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Composition Forum 42, Fall 2019

Writing Instruction and Measures of Quality of Education in Canadian Universities: Trends and Best Practices

Laura Reave

Abstract: This study examines the ways in which 28 top-rated Canadian universities are using required and elective courses to focus on developing student writing skills. Currently, 40 percent of the universities rated in the top 15 of MacLean’s magazine’s 2018 ‘Comprehensive’ category require that their students take at least one course which focuses on writing, usually in the first year. Thirteen more top-rated schools require writing courses. Some also offer many upper-division courses to further develop and refine students’ writing and critical thinking skills, using Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines programs. These schools are responding to a clear call from professors, employers, government oversight agencies, and the students themselves for more advanced communication skills, especially writing, upon graduation.

Is writing instruction related to a quality university education? What can we learn from the efforts of top-rated schools to shape their curriculum to build the writing skills students need for success? This study examines the ways in which 28 top-rated Canadian universities are using required and elective courses to focus on developing student writing skills. The 28 Canadian universities featured were from 50 universities included in the top 25 rankings published in Maclean’s magazine under the categories of “Best Overall,” “Primarily Undergraduate,” “Reputation,” and “Comprehensive” (research and program curriculum). Using these categories, MacLean’s surveyed 16,955 students (Dwyer). This study also includes Schools that help you become a strong writer, a Maclean’s survey of 10,000 Canadian students (Where professors know your name). Curricular change is driven by multiple stakeholders. Because university rankings draw media and public attention, they have begun to guide the strategy of university leaders, governments, students, and employers (Hazelkorn 87).

In this study, universities rated in the top 15 of the “Comprehensive” category were explored to discover both writing course requirements and number of elective writing courses offered. The hypothesis was that top-ranked schools would be found to be preparing their students to write by requiring courses in writing and offering many choices in writing courses. The “Comprehensive” category was chosen because it encompasses both teaching and research at universities that offer graduate degrees. Results only partially confirmed the hypothesis. Currently, 40% percent (6 out of 15) of the universities rated in the top 15 of MacLean’s magazine’s 2018 “Comprehensive” category now require their students to take at least one course which focuses on writing, usually in the first year, and 85% offer 3 or more writing courses. To explore undergraduate writing course requirements at other top-rated Canadian universities outside the “Comprehensive” category, institutions included in the “Best Overall,” “Primarily Undergraduate,” and “Reputation” categories were also examined. Thirteen other institutions in the top 25 of other rankings not already included in the “Comprehensive” category (some schools rank highly in several categories) were also found to require at least one writing course for the majority of their students. Six require two courses or more. A previous study of universities in Ontario (Procter, cited in Dion and Maldonado 20) found just two that required writing courses, and this study found four, indicating a slow but steady increase in requirements.

This study also examines some of the main themes shaping writing curricula and then describes and analyzes the approaches of nine top-rated schools. Main trends identified were government demands for accountability, new writing initiatives developed outside the School of Arts, the disappearance of writing assessments, new writing and critical thinking requirements, responsiveness to student career needs and market demand, and increased offerings and enrollments in writing courses.

Further analysis of writing courses at the top ten universities in Maclean’s “Comprehensive” rankings found that the writing instruction provided goes beyond ‘basic skills’ training by including discipline-specific genres, rhetorical traditions and techniques, academic research, analysis, persuasion, and argumentation. These subjects are taught in small classes called ‘seminars,’ ‘writing-intensive’ classes, or courses in ‘critical reading and writing.’ In addition to foundational courses, 9 out of 10 offer more than three upper-level writing courses, and three have very strong rhetoric degree programs.

Literature Review

History and Background

Required courses in writing, often in the first year of university, have been a tradition in the U.S. for over 100 years, but only recently have many Canadian universities begun to adopt this model and to incorporate courses in writing and rhetoric into their curriculum. Scholars have long observed that U.S. and Canadian writing instruction have developed in very different ways, with the U.S. embracing a massive and pervasive “Freshman Comp” requirement that has produced an entire scholarly genre drawing over 3,000 faculty per year to the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). In contrast, Smith found that in 2005, only a few Canadian universities required students to take a first-year course in writing, and just about a hundred faculty members attended the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Literature (CASLL) conference (322).

Russell describes the history of these divergent paths, beginning in 1900 with Harvard University requiring that all students to take “English A” (4). Harper and Vered explain that the intent was to develop a degree-long writing program, but that did not get off the ground. Instead, Harvard and most institutions created a first-year ‘Freshman Comp’ course. Russell explains that U.S. universities began to have more students without academic preparation after World War II, with the return of soldiers and the GI Bill that covered college tuition (5). Rhetoric became a recognized academic discipline, partially to provide writing expertise and trained writing instructors.

At the same time, professors were increasingly expected to produce publications, and automated multiple-choice exams gave them more time to focus on their research rather than grading papers and essay tests (Harper and Vered). However, some professors soon realized the detrimental effect of automated exams on student writing skills, and it became apparent that one isolated first-year course did not provide adequate instruction and practice (Anson 3).

Thus began two movements: Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID). WAC emphasizes writing as a way to learn that can be used in any discipline as a pedagogical tool (Thaiss and Porter 535). WAC advocates believe that writing produces deeper-level learning by utilizing critical thinking skills. They also recommend that it be utilized across the disciplines and throughout a student’s education rather than isolated in one English or composition course. WID offers a way to tailor instruction to the genres and forms of a particular profession.

Another major trend in writing instruction in the U.S. has been the popularity of the process approach introduced by Linda Flower in 1979. This approach breaks down the writing process into stages of brainstorming, drafting, gathering feedback, and revising. Instructors structure assignments to incorporate peer or instructor feedback in the drafting process, as opposed to simply providing comments and a grade on a final draft. Pennington states that while the process approach is popular in the U.S., it is not widely practiced elsewhere (2). In Canada, this approach is used in a few writing programs, but it is not widespread.

