Skip to content

Composition Forum 47, Fall 2021

Rhetorical Training Across the University: What and Where Students and Alumni Learn about Writing

Bookmark and Share

Julia Bleakney, Li Li, Emily Holland, Paula Rosinski, and Jessie L. Moore

Abstract: We report on a survey of students and alumni, examining their “rhetorical training”—their writing knowledge and experiences across multiple courses, campus employment, and workplace contexts. The survey asked participants to identify their most often written genres and their most valued type of writing, the rhetorical situations in which they compose their most valued genre, and the writing processes they have developed. We examined the multiple sources of rhetorical training that participants believe prepared them to write their most valued genre. Multiple rhetorical training experiences prepare writers for the writing they value, and both students and alumni describe robust writing processes and appreciate feedback from others. Yet alumni continue to express challenges adapting writing for new audiences and genres.

Building on three prior studies—a campus survey of alumni about their college and postgraduate writing experiences, the 2019 Center for Engaged Learning/Elon Poll national survey of recent U.S. college graduates, and the multi-institutional Revisualizing Composition study of students’ writing lives—we examine rhetorical training in and beyond the classroom at a mid-sized private university. Understanding the kinds of rhetorical training that help students be successful writers after graduation and in their professional lives would help campuses increase the likelihood that all students have cumulative opportunities for rhetorical training. Our survey of current students and alumni who had writing-intensive majors/minors, co-curricular and extracurricular experiences (e.g., internships, positions in campus organizations, etc.), or on-campus jobs (e.g., consultants at the Writing Center, student workers for administrative offices, etc.) suggests that preparing students for writing beyond the university requires collaboration with university-wide partners and shouldn’t happen only in (writing) courses. Multiple rhetorical training experiences prepare writers for the writing they value (as these experiences also influence what they value), and both students and alumni describe robust writing processes and appreciate feedback from others. Yet alumni continue to express challenges adapting writing for new audiences and genres.

In this article, we report on participants’ most often written genres and most valued types of writing, the rhetorical situations in which they compose their most valued genres, and the robust writing processes they have developed. We then examine the multiple sources of rhetorical training that they believe prepared them to write their most valued genres, and we report the writing challenges they continue to face. We use the phrase “rhetorical training” to refer to coordinated curricular and co-curricular experiences that immerse students in writing for different audiences, purposes, and contexts. These experiences provide students not only rhetorical writing instruction but also opportunities for applying and practicing what they’re learning in diverse writing situations both in and outside academic contexts. Rhetorical training, then, occurs in different spaces (in courses, campus organizations, student employment, etc.) and does not prepare students for particular professions or to enter specific kinds of employment. Rather, as a productive art, rhetorical training prepares students to enter any writing situation, assess it, and decide how to act appropriately through language.

Rhetorical training prepares students for writing beyond the university in ways that employers deem desirable. Employers want graduates to “communicate effectively and concisely to different audiences ... including clients; collaborate with content experts and colleagues; use necessary technologies/softwares; and be self-sufficient, knowing how to figure things out on their own by asking good questions” (Rosinski). Further, employers “prefer graduates who have gained experience by holding a job, participating in internships or co-ops, or engaging in client-based or service-learning projects with real external clients” (Rosinski). While the snapshot of rhetorical training we provide in this article suggests that the institution’s writing initiatives have made headway in preparing graduates for writing beyond the university, the many venues for potential rhetorical training reinforce that writing faculty should partner with faculty and staff across campus to teach and mentor writing explicitly and to communicate the value of those experiences to current students.

Prior research on students and alumni writing in and outside the classroom has often focused on a single context, such as internships (Anson and Forsberg; Blythe; Freedman and Adam; Baird and Dilger); specific professional fields, such as nonprofits (Beaufort); or instructional interventions, such as Work-Integrated Learning (O’Shea). In addition, prior studies have examined students’ transitions from university to workplace writing (Tuomi-Gröhn and Engeström; Leydens); writing development over time (Dias et al.; Bazerman et al.; Dippre and Philips); and pedagogies that bridge school and workplace writing (Blakeslee; Yu).

