5(2) p. 57

Word Processing in the Business and Technical Writing Classroom

Timothy Weiss

The word processor and the business-writing student seem a perfect match. After all, business-writing students know that they will use microcomputers throughout their careers, and, perhaps equally important, they often know how to type. My experience as a teacher-researcher in a "microcomputer classroom" at the University of Illinois has convinced me not only that business- and technical-writing students can quickly learn the basics of word processing, but also that they can write better papers than their counterparts who are instructed in traditional classrooms, and who compose in more conventional ways. What makes this possible is the teaching/writing environment of the microcomputer classroom where, unlike a lab, students use computers throughout the composing process, from invention and design to drafting and revision, and where instructors teach through "hands on" exercises that apply specific, dynamic strategies of composing.

Although research studies like Giovannini's "Teaching Business Communications by the Traditional Writing and the Word

p. 58

Processing Methods--A Comparison" and Cross and Curey's "The Effect of Word Processing on Writing" have tested unsuccessfully for positive effects of word processing on university-level student writing, these studies have not combined two important elements: a motivated, skilled student group and the teaching/writing environment of a microcomputer classroom. Giovannini's study, for example, divided business-communications students into two groups, "with the traditional writing group completing the assignments by hand or by typing, and with the word-processing group completing their assignments by dictating at a word-processing center." Cross and Curey's study randomly assigned students from three sections of a first-year composition class into two groups, with one group completing assignments by hand or typewriter, and the second using "the University microcomputer in a laboratory setting." Giovannini reported no statistical difference between the experimental and comparative groups; Cross and Curey found that "the overall effect of word processing on writing varies with general factors related to the teacher and the class" and that data "did not support any general statement about the effect of word processing on writing.'' (l)

Within the following pages, I will discuss teacher-research on word processing in the business- and technical-writing classroom at the University of Illinois and will report and interpret its findings. Unlike Giovannini's and Cross and Curey's studies, the "Business and Technical Writing 271, Persuasive Writing" study combined a group of students likely to succeed at word processing and a more conducive teaching/writing environment than either a word-processing center or a computer lab.


The purpose of the research was to determine whether professional writing students in the computer classroom would write better papers than their counterparts in the traditional classroom. These students were a likely group to test in that the majority are juniors and seniors who take the Business and Technical Writing 271 as an elective; they are skilled (i.e., 75 percent know how to type) and they consider writing important to their future, professional

p. 59

plans. The computer classroom, as opposed to the computer lab, is an excellent site at which to test for effects of computers on student writing because students in the class use computers throughout the writing process, which is often not the case for writing classes that use a computer lab once, or even twice, a week.

Four sections of Business and Technical Writing 271 participated in the study: two sections (29 students) in the "computer" group, and two sections (33 students) in the "non-computer" group. The computerized sections of the course were not listed as such in the University timetable, so students who enrolled in these sections had no foreknowledge that they would meet in a computer classroom and write their papers with a word-processing program, VOLKSWRITER DELUXE. I taught the sections of the computer group, and a colleague in the Division of Business and Technical Writing, R. Yontz, taught the two sections of the non-computer group.

Data were gathered from beginning-of-semester questionnaires concerning students' skills and attitudes about writing; weekly timesheets indicating the number of hours that students worked on assignments; first and final drafts of three shared assignments collected during the 6th, 10th, and 14th weeks of the semester; and end-of-semester questionnaires distributed to students in the computer group.

Each shared assignment, and the criteria by which it would be evaluated, was discussed in class. One week after the beginning of each assignment period, students exchanged first drafts and peer-evaluated them. The final drafts of the first and second assignments were collected in two weeks, and the third, in one-and-a-half weeks. These final drafts were then read and scored by two experienced graduate teaching assistants from the Division of Business and Technical Writing. The papers were scored twice, once by each reader, with the score of the first reader concealed from the second; the two scores were averaged, with that average recorded as the final score for the paper. A 6-point system of scoring was used, with 6 equivalent to "excellent" and 1 to "very poor."

