Perceptions of Word Processing in Composition Classes: First-year and Upper-level Students Compared

44(3) p. 7

Perceptions of Word Processing in Composition Classes: First-year and Upper-level Students Compared

Linda L. Maik
Thomas A. Maik

After using word processing for several semesters in teaching our composition classes and being a bit more enthusiastic each successive semester about the application of this technology in our profession, we decided to survey our students during the 1985-86 academic year to determine their perceptions of and reactions to word processing. Specifically, we were concerned about their entry-level knowledge of computers, their confidence in using the technology, their use of word processing in the various stages of the composition process, and their perceptions of its helpfulness in their writing and in the improvement of that writing. Because our students were enrolled in two different composition courses, a first-year and an upper-level, we could also compare student perceptions at two different stages of development.

Although we have read about studies pertaining to word processing in the classroom, many have been limited to experimental groups with limited numbers of students (Rodrigues, 1985; Harris, 1985). Contrary to our enthusiasm regarding the potential for word

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processing as an aid in writing, others in the profession, as noted by Case (1985), may disagree and maintain a healthy skepticism. Our survey involved a total of 135 students over two semesters.

Our study involved a total of seven different composition classes: two first-year and one upper-level composition class in the fall semester and three first-year and one upper-level composition class during the spring semester. First-year students involved in the evaluation enrolled in English 110: College Composition I, a course required of all students for graduation at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The upper-level class (English 307: Writing for Management, Public Relations and the Professions) consisted primarily of seniors, many in their final semester before graduation; in addition, students chose this class as an elective. Over the two semesters, 95 first-year and 40 upper-level students enrolled.

Because the classes were different, the writing assignments were also different. English 110 is an introductory expository writing course including, in addition to the term paper, papers in definition, comparison, contrast, argumentation, etc. Students in the upper-level business and professional writing class wrote various types of letters, memos, long and short reports, resumes, etc. For each of the classes, students wrote approximately eight to ten papers. Although the papers for the two classes were different, teaching techniques in the two classes were frequently similar. For example, students did pre-writing, collaborative writing, and peer critiquing in both courses. And the techniques for introducing and teaching word processing were similar for the two student groups.

Although the English 110 classes were designated in the class schedule as involving computer-assisted instruction (the English 307 class included no special designation), it was difficult to know computer competencies of the students until they had actually enrolled and could be polled. We discovered, in a quick initial survey of our students, that although most of the students had not used word- processing programs before, most had some knowledge of computers. In fact, our formal survey at the conclusion of the semester revealed that only 20 of our 135 students from the two semesters had no prior knowledge of computers before they enrolled at the beginning of the semester. Of the 95 students in English 110, 67% had a computer class in high school. In contrast, only 8% of the 40 students enrolled in the upper-level business writing class

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had taken a computer course in high school, probably because computers were just beginning to be used when they were in secondary school; instead, the upper-level students' knowledge-- at least for 76% of the group--had come from a university computer class. The upper-level students had more than compensated for their high school lack; however, only 16% of them had never worked with computers, compared to a rather surprising 23% of the first-year students.

EXPERIENCE			First-year	Upper-level	Composite

None				23%		16%		20%
High School			67%		50%
Computer Course	University	10%		76%		30%
Computer Course

Recognizing, then, the range of computer literacy of our students, we agree with Waddell (November 1985) that the combination of a computer demonstration and a written tutorial followed by hands-on experience in the computer lab by the students themselves proved (for us, at least) to be the most successful approach for introducing students to word processing. All students in the composition classes at UW-La Crosse used PC-WRITE 2.5, a word-processing shareware program, that, as Waddell notes (August 1985), is "quality word processing at a price that's hard to beat." (Because it is a shareware program, the University has paid the $75 fee for a registered copy, and students may use the program without cost.)

Prior to copying PC-WRITE to diskettes provided by the students, we used a portable computer with monitor briefly in the classroom to demonstrate some basics of the computer and the word-processing program: the keyboard, the function keys, getting the A>, creating a file, calling up the directory, wordwrap, some basic but simple editing commands, and saving and exiting a file. At the conclusion of that classroom demonstration, the keyboard with stretch cord was passed from student to student to give each an opportunity, though brief, to compose on the computer and create a class file.

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Because these were composition classes and not computer classes, we limited course time allocated for instructing students in using the word-processing program. After the initial, brief computer demonstration in the classroom, the classes met during the following session in a computer lab. By that time, students had been given an opportunity to study a nine-page tutorial handout (collaboratively written by students in an earlier class) which had been distributed at the previous class; it was during the computer lab session that PC-WRITE diskettes were distributed to students. Included on the disk was a "guide" to PC-WRITE, with exercises to help students quickly become familiar with word processing. After the hands-on experience in the computer lab, students had the fundamentals for word processing and were essentially on their own. Later in the semester, some additional class time was used to explain dot commands that students might want to use, to present information on copying files from disk to disk and inserting files on the same disk, and to handle any problems individuals might have encountered.