Writing courses and writing programs are a fairly recent development at Canadian universities (mostly within the past two decades). This curricular trend is an intensification as well as a broadening of a movement toward non-literary writing instruction in Canadian universities documented by Tania Smith in 2006. She noted rapid changes from 1995-2005, moving in the direction of interdisciplinary writing instruction and the development of professional writing and rhetoric programs (349). This trend has continued, with the addition of many new creative writing programs for both undergraduates and graduates. At the same time, she and other scholars such as Kearns and Turner have noted that many English departments, especially those at large medical-doctoral universities that emphasize research, have resisted these trends by remaining focused on traditional literary studies courses.

While U.S. universities expanded access through open enrollment and composition instruction, in Canada Graves observes that the strategy has often been to “bar the door against the barbarians” (3). A protectionist attitude in universities can be traced to what Smith calls the widespread belief that academic writing instruction is a basic literacy matter and thus necessary only in high schools and not in universities (321). We can also see this belief reflected in the contrast between writing requirements in Canadian colleges versus universities, with all colleges in one recent study reporting a requirement of at least one English or communication course in most or all of their diploma programs, and 79% requiring a second course in most or all programs (Fisher and Hoth).


The MacLean’s rankings were chosen because they have been published for twenty years in Canada, they provide a quick reference to the recognized leaders in higher education in Canada, and they have been known to get the attention of university administrators, faculty, and students. MacLean’s bases its “Comprehensive” rankings on student success (awards, scholarships, access to faculty, student satisfaction), comprising 28 percent of the final score; faculty (awards, scholarly output, citation impact) 24 percent; resources (expenses per student, library budget), 13 percent; student support (scholarships and student services budget), 13 percent; and reputation (faculty and administrative opinion survey), 15 percent (Dwyer).

To determine the emphasis placed on writing instruction in an institution as a whole, this study looked at both curricular requirements for writing courses and the total number of writing courses offered at the school. The first research question was which universities required a course in writing for all or most of their students. University web sites were searched for required writing courses, distribution requirements, and graduation requirements. The courses had to be required for all students or the majority of students at the entire university. Only courses that emphasized writing instruction in the title or course description were counted. If the requirements were unclear, phone calls to academic advisors and administrators were used for clarification. It is true that a researcher can find a writing course requirement in, for example, the Electrical Engineering department, but this discovery often requires detective work beyond the scope of this study, which looks at overall curricular requirements and trends.

The second research question was how many writing courses were offered at the institution, to determine the institution’s emphasis on providing choices and depth in writing course offerings. Courses focusing on rhetoric and writing at the top 15 ‘Comprehensive’ schools were tallied, excluding courses in journalism or creative writing courses in fiction, poetry, or drama. Non-credit courses focusing on writing such as those designed for ESL students, continuing education courses, or workshops and seminars designed by Writing Centers were also not counted. Introduction to Literature courses were counted only if they emphasized writing skills instruction in the course description. Courses had to have ‘writing’ in their title or description, or be taught by experts in writing or communication.

There are some courses that focus on writing tucked away in different departments within faculties at Canadian universities, but finding them is a time-consuming process, especially when writing is not featured in the course title. In addition, these courses are often not supervised or monitored, so the extent to which they can be counted as university-level instruction in writing is sometimes questionable. At one university, for example, student writing in the Engineering Communication course is evaluated by Engineering graduate students who have no training in writing or writing pedagogy. In contrast, at the University of Saskatchewan, the Ron & Jane Graham School of Professional Development in the College of Engineering now offers eleven courses in rhetoric and communication taught by experts with advanced degrees in rhetoric. The University of Toronto has similarly developed an Engineering Communication program with seven faculty members who have expertise in rhetoric and communication. Certainly, quality writing instruction can be provided outside English and Writing departments, but documenting it requires investigating each school in the university, including its departments and the instructional methods used, which is beyond the scope of this review of broad curricular trends. Integrated instruction through faculty partnerships is also difficult to track, and therefore, it was not included, though it too can provide quality writing instruction.

The hypothesis that top-ranked schools would be found to be preparing their students to write by requiring courses in writing and offering many choices in writing courses was proven true for only four universities in the “Comprehensive” rankings: Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria, University of Waterloo, and Memorial University. These institutions have developed strong reputations for quality writing instruction and expertise in writing. Three other institutions in the top 15 schools in the “Comprehensive” category also require all or most of their students to take a writing course: Wilfrid Laurier University, York University, and University of Regina. Other top-ranked universities do not have required writing courses, but they have developed many elective courses in writing. These include Carleton University, Ryerson University, University of Regina, and Brock University, which all offer more than 10 choices in rhetoric and writing courses.

To further examine the hypothesis that quality instruction was associated with providing instruction in writing, institutions ranking in the top 25 of other categories were also examined. Thirteen other top-ranked universities were found to require courses in writing. Not surprisingly, the University of St. Thomas, which was rated by students as number one in providing effective writing instruction (“Where professors know your name”), requires four writing courses. McMaster University, also rated by students as among the best in writing instruction, requires two writing courses, as does Dalhousie University. Ten top-ranked universities were found to require one writing course. In conclusion, this study found 19 top-ranked universities that require writing courses.

Table 1. Writing Instruction at Universities in McLean’s ‘Comprehensive’ Rankings 2018



Required Writing Courses

Courses in Rhetoric and Writing; Department Home


Simon Fraser University


17 (English; Communication Studies, Interactive Arts and Technology; Publishing; Computing Science; Business; Education)


University of Victoria


16 (English; Writing)


University of Waterloo


26 (English Language and Literature)


University of Guelph


2 (English)


Carleton University


12 (English Language and Literature; Communications)


University of New Brunswick


8 (English)

6 (tied)

Wilfrid Laurier University


(Brantford campus)

6 (English)


Memorial University


15 (English; Communication Studies)

8 (tied)

York University


14 (Writing)


Concordia University


11 (English)


Ryerson University


15 (Professional Communication)


Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)




University of Regina


2 (English)


University of Windsor


8 (English)


Brock University


24 (Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse Studies)

Table 2. Required Writing Courses at Other Universities in the Maclean’s 2017-2018 Rankings & 2015 Writing Survey