The scoring sessions lasted between four and seven days. The reliability ratings of the scorers indicated a high level of agreement: .8764 for the first session, .8495 for the second, and .8634 for the third. These ratings were calculated by applying the Pearson

p. 60

product-moment correlation coefficient to 34 pairs of randomly selected scores from each session. (2)

B & TW 271 students are better-than-average U. of I. students with GPAs between 3.5 and 5 on a 5-point scale. About one-third are sophomores; the other two-thirds are juniors and seniors. Typical majors vary from English to Psychology to Agricultural Economics to Business Administration, with Advertising and Speech Communications dominating.

Questionnaires distributed during the first week of class showed students in both the computer and non-computer groups to be highly motivated. When students were asked to give a numeric value to their experiences with and attitudes toward writing, with 1 equivalent to "I dislike writing very much" and 10 equivalent to "I like writing very much," the median for the computer and the non-computer group was 8. The mean for the non-computer group was 7.45; for the computer group, 8.

As stated previously, students in the computer group did not know that their sections of B & TW 271 would be taught in a computer classroom. When asked on the first day of class to respond to the following question, "Now that you know that this section of B & TW 271 will be taught in a microcomputer classroom, do you feel more or less excited about this class?", some students expressed apprehension about computers and about a writing class taught in this setting;

A second questionnaire provided other information about the skills and attitudes of both the computer and the non-computer group. (4) Here is a profile:

In the computer group,

In the non-computer group,

As these figures indicate, the computer and the non-computer groups have similar profiles. Both groups were motivated, both perceived the importance of writing to their future plans, both possessed comparable skills and attitudes about writing. (The exception is the difference in word-processing skills: at the beginning of the semester a larger percentage of students in the non-computer group knew how to use word processors than did students in the computer group.) Therefore, on the basis of these data and on the anonymity of the microcomputer sections of B & TW 271, it was assumed that the computer and non-computer groups were not significantly different at the beginning of the semester.


On a weekly basis, B & TW 271 students kept track of time spent planning, writing, and revising their papers; students were encouraged to record times in their notebooks and to transfer this data to the timesheets. The computer group also kept track of the number of drafts that they produced and recorded this number on their timesheets.

p. 63

Although I recorded all weekly tallies for the computer and non-computer groups, I was primarily interested in the tallies for the weeks of the shared assignments. The data from each timesheet were recorded on a scale with half-hour and one-hour gradations, and the median from each category (i.e., the categories of Planning, Writing, Revision, and Total) was calculated and recorded in a computer spreadsheet.

The methods of teaching (lecturing, textual modeling, and conducting writing workshops) and materials (textbooks) were the same in the computer and non-computer sections of the course, with the "uncontrollable" difference that students in the computer classroom spent more time composing assignments in class than did students in the traditional classroom. I use the word "uncontrollable" because in the computer classroom, where each student is seated in front of his/her own computer, students write without a teacher's directive, whereas in the traditional classroom, students must often be told to write. Another difference between the two arrangements is that it is difficult to lecture in the computer classroom--to get my students' attention I must order them away from their computers!--whereas in the traditional classroom, even if the teacher is committed to holding writing workshops, it is easy to slide back into a format of lecturing.

The final questionnaire, distributed to the computer group only, asked questions like the following:

  1. "Do you feel comfortable writing with a word processor?"

  2. "Do you prefer writing with a word processor to writing with a pencil/pen and/or typewriter?"

  3. "Do feel that you spend more or less time working on a paper when you use a work processor?"

  4. "Do you feel that writing with a word processor has helped you become or will help you become a better writer?"

As a check on the results of the fall questionnaire, I distributed it again at the end of the spring semester. There were 24 respondents in the fall, and 29 respondents in the spring. (The final questionnaires appear in the Appendix.)

p. 64


We have identified five major findings from our study. Each is discussed in detail in this section.

First, we found that the computer group of B & TW 271 students wrote significantly better papers then the non-computer group. (See Table I in the Appendix.)