Was our introduction to word processing adequate for our students? According to our survey, most students' initial encounter with word processing was positive: only 13%, an equal proportion of first-year and upper-level students, found the technology frightening, whereas 47% of the students found it challenging and 40% found it enjoyable. For whatever reasons, nearly twice as many first-year students as upper-level students (46%/25%) cited it as initially enjoyable; 62% of the upper-level students rated it as challenging.

INITIAL REACTION	First-year		Upper-level		Composite

Frightening		13%			13%			13%
Challenging		41%			62%			47%
Enjoyable		46%			25%			40%

Furthermore, we learned from our survey that many of our students, particularly the first-year students, quickly became comfortable and felt confident about using word processing for

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their assignments. After only one assignment, 17% (18% of the upper-level students and 17% of the first-year students) expressed confidence in using the technology. For 46% of the group, confidence in the technology came after using word processing for two assignments; 35% of the upper-level students and 51% of the first-year students felt confident at this point. After two assignments, the first-year students were 15 percentage points more confident than the upper-level, but after three assignments there was a difference of only 3 percentage points. For a minority of the students, gaining confidence in using a word-processing program took longer: at least three papers for 25% of the group, four papers for 4% and five or more papers for 8% of the group.

 CONFIDENCE	 First-year		Upper-level		  Composite

 One			17%			18%			17%

 Two			51%			35%			46%

 Three			21%			33%			25%

 Four			4%			5%			4%

 Five or more		7%			9%			8%

From the first day of each semester, we championed the merits of the word-processing program for revising papers. No more did students have to grind away at one rough draft--a draft that frequently also became their final draft because of the detested drudgery of copying and recopying multiple drafts. For peer critiquing sessions, we required that students bring multiple printed copies of their initial draft to class, so that student comments could be considered later when students revised these drafts for their final copies.

From the beginning of the semester, we touted class papers written with word-processing programs

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because of their texts' neatness and legibility. However, besides encouraging students to use the word-processing program for revisions, we also urged the students to use the word processor for the entire composing process--pre-writing, composing, revising, and editing. Furthermore, we also encouraged students to use the spelling checker.

As the students progressed through various writing techniques and projects throughout the semester, we tried to give classes tips for implementing computer technology to make the writing process easier. The step of the process least congenial to the computer, in our estimation, was prewriting, or planning. It's true that any prewriting done on paper--techniques like lists, outlines, journals, even freewriting--can be done on the computer, but with the possible exception of neatness and ease of rearranging outlines, the computer doesn't appear to offer many advantages over pen or pencil. The students, however, thought otherwise. In response to the statement, "My prewriting skills have improved because of word processing," 85% of both first-year and upper-level students agreed. One possible reason might lie in the answers to a later question about their changed attitudes toward composition because of word processing. Perhaps prewriting went better because the students had become more excited about writing in general.

Two questions in the survey dealt with the act of writing itself, a step in which using a word-processing program can definitely save time. When asked if they composed on the computer at least some of the time, 79% said that they did, the greater percentage of them being the upper-level students (87%/76%). Convincing students to use the computer for composing rather than treating the computer as a glorified typewriter for the retyping of rough drafts was a challenge. One helpful technique was to give students credit in their journals for computer-composed letters, one copy of which was sent and another submitted to the professor (with the more personal parts deleted, if desired). A major problem with composing on the computer, of course, lies in the accessibility of a computer at the time the student decides to write. When it's 3 a.m., the first-year student is in his or her room, and the computer lab, (all in other campus buildings) are locked, composing a rough draft on a computer becomes difficult indeed.

The other question about writing itself was an inclusive one. In response to the statement, "I believe my writing skills have

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improved because of word processing," 81% agreed. Fewer upper-level than first-year students (75%/84%) felt that their skills had improved; perhaps they had fewer skills that needed improvement. Interestingly, between the first and second semesters of the first-year class there was a marked increase (from 74 to 89%) in those who said that their writing skills had improved because of word processing. Perhaps this 15% increase can be attributed to a teacher who in the second semester was more experienced with computer application.

In no step in the writing process is the computer more flexible, efficient, and neat than in revision, and the students responded heartily to its capabilities in this area. A total of 94%, identical at both levels, used computer insertions, deletions, and movement of blocks in revising. When asked if the computer helped them see their errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, 90% of the students said that it did. The computer helped proportionately more first-year than upper-level students (94%/83%), perhaps because the first-year students had more errors to see.

