were interviewed each semester, and they brought to their interviews each semester's writing, complete with Instructor feedback and assignments.
For four years, the Study followed a predictable rhythm, with interviews and surveys during the academic year and a hum of activity in the summer as our research team analyzed survey data, read the stacks of papers written by the students in the subsample, and then wrote case studies of each student in the subsample to help us synthesize the range of materials assembled. Our challenge in following more than 400 students has been to learn as much about individual students, while also keeping in mind the big picture of undergraduate writing with its spectrum of writing practices--to look for patterns across students' writing experiences and to learn from each student what might be idiosyncratic and what might be generalizable.