A meta-analysis of writing in social studies, science and maths

Is writing about classroom content an effective way to learn? Arizona State University’s Steven Graham and colleagues at the University of Utah recently performed a meta-analysis on the effects of writing about classroom content in social studies, science and maths. Specifically, they examined if writing increased pupil achievement, if the results differed among subjects, and if any relationships existed by year level, activity type, or any other factors.

To be included, studies had to meet quality criteria including true or quasi-experimental research design, reliability of measures, controlling for teacher effects, multiple classes in the experimental and control conditions, experimental and control group pre-test equivalence, and both groups experiencing equal amounts of time learning the same topics.

This search yielded 56 studies in 53 documents meeting criteria for inclusion, involving 6,235 pupils in grades 1-11 (Years 2-12). Pupils in experimental groups wrote about classroom content, while most controls did not write at all. Forty-six percent of the studies assessed the impact of writing on science, 38% on maths and 14% on social studies. Thirty-four percent examined elementary (primary) pupils, and 32% each examined middle and high school (secondary) pupils. The types of writing activities for the experimental groups included writing informational text, such as summarising information or writing a report (34%); journal writing (32%); argumentative writing (13%); and narrative writing, such as creating a word problem in maths lessons (5%). These were coded to determine which, if any, were more effective than others.

Results showed that writing about content increased pupil achievement when compared to equivalent peers in non-writing control groups. Average weighted effect sizes were statistically significant in science (+0.31), social studies (+0.31) and maths (+0.32), as they were when broken down by elementary (+0.29), middle (+0.30) and high school (+0.30) levels. No correlation was found with number of treatment days, type of writing task, or type of assessment.

Source: The effects of writing on learning in science, social studies, and mathematics: A meta-analysis (March 2020), Review of Educational Research

Writing supported by virtual reality

In a recently published article in the British Journal of Educational Technology, Hwang and Chang examined how the spherical video-based virtual reality (SVVR) approach can support descriptive article writing in high school writing classes in Taiwan.

In traditional language learning activities, the authors noted, there is usually no chance for pupils to develop in-depth feelings about the context of topics, resulting in low learning motivations and limited expression in the writing process.

To provide in-depth experiences and to facilitate pupils’ descriptive article writing, the study introduced an SVVR system that used 360-degree photos or videos in a VR environment supporting pupils before they started to write. Pupils from two grade 11 classes participated in the study, with 30 pupils allocated to the experimental group and 35 students to the control group. After pupils understood the writing tasks and read a descriptive article about the Jade Mountain in Taiwan, pupils in the experimental group used SVVR to experience the ascent of the mountain, while pupils in the control group only watched videos and saw photos of the mountain. The study was conducted over two weeks with three hours of class per week. Before and after the intervention, a pre-test and a post-test on pupils’ writing performance were administered, along with questionnaires. The results showed that:

  • While pupils’ writing performance in both groups was similar in the pre-test, pupils who learned with the SVVR approach obtained better post-test results in terms of content and appearance than pupils in the control group, but not in organisation and vocabulary use.
  • Pupils’ learning with the SVVR approach also outperformed that of control-group pupils in creativity tendency and writing self-efficacy on the post-test.
  • However, experimental-group pupil and control-group pupils did not differ in learning motivation and cognitive load on the post-test.

The authors suggest that SVVR is worth promoting in school settings for language courses and experiential learning activities, as a way to provide deep experience in specific learning contexts. 

Source: Learning to be a writer: A spherical video‐based virtual reality approach to supporting descriptive article writing in high school Chinese courses (December 2019), British Journal of Educational Technology

Research on writing approaches for pupils in Years 3 to 13

 This paper, written by Robert Slavin and colleagues from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Liege and the Institute for Effective Education, reviews research on the outcomes of writing interventions for pupils in Years 3 to 13. Studies had to meet rigorous standards of research including use of randomised or well-matched control groups; measures independent of the programme developers, researchers and teachers; and adequate sample size and duration. Fourteen studies of 12 programmes met the criteria and programmes were divided into three categories: writing process models, cooperative learning writing programmes, and programmes integrating reading and writing.

Pupil achievement effects on writing were positive in all categories, with an effect size of +0.18 across all 14 studies. Similar outcomes were found for writing programmes that focused on the writing process (effect size = +0.17), those using cooperative learning (effect size = +0.16), and those focusing on interactions between reading and writing (effect size = +0.19).

Source: A quantitative synthesis of research on writing approaches in Years 3 to 13 (July 2019), Education Endowment Foundation

Using expressive writing to reduce test anxiety

Test anxiety can have negative impacts on pupils’ performance and psychological health. This study published in PLoS One examined whether expressive writing could be beneficial to alleviate test anxiety. Lujun Shen and colleagues conducted a randomised controlled trial among high school pupils in China who were facing The National Higher Education Entrance Examination (Gaokao), which is considered a crucial exam.