Required Writing Courses

University of St. Thomas

1, Writing; 13, Undergraduate


University of British Columbia

3, Reputation


University of Lethbridge

4, Undergraduate


University of Alberta

5, Reputation


McMaster University

6, Reputation; 17, Writing


Saint Mary’s University

7, Undergraduate


University of Prince Edward Island

10, Undergraduate


University of Winnipeg

14, Undergraduate


Dalhousie University

14, Overall


Nipissing University

14, Writing; 17, Undergraduate


University of Ottawa

16, Reputation


University of Saskatchewan

23, Reputation


University of Manitoba

25, Overall


Trends and Best Practices in Writing Instruction

Trend One: Government Agencies Demanding Accountability for Learning Outcomes

A major influence toward more legitimacy for WAC, WID, and writing and rhetoric courses has come from external stakeholders such as employers and government oversight agencies, who have been citing a need for improved writing and communication skills in graduates. Government oversight agencies have begun to demand that universities demonstrate that these learning outcomes are being achieved. In his review of university writing instruction worldwide, Ken Hyland states that one reason for the current interest in writing is that universities around the world are “increasingly becoming subjected to ‘teaching quality audits’ by funding bodies” (54).

One example is a recent skills assessment study sponsored by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (Weingarten and Hicks). The report cites previous findings (Dion and Maldonado) using Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) tests. Findings showed that “one in four university-educated adults and one in two college-educated adults in Canada do not have the level of advanced literacy skills required to succeed in tomorrow’s labour market” (4). Similarly, in their own study of 20 Ontario institutions and more than 7,500 volunteer student participants, one in four graduates did not score at an acceptable level of literacy (below Level 3) (6). The researchers add, “Moreover, less than a third of our graduating students scored at advanced Levels 4 or 5” (6).

The response of government stakeholders has been to develop degree expectations that address essential skills such as writing and critical thinking. In Ontario, for example, universities have agreed to a quality assurance framework for review and approval of undergraduate programs that uses the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents (OCAV) undergraduate degree expectations, including learning outcomes assessment. These expectations state that graduates must have “demonstrated communication skills” that are defined as the “ability to communicate accurately and reliably, orally and in writing, to a range of audiences,” with honors graduates additionally required to communicate “information, arguments, and analyses.” Graduates are also expected to have demonstrated “critical thinking and analytical skills inside and outside the discipline,” enabling them to “evaluate the appropriateness of different approaches to problems using well established ideas and techniques” and “to devise and sustain arguments or solve problems using these methods.”

It is impossible to demonstrate the achievement of these outcomes with the standard lecture and multiple-choice exam courses that require no writing. According to one study on active learning, “the passive nature of the learning experience in didactic lectures leads to a failure in developing higher order skills ... Lectures often focus on knowledge and comprehension and rarely require higher order skills from students such as meaningful analysis, evaluation or synthesis” (White et al. 623). However, a random sampling of class recordings at one major research university in Australia showed that the vast majority (>90%) demonstrated lecture alone, “with little if any interaction most of the time” (White et al. 625). The sciences are known to particularly favor the lecture method, but in rare writing-intensive courses in biology and economics, study results showed that students developed improved critical thinking skills (Grant and Piirto 259, Marr and Misser 21). Another study found that incorporating carefully designed writing assignments improved students’ critical thinking and writing skill scores, even in large classes, compared to a control group in a conventional course (Bernstein and Greenhoot 39).

Writing courses promote critical thinking not only in instructional delivery but also in assessment. Most university courses are evaluated with multiple-choice or short-answer exams. In Ontario, one survey found that most instructors of large classes use multiple-choice assessments (Kerr; Dion and Maldonado). In a U.S. survey of faculty at multiple universities over ten years, 26 percent said that they used multiple-choice exams, and 35.2 percent used short-answer tests (Sax et al. 36). In reviewing examinations from 40 research universities, Braxton found that 37 percent of the questions asked for recall of information, and 25 percent tested comprehension of course material, but just 18 percent required critical thinking (657). The result is that students gain little experience in building their own theses using analysis, synthesis, and persuasion; and faculty rarely assess deep-level knowledge and understanding. My own third- and fourth-year university students told me that they had not been required to write an essay for ‘years,’ resulting in their expressing anxiety over a short writing assignment in my course, an elective they were finally taking to fulfill the university requirement that they take at least one upper-level course that required some essay writing.

Truly university-level writing instruction typically focuses on creating a deeper level of comprehension and evaluation than can be accomplished through multiple-choice exams. Research shows that writing improves learning and critical thinking skills. Harris and Schaible report that “a substantial body of evidence demonstrates improved subject-specific learning when writing across the curriculum is used in a rigorous manner” (32). Their review of studies demonstrates that students of economics (Smithson), biology (Moore), and business (Ault and Michlitsch) have achieved higher test scores and showed superior learning when taught with WAC methods, but only when writing was guided and carefully critiqued by well-trained teachers (Moore, Smithson). The Writing to Learn movement sees writing not just as expression but as an integral part of the cognitive process of learning.

Trend Two: Writing Initiatives Being Designed Outside English and the School of Arts

Many university faculty members have started to realize the importance of writing, and they have embarked on innovations of their own to try to improve the quality of writing instruction. Faculty have done studies of these curricular innovations in fields as diverse as psychology (Fallahi et al.), chemistry (Stewart et al.), geography (Leydon et al.), accounting (Craig and McKinney), biology (Brownell et al.), sociology (Burgess-Proctor), math (Ackerman et al.), nursing (Schmidt), marketing (Bacon et al.), and computer science (Cilliers). These innovations include integrated instruction, writing workshops, required writing courses, and capstone courses.

Like the scientists that they are, these faculty members have designed research projects to test the effectiveness of these ‘interventions’ using pre- and post-tests of skills, breaking down writing into specific ‘competencies,’ and comparing their students to control groups. In all these diverse fields, the researchers have demonstrated the efficacy of adding writing instruction to their courses through showing significant improvement in writing skills with reliable empirical results. Adding writing instruction has resulted in statistically significant improvement in synthesis (Boscolo et al. 419), editing (Bacon et al. 217) overall writing quality (Leydon et al., 151; Ackerman et al. 315), clarity, organization, grammar, and style (Fallahi et al. 174); and planning and revision (Kolb et al., 22).