On a 6-point scale, the mean scores for the three writing assignments were as follows: for the first assignment, 3.571 for the computer group, 2.806 for the non-computer group; for the second assignment, 3.870 for the computer group, 2.806 for the non-computer group; for the third assignment, 4.086 for the computer group, 2.903 for the non-computer group. The computer group scored higher than the non-computer group by a mean of 0.765 on the first assignment, by a mean of 1.064 on the second assignment, and by a mean of 1.283 on the third assignment.

So, while the computer group raised its mean score on each assignment, there was relatively no change in the mean scores of the non-computer group on the three assignments. One feature of the scores for the third assignment is particularly interesting: 15 student papers in the non-computer group were ranked "Poor" or "Very poor," compared to zero student papers for those ranked in the computer group. Perhaps this suggests that the facility of revision with a word-processing program helps/encourages below-average and average students to achieve an average or better-than-average final product, more difficult to achieve in a typewritten or handwritten paper.

There are several factors which may account for the overall results, among them:

  1. The novelty of word processing may have temporarily motivated students in the computer group, causing them to do better work than they otherwise would have done or would do in the future;

  2. from the start, the computer group may have been better writers than the non-computer group, although beginning-of-semester profiles showed that both groups were very similar in attitudes and skills; and/or

  3. teacher-researcher bias favoring the computer group.

p. 65

In my opinion, the chief factor that led to better papers in the computer group was the teaching/writing environment of the microcomputer classroom itself, where the instructor can teach writing as sets of activities that students immediately do, rather than think passively about, and where students work on papers during class time and use a word-processing program during all stages of composing from planning and designing to drafting and revising.

Although students in the computer group had to make an extra effort to learn the new skill of word processing, once learned, this skill enabled them to expend less "wasted energy" than the non-computer group, who had to recopy and/or retype their papers, literally "pounding out" the same words and sentences again and again like a punishment. In part, the relatively large difference between the means of the computer and the non-computer groups on the third common assignment (a 1.283 difference) may have been the result of the fatigue that the non-computer group felt by the end of the semester and of the stress of a shortened assignment period, one-and-a-half weeks instead of two weeks. One would expect that the shortening of the assignment period would favor the computer group, for once a draft of an assignment is stored and perhaps later revised, it is never more than a command away from a printed copy of that assignment.

Our second finding was that the computer group quickly learned essential word-processing skills and indicated that they felt comfortable using a word-processing program to compose their papers: 83 percent indicated that they preferred writing with a word-processing program to writing in more conventional ways, and 88 percent indicated that word processing made writing easier for them. These percentages are impressive when contrasted with the results of the beginning-of-semester questionnaire: at that time, 78 percent of the students in the computer group composed with pen/pencil.

At the end of the spring 1986 semester, B & TW 271 students in the computerized sections of the course expressed very strong approval of word processing. All students indicated that they felt comfortable using a word-processing program to compose their papers: 93 percent indicated that they preferred writing with a word-processing program to writing with more conventional

p. 66

tools, and all students indicated that they believed word-processing programs facilitated writing. After learning to use VOLKSWRITER DELUXE in B & TW 271, 89 percent of the students indicated that they had written or were writing papers with word-processing programs for other courses at the university.

These results suggest that business and technical writing students, like these B & TW 271 students, can make an easy transition from pencil and typewriter to word processor. Even students who are apprehensive about computers often remark that writing with a word processor is less difficult than they had imagined. Furthermore, once students do learn to use a word processor, they overwhelmingly prefer it to writing with a pen or typewriter.

Our third major finding was that weekly timesheets indicated the computer group spent more time composing assignments than did the non-computer group.

Specifically, timesheets from the fall semester showed that the computer group spent about 5.6 hours per week working on writing assignments compared to 4.75 hours per week for the non-computer group. The computer group spent less time planning assignments than did the non-computer group (1.2 hours to 1.5 hours), but more time revising (2.8 hours to 1.5 hours).