And students also used the spelling checker. Despite the fact that the first-year students probably should have used it much more frequently, both levels of students used the checker at the same rate, 28%. However, that figure is somewhat misleading because it includes both semesters. For the first semester, we only advised our students to use the spelling checker and indicated its availability. In the second semester, we briefly demonstrated the spelling checker during a class session; as a result, 59% of 83 students enrolled in the four composition classes in the second semester used the spelling checker. In fact, 63% of the upper-level students used the checker after it had been demonstrated in the second semester classes while 47% of the first-year students did. Are the upper-level students simply better organized and have enough time to use the checker before their assignments are due? Or has the message of quality papers, including correct spelling, as a prerequisite for advancement on the job impressed them? A study by Storms (1983) shows that 68% of the business school graduates surveyed thought that writing was either critically important or very important to advancement.

Obviously, our survey reveals that students quickly felt at ease with the word-processing technology and generally applied the

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technology to the entire composing process. According to their selfassessment, 85% thought that word processing had improved their prewriting, 81% that it had improved their writing, and 94% that it was useful in revising. In addition, students also tried other software that would help them (the spelling checker, for example). In light of the positive reception given by students to word processing, it's not surprising that this technology changed their attitude toward the task of writing itself. Our questionnaire addressed pre-and post-use attitudes of the students toward writing.

First-year and upper-level students were practically identical in their original attitudes, but divergence occurred by the end of the course. Before using word processing, only 16% approached writing with eagerness, whereas 62% regarded writing as a task to be completed. Others--18%--approached it with apprehension and 4% saw it as drudgery. The two groups of students were only 2 percentage points apart in their agreement on the first two items and only 6 points apart in their agreement on the second two. By the end of the semester, the composite for the 135 students who completed the courses and used word processing in writing their assignments revealed a marked shift. Now 47% approached writing with eagerness, whereas only 33% regarded it as a task to be completed. After using word processing for one semester, only 20% approached writing with apprehension and not a single student saw writing as drudgery. Percentages for the two levels of students were similar except in the area of viewing writing with apprehension. In that area, only 12% of the upper-level students were apprehensive compared with 23% of the first-year students (the first-year students were actually 4 percentage points more apprehensive than when they started). Perhaps the first-year students now realized just how complex writing is, or perhaps they had more experience with computer-gobbled papers. At any rate, the result was that the eagernessto-write factor had increased by 31%.

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ATTITUDES			Before				After

TOWARD			     (First-year/			First-year/
WRITING 		     Upper-level)			Upper-level)

Apprehension		     18% (19/17)			20% (23/12)
As an assignment
   to be completed	      62% (64/58)		        33% (31/38)
As drudgery		      4% (2/8)				0% (0/0)
Eagerness		      16% (15/17)		        47% (46/50)

Finally, we wanted to learn in our survey whether students would use word processing again after they had finished our classes. Knowing their positive response to other aspects of word processing, we were not surprised by their overwhelming intention to use word processing in the future. In fact, 96% of the students--the most similar percentages in the whole survey for both first-year and upper-level students--indicated they would use word processing in the future, whereas only 4% did not plan to use it.

The survey has been helpful to us. We learned that the response of students at both the first-year and upper-level levels was extremely positive. The first-year students, despite being less familiar with computers than the upperlevel students, gained confidence more quickly, and more of them credited the computer with improving their writing skills. However, the upper-level students, perhaps because of their maturity and greater exposure to written requirements in various classes over their college careers, appeared to recognize the greater potential for word processing and to make greater application of it: more of the upper-level students used the computer in the entire composing process, more used the spelling checker after the demonstration in the second semester, and more ended the class less apprehensive about word processing. Our survey also demonstrated the value of the teacher and alleviated, we believe, fears of the machine-versus-human syndrome. Teachers are important; telling or simply advising students is inadequate. For example, without the application and the hands-on demonstration of the spelling checker in the second semester, actual use of that valuable software for students in our discipline would have been abysmally poor in light of the first-semester record of use.

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Certainly our survey affirms our belief that word processing has a place in composition curriculum. With some exceptions, most students, even some with little computer expertise, are receptive-- even enthusiastic--to the technology, learn it quickly and apply it broadly in the composing process. In future semesters, as we refine the application of word processing in the composition process, we hope to persuade that small minority of 4% in our group who indicated no future plans to use word processing that it is a valuable skill and an increasingly important one in this age of information.

Linda Maik and Thomas Maik teach at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.


Case, D. (1985). Processing professorial words: Personal computers and the writing habits of university professors. College Composition and Communication, 36(3), 317-322.

Harris, J. (1985). Student writers and word processing: A preliminary evaluation. College Composition and Communication, 36(3), 323-330.

Rodrigues, D. (1985). Computers and basic writers. College Composition and Communication, 36(3), 336-339.

Storms, C. (December 1983). What business school graduates say about the writing they do at work: Implications for the business communication course. The ABAC Bulletin, 13-18.

Waddell, C. (1985). PC-WRITE: Quality word processing at a price that's hard to beat. Computers and Composition, 2(4), 77-83.

Waddell, C. (1985). Word processing in the writing class: Tutorial can help break the ice. Computers and Composition, 3(1), 61-70.