These recent research projects show that very diverse faculties are beginning to see the need for improving student comprehension as well as writing and critical thinking skills, and they are willing to take action to try to improve writing instruction in their disciplines. This is the good news. The bad news is that these attempts are scattered, piecemeal, often one-shot deals rather than a coordinated, unified effort to improve instruction throughout the curriculum and students’ educational careers. Garbati’s study of Ontario universities states, “In conclusion, this study shows that student writing at university is poorly addressed in any systematic, coherent way” (4). Currently, when most universities offer writing instruction, it is usually in stand-alone, introductory courses. This instruction, presented in first- and second-year courses, is long forgotten by third or fourth year, when most students need to be preparing to begin their professional careers. Whatever writing skills they may have acquired in early courses fail to develop and even atrophy without practice. This has been demonstrated in research on engineering students, whose writing skills actually decline in their upper years (Astin 6).

In order to develop student comprehension and skills throughout their education, WAC initiatives attempt to integrate writing instruction into the existing curriculum. Writing is considered to have an important role in learning in all subject areas, and all professors are held responsible for writing instruction. However, a disadvantage when assuming that all professors should teach writing is the accompanying assumption that anyone can teach writing. Therefore, often instructors are not trained or monitored. As long as some writing is occurring in the course, it can qualify as writing across the curriculum, and course window-dressing can happen rather than a sincere effort to incorporate critical thinking, revision, and quality feedback into assignments.

Writing in the Disciplines (WID) focuses on developing writing instruction in discipline-specific genres or conventions, often to prepare students for professional writing tasks in their future careers. One disadvantage with this approach is that writing instruction is often isolated in just one course that is developed and taught within the discipline. These are often referred to as “service courses” taught by instructors outside the discipline and typically not monitored, supervised, or taken seriously by either faculty or students. One course also does not provide the continual practice that students need to develop and reinforce skills.

Unfortunately, developing writing pedagogy and improving student skills are often not seen as major or even minor purposes in English departments. Smith observes Canadian English departments as competing for status and the best students with the goal of becoming “elite, research-based centres of traditional literary study,” thus viewing composition as “outside their disciplinary mandate” (325).

This narrow definition of purpose has denied many English departments the opportunity to demonstrate the professional relevance of their discipline as well as the quality of education that they provide. While most university courses use the large lecture and multiple-choice exam method, small English and writing courses lend themselves easily to a learning environment in which students can be actively engaged in writing and discussion, leading to deeper learning. In their study of WAC initiatives, Clughen and Connell explain the irony that while:

academics may think that embedding writing development pedagogies is going to ‘reduce’ them to being teachers of grammar and servants of the new vocationalism, frustrated proponents of a WAC approach want them to understand that actually WAC offers a much richer conceptualization of the role of language ... Rather than embracing the mechanical skills model of teaching, WAC ... actually challenges it, and furthermore offers rich opportunities for the critical engagement with ideas that academics rightly seek to protect. (342)

Limiting themselves to a narrow focus on literary studies has also denied many English departments the opportunity to benefit from the WAC and WID trends and to expand their offerings, their enrollment, and thus their budgets by fulfilling the strong need in the market for graduates with more advanced writing and critical thinking skills.

Ironically, the WAC and WID movements, combined with the reluctance of Canadian English departments to embrace either composition courses or ‘service courses’ designed for other faculties, has resulted in many writing initiatives being designed outside English departments. This trend, first identified in a survey of 61 Canadian universities by Roger Graves in 1995, was still evident in Smith’s 2006 survey of 14 Canadian universities. According to Smith (2006), this continued resistance has created a ‘compensatory trend’ of increases in numbers and sizes of outside writing programs and WAC initiatives such as engineering writing programs and writing centers (351).

One of the main locations for this trend has been in writing centers located in Student Services or the library. These centers, which offer tutoring and non-credit workshops, are part of what Harper and Vered refer to as the deficit-remediation model that originated in the 1950’s with the purpose of discovering and correcting handicapping factors in students’ education (Anderson and Eaton 91). According to this model, students are identified as having ‘problems’ with writing, and they are referred to Student Services to be ‘fixed’ (Stevenson & Kokkinn).

And, since writing is defined as a basic ‘study skill,’ instructors do not need to have advanced expertise or training, and they do not need to be faculty, who are instead allowed to focus on research in their academic disciplines. In the U.S., writing centers are frequently located in English departments, as a natural outlet for their expertise, but in Canada few English departments are willing to shelter a writing center. A recent survey of Canadian writing centers shows that they are most frequently located in libraries, while centers in the U.S. are most frequently in classroom buildings, with Canadian centers allotted half the space of their U.S. counterparts (Bromley 39). According to Smith (2006), Canadian English departments’ reluctance to embrace rhetoric and writing can be attributed to two entrenched traditional attitudes: “1) writing instruction is always something basic that should be limited to less advanced students, and 2) literary reading and response are more intellectually advanced and/or more disciplinarily relevant” than writing instruction in professional genres (326).

Trend Three: Writing Assessments Disappearing from Universities

The remedial/deficit model locates the failure in the student rather than in the curricula or teaching, and thus proficiency tests are employed at the entry point (Anderson and Eaton 90). According to an HEQCO report on trends in postsecondary student literacy, post-admission assessment of writing “has all but disappeared within Ontario’s universities” (Dion and Maldinado 20). Since the report was published, the three assessments it found—the University of Waterloo‘s English Language Proficiency Exam (ELPE), Nipissing University’s English Writing Competency Test (WCT), and Huron University College’s Writing Proficiency Assessment (WPA)—have all been discontinued. Perhaps one reason the tests have disappeared was the embarrassing results. According to the ELPE administrator at the University of Waterloo, “roughly 30% of entering students do not pass the ELPE on their first attempt, an increase of 5% over previous years” (22). Failures included students in elite programs with high entrance averages. The last ELPE exam was administered in April 2019, replaced by a communication requirement which now varies widely across the different schools. (Previously, most faculties required students to take both a foundational and an elective course in writing, so required writing courses have been reduced to one). Some programs require a specific course such as Applied Health Sciences 107, Arts 130, or GENE 199, Communication in the Engineering Profession. The course description for AHS 107 does not mention writing, but those for Arts 130 and GENE 199 do. Even programs within the Engineering school differ, with one requiring a test, another requiring an elective in English or Communication, and the rest requiring GENE 199.

