What are post-secondary students required to write in courses across the university curriculum
and how often they are asked to write? The answer to this question remains elusive to both the
community of writing studies researchers throughout North America and, in fact, the world, yet
it is crucial that we know as much as we can if we are to help faculty members, students,
secondary school educators, and post-university employers recognize and improve the complex
task of developing post-secondary student literacy levels. To prepare students for the writing
demands they will face, writing program administrators, course supervisors, and writing centre
directors need to know what students across the university are asked to write. Instructors in
departments across the university will benefit from clear, well-researched descriptions of the
total demands their own degree programs place on students.
Writing assignments have interested researchers at all levels of schooling since the 1980s
(Applebee, Langer and Mullis (1986); Bridgeman and Carlson (1984); McCarthy (1987).
More recent work sometimes touches on writing assignments as a side issue (Kelly &
Bazerman, 2003; Dias, Freedman, Medway & Paré, 1999; Dias & Paré, 2000; Beaufort 2007;
Brereton 2007; Carson et al 1992). Recent work describing writing assignments across the
disciplines (Light 2001, 2003; Paltridge 2002; Cooper & Bikowski 2007; Melzer 2003,
2009; Canseco & Bird 1989; Graves, Hyland & Samuels 2010) identifies the kinds of writing
assignments undergraduates at universities write across the academic disciplines. Melzer’s
work focuses on writing across the curriculum approaches, identifying courses that have a
writing across the curriculum focus and using Britton’s (1975) taxonomy of purposes for
writing (expressive, poetic, functional). Melzer’s assignments draw from syllabi available
online at 100 different institutions in the US. Graves, Hyland, Samuels collected a complete
sample of syllabi from one college and 17 different departments. This approach shows
how writing assignments change within a specific program at one college and provides us with
a complete picture of writing tasks assigned to students within each of these programs and
responds to the call from Anson and Dannels (2009) to create program profiles of departments
in an effort to map the writing demands of undergraduates onto the curriculums that they
This project to analyze writing assignments is a national, federally-funded study in Canada to
document all the writing assignments students in a variety of disciplines are asked to write.
Universities from across Canada are contributing data that describes these writing assignments.
We have created a web interface that allows for researchers at geographically dispersed
institutions to contribute their data to the project. We hope to create a large, publicly accessible
databank that describes in more detail than ever before available the writing challenges placed
before undergraduate student writers in all disciplines.