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IES Grant

Title: Supporting Strategic Writers: Effects of an Innovative Developmental Writing Program on Writing and Reading Outcomes
Center: NCER Year: 2016
Principal Investigator: MacArthur, Charles A. Awardee: University of Delaware
Program: Postsecondary and Adult Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 5 years (7/1/2016 to 6/30/2021 Award Amount: $3,245,858
Type: Efficacy and Replication Award Number: R305A160242

Co-Principal Investigators: Henry May (University of Delaware), Zoi Phillippakos (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)

Purpose: Many community college students must take developmental courses in writing to improve their basic writing skills, but there are few instructional interventions designed especially for their needs and skill level. The purpose of this project is to test the efficacy of such an intervention that was developed and piloted in a previous Institute-funded grant (R305A100614). The pilot study of this intervention found improved outcomes in students' motivation, self-efficacy, and writing quality, and the current study aims to further evaluate the intervention using a larger, more diverse sample and more rigorous research design. If the intervention proves beneficial, students and teachers in college-level developmental writing courses may have an evidence-based curriculum that will build basic writing skills and improve students' chances for successfully completing college.

Project Activities: Using a multi-site, randomized controlled trial experiment, the researchers will test a developmental writing intervention, Supporting Strategic Writers (SSW), in which students learn strategies for planning, drafting, and revising compositions as well as strategies for self-regulation. Combined, these skills should help students successfully complete their developmental writing course and subsequent writing classes.

Products: The researchers will produce evidence of the efficacy of SSW for postsecondary students in developmental writing classes and peer-reviewed publications.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The research will take place in six to eight community colleges, including many that are minority-serving institutions, from across four states on the east coast. The colleges are located in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Sample: The proposed study will include 60 faculty and approximately 1200 students in developmental writing courses.

Intervention: SSW is an instructional program for college-level developmental writing based on self-regulated strategy instruction. In this intervention, students learn strategies for planning, drafting, and revising compositions with an emphasis on using knowledge of genre to guide planning and evaluation, including self-evaluation. Students also learn strategies for self-regulation, including goal setting, task management, progress monitoring, and reflection. Teachers follow a consistent instructional sequence that includes a discussion of genre, think-aloud modeling, collaborative and guided practice, and preparation for peer review. SSW includes 5 units that focus on paragraph or essay writing and 6 units that focus on writing with secondary sources, with each of the 11 units containing up to 10 lessons. Instructors are able to select the appropriate units and lessons to meet their college's program requirements and their own instructional goals. A quasi-experimental study of this intervention found a statistically significant effect, with the treatment group producing higher quality essays than the control, and with the treatment group showing higher motivation and self-efficacy for writing.

Research Design and Methods: The researchers will conduct a multisite, cluster-randomized trial with random assignment of instructors within college to treatment and control groups. Using a mixed-methods approach with interviews and observations, they will also gather information from students and instructors to help clarify the effects and track fidelity of implementation. Treatment instructors will implement SSW for a full semester, while control instructors continue with business-as-usual. Treatment instructors will receive 3 days of professional development and the Teachers' Guide to the program prior to the fall semester and coaching during the semester. At pretest and posttest, students will complete three assessments: persuasive essays scored for overall quality, length, and grammar; a motivation questionnaire tapping goal orientation, beliefs, self-efficacy, and affect; and standardized tests of writing and reading. The research team will use administrative data to follow treatment and control students past their developmental writing courses to track possible longer term impacts (e.g., subsequent writing course completion).

Control Condition: Teachers in control classes will continue with their typical, business-as-usual instruction per their college's standard developmental writing program.

Key Measures: The researchers will use existing assessments (e.g., Accuplacer) and writing prompts (e.g., retired prompts from the National Assessment of Educational Progress) as well as surveys about writing motivation and self-efficacy and interview data. They will use administrative records as follow-up data on academic success and retention for 2 to3 years for treatment and control group students. Instructor measures will include observations capturing fidelity of treatment and instructional practices in both treatment and control classes; pretest interviews to gather information on demographics, education, experience, and prior approaches to instruction; and posttest interviews of treatment instructors for responses to the program.

Data Analytic Strategy: The primary analyses of main effects on student outcomes will use hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) with students nested within instructors, and with college as a fixed factor. The researchers will also use HLM to investigate moderation of effects by site, initial writing achievement, ethnicity, and native-speaker status and multilevel structural equation modeling (MSEM) to explore mediated pathways. They will also conduct a cost analysis to determine the expense of implementing the intervention.

Project Website:


Book Chapters

Philippakos, Z. A. & MacArthur, C. A. (2019). Writing strategy instruction for low-skilled postsecondary students. In Perin, D. (Ed.). Wiley Handbook of Adult Literacy (pp. 495-516). New York: Wiley.

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

MacArthur, C. A., Jennings, A., & Philippakos, Z. A. (2019). Which linguistic features predict quality of argumentative writing for college basic writers, and how do those features change with instruction? Reading and Writing, 32(6), 1553-1574. Full Text

Traga Philippakos, Z. A., MacArthur, C. A., & Munsell, S. (2018). College student writers' use and modification of planning and evaluation strategies after a semester of instruction. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 62, 301-310.