The near-extinction of writing proficiency entrance exams in Canadian universities can be seen as a positive trend if it drives curricular reform instead of blaming and shaming students. Harper and Vered argue that a narrow focus on entry-level competence fails to recognize communication as an important outcome of university study, which new government regulations are now emphasizing as the focus of quality assurance output. According to Graves’ 1995 survey, Canadian English departments typically market their first-year courses as though they fulfill learning outcomes for writing, serving as “universal guides to clear writing,” when in fact they are just introductory literary study courses (56). Smith also identifies a widespread assumption that “critique of well-written literature will automatically result in the improvement of one’s own writing” (325). However, Smith observes an absence of a convincing theory of pedagogy whereby this transference is accomplished.

The problem with eliminating entrance and exit writing assessments is that there is no way to examine whether mandated degree expectations are being met. According to one HEQCO report, “By several measures, students who meet college English requirements should be able to write an error-free, five-paragraph argumentative essay,” but “as previously cited statistics demonstrate, students are failing in large numbers to meet even this level of competence” (Dion and Maldonado 24). One assessment of university graduate skills found disappointing results when 97 graduate students from different universities were assessed using the SAT II: Writing Test that addresses technical skills such as grammar, punctuation, usage, clarity and coherence (Singleton-Jackson et al.). The graduate students did not score significantly higher than the typical high school senior.

In regard to degree expectations and learning outcomes, previous studies (Clark et al.) describe the Ontario government’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to higher education quality: Government expectations are spelled out, but institutions are rarely held accountable. Dion and Maldonado state that the data on literacy suggests that “it may be time to revisit this philosophy” (25). Five years later, another HEQCO report presented the same conclusion, worded more strongly: “We must implement large-scale assessment on a census basis, integrate it into students’ program requirements, and make it longitudinal in design and repeatable over time” (Weingarten and Hicks).

A review of the literature documenting current attempts to improve student writing supports the overall conclusion of one researcher that “student writing at university is poorly addressed in any systematic, coherent way” (Garbati et al. 4). However, some of Canada’s best universities have been shaping their curriculum to address the development of writing skills in the beginning and throughout their students’ education. The most thorough approach begins with a foundation course and then follows through with upper-division instruction that develops higher-level skills. The best instruction is typically provided by experts in writing, either through partnerships in integrated instruction or in stand-alone courses.

Trend Four: Universities Creating Writing and Critical Thinking Requirements

Canadian universities such as the top-ranked University of St. Thomas are recognizing the connection between writing instruction and critical thinking, and they are including it in their curriculum planning. Ranked number one by students for “helping me improve my writing” in the MacLean’s writing instruction survey of 10,000 students (“Where professors know your name”), St. Thomas requires four writing courses (two Writing Intensive, one Writing to Learn, and one Writing in the Disciplines) in which the “writing process is used to promote critical thinking as well as to produce quality academic writing” (University of St. Thomas). Memorial University has similarly made critical thinking a major focus of their core curriculum by requiring two Critical Reading and Writing (CRW) courses for all students. In Memorial’s small classes of 35 students, writing is the main component for evaluation: their website states that “a minimum of three-quarters (75 percent) of the evaluation in a CRW course shall be based on the assessment of critical reading and writing.”

Trend Five: Employers Emphasizing the Need to Build Career Skills

Recent research has demonstrated a mismatch between the critical thinking and writing skills required for success in the workplace and the skills of college graduates. In a 2015 survey of 400 U.S. employers with at least 25 employees, 91 percent said that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major” (Hart Research). Another survey by Marketplace and The Chronicle of Higher Education that included 700 employers found that nearly a third said that “colleges are doing a ‘fair’ to ‘poor’ job of producing ‘successful employees” (Fisher and Hoth). The 2013 National Survey of Business and Non-Profit Leaders done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that over 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on written and oral communication in the curriculum (Hart Research).

Surveys of Canadian employers have found similar results. A 2014 study by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) found an employer emphasis on ‘soft skills.’ Students and professors alike seem to value hard skills (technical knowledge), but employers emphasize that soft skills (interpersonal relations, communication, problem-solving, analytical, and leadership skills) are actually more important to them (CCCE 7). This finding was confirmed in a survey of several hundred Canadian employers to determine “the most sought-after skills in Canada in 2015.” Respondents named communication skills as their top priority, and ‘writing’ as their number two priority (Workopolis).

However, at the same time, Canadian employers say that after experience, soft skills are what their candidates are lacking (Workopolis). This lack was also the top challenge for province of Ontario employers who were implementing work-integrated learning such as co-op placements and internships. Second only to not having enough time to recruit, train, and supervise students, employers agreed that these “students didn’t have the soft skills we expected” (Sattler and Peters 88). Among employers hiring Ontario university students, 29 percent saw them as lacking necessary skills (Sattler and Peters). Another survey prepared for Colleges Ontario found that 43 percent of Ontario employers described post-secondary education as neutral, unsuccessful, or very unsuccessful in preparing qualified applicants for their organizations (Navigator). National employer surveys, in general, confirm these results. In 2012, a Workopolis survey reported that 67 percent found job applicants deficient in soft skills (Harris). Canadian engineering firms have identified training in communication skills as number two in their top ten weaknesses of current Canadian engineering curricula (May and Strong).