The study randomly selected 200 pupils (aged 16-17) from three high schools in Xinxiang city. Pupils were first assessed for eligibility. A sample of 75 pupils was recruited into the study for having a high level of test anxiety. Next, 38 of the pupils were allocated into an expressive writing group, and 37 of them were allocated to a control writing group. Pupils in the expressive writing group were instructed to write for 20 minutes about the positive emotions they had each day, consecutively for 30 days. Pupils in the control writing group were instructed to write about their daily activities consecutively for the same period of time.

Pupils were assessed using the Test Anxiety Scale (TAS) during the recruitment (late April), and after the end of the writing (early June). The study also analysed summaries of the writing manuscripts of the 38 expressive writing group pupils for qualitative data. The findings were as follows:

  • The expressive writing group scored significantly lower than the control writing group in the Test Anxiety Scale post-test.
  • There were no significant gender differences in the post-test TAS scores.
  • Qualitative analysis of the writing found more elements of positive emotion in the last ten days of expressive writing compared to the first ten days among the expressive writing group.

The authors suggest that expressive writing is an easy, inexpensive, and convenient method to cope with anxiety because it does not require a psychological counsellor nor a specific location.

Source: Benefits of expressive writing in reducing test anxiety: A randomized controlled trial in Chinese samples (February 2018), PLoS One, 5(13).

IPEELL writing intervention finds scale-up challenging

The Education Endowment Foundation has published the results of a randomised controlled trial of IPEELL

The IPEELL intervention is a writing process model in which pupils are encouraged to plan, draft, edit, and revise their writing. IPEELL stands for Introduction, Point, Explain, Ending, Links, and Language. The strategy provides a clear structure to assist writers and can be used for most genres of writing, including narrative writing. In addition to the writing process, the IPEELL intervention also involves ‘memorable experiences’ for pupils designed to act as a stimulus for their writing.

The trial tested the impact of one year of IPEELL for children in Year 6 and the impact of two years of IPEELL for children who started it in Year 5 and continued in Year 6. In total, 84 schools and 2,682 children in the north of England participated in the one-year trial and 83 schools and 2,762 children participated in the two-year trial. Writing outcomes were measured using Key Stage 2 (KS2) writing outcomes for the one-year trial and a bespoke writing test based on historic KS2 writing tests for the two-year trial.

The results showed that pupils who used IPEELL for two years made more progress in writing (effect size = +0.11) than pupils who did not. However, they made less progress in reading, spelling and mathematics than pupils in the control group (ES = -0.17—0.30). Pupils who used IPEELL for one year made less progress in writing, reading, spelling and maths than comparison pupils.

A previous trial of the approach had shown large positive results, but there were important differences between the two trials. In this latest trial, the model used teacher trainers who had never seen IPEELL delivered in the classroom. It also measured the average impact across all pupils, while the first looked only at pupils with low prior attainment. In this latest trial, pupils with low prior attainment who used IPEELL for two years made more progress in writing (effect size = +0.26) than pupils who did not – a larger effect size than the figure for all pupils.

Source: Calderdale Excellence Partnership: IPEELL evaluation report and executive summary (November 2018), Education Endowment Foundation

Reducing achievement gaps in academic writing

A study published in Journal of Educational Psychology reports on two years of findings from a randomised controlled trial of the Pathway Project, an intervention designed to reduce achievement gaps in academic writing for pupils who are Latino or have English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Ninety-five teachers from 16 secondary schools in the Anaheim Union High School District – a large, diverse, low-socioeconomic status, urban district with over 33,000 pupils (60% Latino and 66% EAL) – were randomly assigned to the treatment (Pathway) or control condition. Teachers in the Pathway group took part in a 46-hour professional development programme where they were trained to help improve pupils’ interpretative reading and text-based analytical writing using a cognitive strategies approach.

Findings from the study show promising results in both years of the intervention that appear to close the achievement gap in writing outcomes for Latino pupils and EALs in grades 7 to 12 (Years 8-13). In the first year of the trial, Pathway pupils gained 0.99 points more for an on-demand academic writing assessment than control pupils, which was highly statistically significant. Significant effects were attained for all grade levels except 12th grade (Year 13). The second year also showed a large positive, significant effect of the intervention on the full sample. Pre- and post-test scores for the academic writing assessment showed an effect size of +0.48 in the first year and +0.60 in the second year.

Programme effects were positive and significant for all the language groups, with the very largest occurring for EALs. This suggests that the Pathway Project may be particularly beneficial for pupils still in the process of learning English. In addition, pupils in the Pathway group had higher odds than pupils in the control group of passing the California Higher School Exit Exam in both years.

Source: Reducing achievement gaps in academic writing for Latinos and English learners in Grades 7–12 (January 2017), Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 109(1), 1-21.