Writing to learn: An experiment in calculus

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Gary Walls

Advisor Department



This study examined the effects of informal prompted writing assignments on academic achievement among college students enrolled in a first semester calculus course. Subjects were mostly (84%) first-year undergraduate students who were enrolled in the Spring semester of 1998 in a small liberal arts college located in the southern United States. Two intact classes, both taught by an experienced full-time faculty member (not the researcher), were chosen to participate in the study. The treatment group received a directed writing assignment two days a week during class time and was allowed approximately ten minutes to complete the assignment. The assignments were not graded, but the researcher read and commented on each paper. The control group did not write, but the group participated in class discussions which included the same mathematical concepts as the writing assignment. The same textbook was used for both sections, and both classes took the same tests, including the final examination. All homework assignments and computer laboratory exercises were identical for both groups, experimental and control. Also, the researcher considered the relationship of gender on academic achievement among the two groups. Achievement by males and females in the experimental group was examined to determine if there was a significant difference based on gender. Two-way analysis of covariance was the statistical procedure used to analyze the data. The comparison of academic achievement of the two groups showed that the treatment group's achievement mean score did not differ significantly from that of the control group's mean score. Also, the mean score of the females did not differ significantly from that of the males. The two-way analysis of covariance revealed no interaction between gender and treatment. The covariates used were the ACT mathematics and verbal scores. A t test on the means of academic achievement of the females and males in the experimental group demonstrated that there was no statistically significant difference in the two means. Although the study showed no statistically significant results between the two groups, this study does support conclusions drawn by earlier researchers. The classroom became an active learning center where each student was engaged in his own construction of mathematical concepts. The writing assignments allowed students to organize their thoughts and talk mathematics with more ease. The students' writings improved, and their explanations became more precise and more coherent. The classroom discussions following the return of the papers were lively and had more student participation.