Only one recent survey by Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC) had widely divergent findings. Their Ontario College Employer Satisfaction Survey (2009-2013) found that 94.7 percent of respondents reported that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the overall preparation graduates received for the work they were doing (SRDC Chapter 2). There were only small gaps between the importance of a skill to employers and the degree to which they felt graduates were prepared. However, only four organizations were surveyed, half through written answers, and half through personal interviews: General Motors, IBM, Centre of Excellence in Financial Services Education, and Information Technology Association of Canada. The researchers themselves agreed that other employer surveys “give conflicting accounts of employer satisfaction,” and “while the notion of a ‘skills gap’ remains contested, there is a growing consensus among a range of stakeholders that we need to do a better job in preparing people for the labor market.”

Trend Six: Students Choosing Programs to Provide Career Training

Universities are responding to the goals not only of employers and government stakeholders, but of students as well. In its analysis of “the changing postsecondary education landscape,” the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities reports that “today, getting a good job or earning a decent income are the most frequently cited reasons by students for attending post-secondary education” (Harmon et al., Prairie Research Association). This emphasis leads students toward more career-oriented degrees such as engineering and business and away from the liberal arts. According to one study of three Canadian provinces by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission, university enrollment in Humanities was down 8 percent in 2016 and is down 41.6 percent in the last ten years. The University of Windsor similarly found a drop of interest in arts courses, but they notice a trend toward students choosing courses geared toward professional practice (Brown). A study by Contact North entitled The Future of Education: A Canadian View concludes, “As students pay more of the cost of their own education, they demand more in terms of quality, relevance and engagement. More specifically, students are seeking high-quality programs and courses, which are work-relevant (but not solely focused on employment competencies) and engaging” (4).

Research on the transfer of learning as applied to writing skills has found that the transfer of general writing skills across different courses can help improve grades (Nelms and Dively, Allen). One study (Zarei and Rahim) examined learning transfer from an English for General Academic Purposes writing course. In assessing 13 students from different fields in eight learning elements, a total of 155 cases of transfer were reported. Studies have also shown that students score higher on writing assessments after writing instruction. One study showed that students who had completed a second writing course scored higher on writing assessments than students who had completed just one course, leading the researchers to conclude that transfer of skills had occurred (Ahrenhoerster). Hyland et al. similarly compared the freshman to senior writing assessment scores of 29 students. Over 80% had taken over 10 essay courses and written more than a dozen essays. Statistical analysis showed a significant improvement in their overall writing scores.

Other studies of transfer of writing skills have relied on student self-reports, a more subjective measure. Hayes et al. surveyed 698 upper-division students who had taken a lower-division writing course. They found that 84.6% of these students reported that their lower-division class had helped them to solidify specific academic writing skills, which they ranked. That previous writing courses “helped a lot” was stated by 31.7%, and 52.9% reported that the courses “helped somewhat” (200).

Only one researcher (Wardle) found a lack of transfer of writing skills. The first study surveyed just seven students, which the researcher admitted was “insufficient for generalization” (Understanding 72). The second study attempted to address this insufficiency by collecting data from 23 teachers and 462 students in 25 sections of first-year composition (FYC). The analysis did not examine transfer of writing skills through writing assessments or self-reports. Instead, course assignments were analyzed to determine writing tasks, genres, and intended audiences (Mutt 773). Wardle concluded that the composition assignments were not well connected to assignments in the students’ upper-year courses, and she recommended that FYC teachers become educated in the genres of various disciplines (782). The study does not really focus on the failure to transfer writing skills as much as the need for curricular coordination, reform, and quality control. As is often the case, FYC assignments and pedagogy varied widely, with little monitoring of instructional delivery or outcomes.

Some Canadian universities have shaped their writing courses to promote transfer of skills not only from course to course, but from coursework to the workplace. York University’s many courses in professional writing such as Writing in the Workplace, Fundamentals of Editing, Visual Information and Document Design, and Multimedia Authoring and Practices seem tailored to fit this professional focus, along with practicum courses. Similarly, Ryerson University and the University of Windsor offer practicum courses in book publishing, writing about the arts, editing, and writing hypertext. The University of Waterloo also takes advantage of the trend by offering many practical courses in grants writing, arts writing, technical editing, social media, digital design, writing for the media, and advertising.

Trend Seven: Universities Responding to Market Demand for Quality in Education

Universities are realizing that they must respond to the student market for a quality educational experience as well. According to one study on trends in higher education marketing and enrollment, “Given the increasing pressure related to enrollment, some institutions have begun to take on a corporate mentality in order to attract and retain high-quality students. Indeed, universities are recognizing that students are also customers and that [schools] need to provide an excellent customer experience across the student lifecycle” (Hanover Research 3). Thus administrators are increasingly focusing on the ‘quality student experience’ in both their external marketing and internal mission statements.

The MacLean’s rankings as well as other means of reputational branding have brought a focus on the student as customer. One report from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services states,

MacLean’s magazine has now been publishing rankings of Canada’s universities for more than 20 years, joined by other publications and forms of external critique. The pressure to demonstrate effectiveness emanates from within as well, as colleges and universities engage in reform initiatives and seek evidence of the effectiveness of those changes. And perhaps most acutely, the demand for quality comes from the students themselves, manifested in all manner of feedback, both in day-to-day interactions, online, and through political pressure. (Leaders in learning 8)

MacLean’s summarizes the results from 114,511 Canadian student responses in The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which asks first- and fourth-year students 100 questions about how they spend their time in and out of the classroom (Hutchins, 2014). One conclusion from the data is that “the bigger the university, the lower it tended to perform on student-faculty interaction.” Small writing or seminar courses can help address this deficit, with the feedback and revision process providing the “formative feedback” that Robert Lapp, previous president of Canada’s Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, states is so important for quality education (Hutchins).

Trend Eight: University Offerings and Student Enrollment in Writing Courses Increasing

Although the majority of Canadian universities do not require all students to take a writing course, some have increased their writing requirements, and many have developed not only courses in writing and rhetoric, but degree programs (majors, minors, and graduate degrees). For example, out of the top 15 universities in MacLean’s ‘Comprehensive’ rankings, 12 have developed more than 5 courses in writing, and 9 have developed more than 10 courses (See Table 1). The proliferation of professional writing and rhetoric programs also indicates that the discipline is gaining more recognition and respect. Many English departments have realized that writing courses do not debase their discipline but rather help it to diversify and expand its offerings.