Our fourth finding was that at the end of the fall semester, 40 percent of the students in the computer group indicated that using a word processor had helped them or would help them become better writers; at the end of the spring semester, 89 percent indicated the word processor had helped or would help them become better writers.

This varying response was probably due to two factors. First, problems with the computer networking during the initial weeks of the fall semester may have soured student attitudes. And second, the wording of the question to which fall students responded--"Do you believe that using a word processor has helped you become or will help you become a better writer in the future?"--emphasized "person" over "product." When I changed the wording of the question to emphasis "product"--"Do you believe that using a word processor has helped you produce better papers than you would have using pencil, pen, and/or typewriter?"--a much larger percentage of students responded affirmatively.

p. 67

The final finding was that students in the computer group indicated overwhelmingly that they prefer the computer classroom to the traditional classroom.

At the end of the spring 1986 semester, students were given a hypothetical choice: "Let's assume that you have decided to take another business/technical writing course. Would you prefer to take the course in a microcomputer classroom or a traditional classroom?" Ninety-six percent chose the microcomputer classroom.

It should be emphasized that all the above findings are preliminary; this initial research study needs to be replicated in several sections of a B & TW 271 taught by other instructors. However, the findings are important, I believe, because they tentatively confirm that two keys in using computers successfully in the business and technical writing classroom are selecting a skilled, motivated student group and a setting in which students use the computer throughout the writing process.

Timothy Weiss teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


  1. See Mary Giovannini, "Teaching Business Communications by the Traditional Writing and the Word Processing Methods

  2. A Comparison," paper presented at Midwest Regional meeting of the American Business Communication Association, Indianapolis, IN, April 1982, ERIC 216 370, and Cross and Curey's "The Effect of Word Processing on Writing," paper presented at the mid-year meeting of the American Society of Information Science, Bloomington, IN, May 1984, ERIC 247 921. See, also, Charles E. Beck and John A. Stibravy, "The Effect of Word Processing on Writing Quality," Technical Communication 33.2 (1986): 84-89, and Elizabeth A. Sommers and James L. Collins. "What Research Tells Us About Composing and

    p. 68

    Computing," paper presented to the Computer Educators League, Buffalo, NY, September 1984, ERIC 249497.

  3. For an explanation of how to calculate the Pearson product- moment correlation coefficient, see James H. McMillan and Sally Schumacher, Research in Education: A Conceptual Introduction (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1984) 430-31.

  4. These quotations are from a questionnaire distributed on the first day of class.

  5. There were 30 respondents in computer group and 33 respondents in the non-computer group. Some of the items on this questionnaire resemble items from a questionnaire in Colette Daiute's Writing and Computers (Redding, MS: Addison-Wesley, 1985).

  6. Decimals in these figures have been truncated.

Writing Assignment #3

Your sales letter will appear as the first page(s) of a package which includes the sales letter, catalogue, and order form. The letter should introduce and highlight the information in the catalog.

As a bonus, NG will send, with each gift membership, a free copy of the book, Cold, a spellbinding account of Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition. This special offer expires December 15. To obtain delivery of books, atlases, maps, etc. before December 25, orders must be placed by December 10.

Here are some fragments of information that you may want to refer to as you write your sales letter:

Other information can be culled from the seven-page excerpt of the NG gift catalog. (Suggested length of paper: 1-2 pages)

p. 69

Score Sheet for Writing Assignment #3

If you are the first reader, please put your score, a short comment, and initials on the slip of paper attached to the last page of the student letter. If you are the second reader, do the same on the slip of paper attached to the first page.


(The major distinctions between 6 and 5 are sense of audience and tone.)
5--Very good.
(The major distinction between 5 and 4 is the appropriate emphasis of
major and minor points.)
(The major distinction between 4 and 3 is quality of organization and

p. 70


3--Fair to Mediocre. Strong points and weak points are equal.
2--Poor. More weaknesses than strengths.
1--Very poor. Significantly more weaknesses than strengths.
0--Student letters in this ranking have not responded to the
assignment question.