Upper-level writing courses are usually electives, but many students are choosing them because they know that they need them, and they see a clear value. Therefore, writing courses often fill up fast. One example of this trend is Western University, where writing course offerings have continually expanded because of student demand. This trend has been widely observed in U.S. universities as well. Students appreciate the interaction in small classes in writing and communication. One illustration is provided by Westphal-Johnson and Fitzpatrick in their report on the expansion of general education requirements at the University of Wisconsin to include two courses in communication (small first-year seminars offering WAC). Instead of balking at the required courses, as students often do, they responded by taking multiple Communication courses: “By the end of the second year of the requirements, over 1,400 of the first entering class ... had taken two or more [Communication] courses, close to 400 of these had taken four such courses, and 175 had taken five [Communication] courses” (94).

Students quickly grasped the opportunity for quality instruction, while administrators faced a huge budgetary challenge in providing so many small classes. Thus at Carleton University in Canada, when students are offered foundational first-year seminars in which they develop “skills in essay writing and critical thinking” in small classes of around 30 students, they are limited to a maximum rather than a minimum of one credit (typically, one full-year course) in a discipline of their choice. Students are often said to resent required writing courses, but the above examples show instead that they appreciate the quality of instruction so much that they have to be limited in their enrollment.

Review of Writing Requirements and Writing Courses at Maclean’s ‘Comprehensive’ Schools

In this section, the offerings of the top ten schools in the Maclean’s rankings will be described and analyzed.

Simon Fraser University

Rated number one in the MacLean’s rankings, Simon Fraser University has a highly developed pedagogical approach to writing. All students are required to take six credits of writing-intensive courses (typically, two courses), including at least one upper division course. These writing-intensive courses must fulfill specific criteria that come from both the WAC and WID traditions.

First, according to the university website, students must use writing as a way to learn course content, and they must learn the forms and purposes of the discipline or profession “in ways that are clearly distinguished from remedial and foundational courses.” This description shows a clear awareness of all the different directions writing pedagogy has taken at other schools, and the institutional commitment to a WAC and WID approach is declared up front. Faculty must submit applications for their courses to qualify. Qualifying writing-intensive courses are required to present examples of writing within the discipline in order to teach “typical structures, modes of reasoning, styles of address, and the use of technical language and evidence.”

Another requirement seems to acknowledge the research that shows that WID is effective only when taught with rigorous criteria: Students must receive feedback “based on explicit criteria” and “directed at improving the quality of their writing.” The requirements also clearly define the pedagogy as a process approach, requiring that revision be built into the process of writing formal assignments. Finally, “at least half of the course grade is based on written work for which students receive feedback” (Simon Fraser University).

Currently, about 160 courses from various departments are listed as fulfilling the writing intensive requirement: English (33), History (21), Geography (9), Math (8), Philosophy (7), and other disciplines such as Business and Education. Upper-division courses include Advanced French Composition, Writing Methods for Research, Online Marketing for Publishers, and Linguisitic Argumentation. In these courses, writing is treated as an advanced professional skill, miles away from a basic writing course.

University of Victoria

At the University of Victoria, ranked number two by Maclean’s, all students are required to satisfy the Academic Writing Requirement (AWR) by registering in a first-year English course of their choice. They may choose either a composition course, an introductory literature course, or a communication course for engineering students. However, students can ‘test out’ in a number of ways, which indicates the ‘deficit-remediation’ model. Nevertheless, the AWR ensures that most students have at least one writing course in their degree program.

After the first-year course, writing instruction develops in two different directions at Victoria. The English department offers nine additional rhetoric courses, including Technical Communication, Writing for Government and the Public Sector, Copy Editing, Research for Professional Writers, and Print Media Genres and Techniques for Professional Writers. At the same time, the Writing Department, housed in the Faculty of Fine Arts, offers Professional Writing courses as well as a Professional Writing Minor in Journalism and Publishing, and an MA in either Rhetoric and Communication Design or Experimental Digital Media. Though the department’s main focus is on creative writing, its rhetoric course offerings include four courses in Creative Non-fiction, plus Digital Publishing, Elements of Style, Print Publishing, and The Writing Business, which prepare students for careers as writers. Although the discipline of rhetoric has developed in these different departments, Victoria is clearly offering advanced, career-oriented writing courses beyond traditional offerings in literary studies.

University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo, number three in the Maclean’s rankings, is also a clear leader in both writing instruction and the academic discipline of writing and rhetoric studies. Waterloo used to require all students to take both a foundational course and an elective course in writing. This has been changed to a “Communication Requirement” which differs according to the school, although most students are still required to take one course that includes writing instruction. In addition, many English electives are designed to focus on writing in various disciplines or uses: Genres of Technical Communication, Genres of Business Communication, Grant Writing, Arts Writing, and Legal Writing. This approach fits with Waterloo’s ‘brand’ as an innovative, practical, entrepreneurial school. It also fits with being selected as number two in MacLean’s student survey of ‘schools that make you job-ready’ (“Where professors know your name”). In an entrepreneurial way, the English department seems to specialize in mergers and acquisitions, encompassing many courses often found in Communications, Public Relations, Linguistics, or Media Studies departments. Examples are Visual Rhetoric, Digital Design, Writing for the Media, and The Discourse of Advertising. In 2006, Smith stated that since the 1990s, Waterloo has been widely acknowledged as having one of the strongest writing programs within a Canadian university (351). Their scholarship in the fields of rhetoric and professional writing has led to national and international reputations for quality research.

Smith also notes that historically, Waterloo’s program in rhetoric and professional writing has been a major source of the English department’s significant growth (351). In fact, their wide diversity of 26 rhetoric and writing courses is presented alongside over 90 traditional courses in literature and literary criticism, demonstrating that writing programs can be integrated into traditional English departments. Since Smith’s 2006 study, the department has continued to thrive and expand, proving that diversification is a good strategy for sustainable growth. It also provides a key element of the quality student experience with small classes and personalized feedback.

University of Guelph

The University of Guelph, ranked four, takes a traditional approach in its English courses, almost completely excluding courses in rhetoric and writing. Just two courses, English 1030: Effective Writing, and English 4910: Honours English Essay address academic essay writing.

Carleton University

Carleton University, ranked five, has taken a different approach to preparatory first-year courses, calling them ‘first-year seminars’ (FYS). These small classes of around 30 students are designed to offer the opportunity to discuss and research topics of interest in a core subject area. Although these courses are not required, they are popular, and the website speaks of a maximum allowance rather than a minimum requirement of one full-credit course. The FYS website states that “students will begin to develop skills in essay writing, critical thinking, problem solving and media literacy. They will also improve on verbal communication skills by presenting their ideas to a broader audience. Many students report that the critical thinking and study skills they develop in their first-year seminars contribute to their academic successes in other courses” (Carleton University, 2019).

All of the seminars are from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, offering a wide variety of History, Classics, Communication, and Psychology classes. The English department offers seven sections of FYSM 1004, entitled Literature, Genre, and Context, which is described as “writing attentive,” though the emphasis is on “active literary reading skills.” In other words, the approach is the traditional introduction to critical analysis, developing writing through literary essays. In addition, academic writing is presented as an advanced subject offered only to third-year students in four advanced rhetoric topics, plus Studies in Publishing and Digital Culture and the Text (I and II). Communication Studies also presents three first-year seminars, two of which promise to develop “hands-on, practice-based media management knowledge and skills,” which implies some instruction in writing. Otherwise, there are about 37 different FYS courses on offer in one year, of which 11 are psychology courses.

University of New Brunswick

Number-six-ranked University of New Brunswick does not require students to take a first-year English course, but English 1103, Fundamentals of Clear Writing focuses on mechanics and essay structure, limiting enrollment to 35 students, while English 1104, Fundamentals of Effective Writing, moves on to more advanced patterns of exposition and argument. Two large-lecture courses on fiction and non-fiction (1144 and 1145) offer tutorials focused on writing skills. Courses on Effective Professional Communication (2114), Writing for New Media (2115), Writing In Academic and Professional Contexts (3113), and Advanced Expository Writing and Rhetoric (3116) are also offered. The engineering and business school do have required communication courses, but these are school rather than university requirements.

Wilfrid Laurier University

Tied for number six is Wilfrid Laurier University, whose Brantford campus requires students to take two “Foundation” courses in “Academic Literacy”: one in Humanities and one in Social Sciences, in order to develop their academic writing, research, and critical-thinking skills through analytical writing assignments. The other two required Foundation courses in Modernity include reading key authors and defining one’s own position, so they appear to include writing as well, though this is not explicit in the course descriptions. These courses are advertised as “part of the Laurier Brantford advantage,” helping students to “think more clearly, communicate more effectively, engage data more professionally, and understand more deeply.” They are also described as being “based on a model of core programming used at elite universities” which fits with the findings of this study. Marketing professionals have identified the Foundation courses as a competitive advantage that links their curriculum with the best programs. On other Laurier campuses, students take English 190, Introduction to Academic Writing, which may be required by particular programs, plus there is one upper-division course called Writing for Business.

Memorial University

Memorial University, tied for number eight, takes an approach similar to Simon Fraser in that all students are required to complete two Critical Reading and Writing (CRW) courses: “one 1000-level CRW course offered by English,” and an additional three credit hours in an upper-level CRW course. CRW courses, which are approved by the Faculty Senate, have a maximum enrollment of 35 students, and 75% of the evaluation of student work is based on critical reading and writing. Additional guidelines specify the process approach toward writing instruction, taking students through “the process of text drafting, revision, and resubmission” during which “multiple stages of feedback” are provided for “sequenced writing assignments.” There is a nod to WID as well as critical thinking in the expectation of assignments that draw upon “discipline-related content,” including the ability “to locate and assess evidence.” Memorial University also includes some quality control and coordination in delivering writing instruction. After CRW courses are approved, academic unit heads are responsible for ensuring that CRW courses observe the principles of the guidelines, and that courses also undergo periodic review. Just 18 courses were listed on the school website as approved, and 5 are English courses. Most Memorial English courses focus on literature, but some focus on professional writing and editing. Beyond the foundational courses, there are 9 upper-division courses focusing on writing.

York University

The other institution tied for the number-eight rank is York University, which does not have any writing requirements for all students, but it does have a Writing department that offers a BA, Honours BA, and a minor in Professional Writing. It appears that some of its courses are required, because the website refers to “Writing and General Education courses that provide credit and degree requirements for York students.” Indeed, there are courses that look like department requirements such as Academic Writing in the Social Sciences and Professional Writing for Nurses. The English department also houses and staffs the university’s writing center, offering individualized and small group instruction, in contrast to most Canadian writing centers, which are located in libraries or Student Services.

Concordia University

Ranked number 10, Concordia has developed four 200-level composition courses and one advanced composition course. It also includes courses on editing, writing for diverse audiences, technical writing, business writing, and publishing. The English department has devoted enough resources to now be able to offer a Minor in Professional Writing.


This study has demonstrated the many links between writing instruction and quality in higher education. To motivate university administrators and professors to focus on providing more instruction and better instruction in writing, two main methods can be used. There is the stick of government-mandated degree expectations and skill assessments, and there is the carrot of higher rankings and enrollments. Writing course requirements and improved writing instruction can help universities meet government degree expectations while at the same time improving the quality of the educational experience for students. This study shows that students recognize when universities emphasize writing instruction, and that is reflected in their feedback and ratings. They know the difference between large lecture courses with multiple-choice exams, which encourage rote learning, and writing courses that contribute to educational quality by promoting the critical thinking processes of analysis, synthesis, argumentation, and revision; courses that encourage active learning and student-teacher interaction.

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