The 2010 Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center study, Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students, explored the writing students do most often and the writing they most value (Grabill et al.). The multi-institutional survey suggested that students write short message service (SMS) texts and emails most frequently. Students most valued SMS texts and specific forms of academic writing (e.g., academic papers, with or without source use; lecture notes), while not highly valuing other frequently written genres, like the writing they do in social networking environments. Subsequent publications from the research collaboration offered more detailed insight into students’ use of writing technologies (Moore et al.) and writing for coordination (Pigg et al.). More recently, scholars have drawn on findings from Revisualizing Composition to explore multimodal writing instruction in different writing and institutional contexts and writers’ habits across these different contexts (e.g., Kreniske; Blevins; Green; Cunningham). Our study builds on the Revisualizing Composition findings to examine writing knowledge and experiences across multiple courses, campus employment, and workplace contexts.

Many studies on alumni’s writing experiences and abilities use surveys as a primary method, as surveys allow researchers to access a larger group of potential participants including those who are no longer on campus. Survey-based studies of alumni are embedded in institutional cultures and often initiated by local institutional needs, such as the need to revamp a writing program or to assess institutional priorities or initiatives. In “Studying Alumni Writing,” Rosinski and Bleakney review the methods of four alumni studies (Cosgrove; Melzer and Pickrel; Perelman; Rosinski and Lindenman), noting that all four used surveys; one conducted follow-up interviews with a limited number of participants, one study was motivated by the need to assess a quality enhancement plan for accreditation, and all four were interested in critiquing their curriculum given the alumni responses.

In addition, much scholarship that examines employer impressions of graduates’ writing abilities focuses on the professional field of technical writing, as Bleakney (How Do Researchers Access Employers...) and Rosinski (A Snapshot of Employers’ Expectations ...) review. For example, Ruff and Carter (Communication Learning Outcomes) used focus groups and interviews to study the communications skills most valued by practicing engineers and managers; in another study (Characterizing Employers’ Expectations), they surveyed software engineer professionals who hire and review the performance of recent graduates to explore the extent to which communication skills can be taught on the job. Other scholars have studied job ads for technical fields or technical writers to identify the communication skills most valued for those positions (Lanier; Brumberger and Lauer). Not surprisingly, studies using more time-intensive interviews often involved a lower number of participants (Peltola interviewed 10 industry leaders; Ruff and Carter [Communication Learning Outcomes] interviewed 22 engineers).

Our study also builds on the scholarly conversation regarding graduates’ preparedness for workplace writing. Studies of students’ adjustment to workplace writing, especially in technical fields, have noted the gap between graduates’ writing abilities and employers’ expectations (Ruff and Carter, Characterizing Employers’ Expectations). Subsequent “closing-the-gap” (Brent) studies assume this gap exists and seek evidence of the specific abilities or skills that are perceived as lacking, to what extent these skills can be learned in college or need to be learned on the job, and how college curricula should be improved to remedy those gaps (Rainey et al; Lanier; Brumberger and Lauer). Other studies, described by Brent as “glass-half-full” or “glass-half-empty,” are either optimistic or pessimistic that students can transfer writing knowledge from one context to another, including from university to workplace. The glass-half-full approach, as Blythe describes it with reference to Brent, emphasizes the adaptability of writers to new tasks (Blythe 51). Our study aligns with this later approach, as our survey questions asked participants how their diverse writing experiences prepared them to write in different situations.

While “glass-half-full” studies demonstrate that students develop flexibility and rhetorical knowledge in college, alumni (and their employers) continue to give voice to challenges with writing post-graduation. The 2019 Center for Engaged Learning/Elon Poll national survey (CEL Survey) of recent college graduates suggests that U.S. college alumni struggle with writing new genres and adapting to readers’ expectations. In the survey of 1,575 college graduates, ages 18-34, 19.6% of respondents indicated “the biggest writing challenge [they] have encountered since graduating college” was “writing a type of document I had not encountered before,” and 16.0% indicated that “adapting to my readers’ expectations and needs” was their biggest writing challenge. Considering that employers want graduates to write clearly for different audiences and purposes (Rainey et al.) and agree that graduates struggle to organize information for audiences (Ruff and Carter, Characterizing Employers’ Expectations), higher education institutions need to consider how to better prepare students for these post-graduation writing expectations.

The 2019 CEL survey also asked recent graduates of colleges nationwide which kinds of writing they do for their job and how often (e.g., never, less than monthly, monthly, weekly). Emails were the most frequently written genre, with 70.4% of participants reported writing them weekly. In Grabill et al.’s study of students’ writing, email was the second most often written genre and the fifth most frequently valued genre. Therefore, students likely have multiple opportunities to practice email as a genre during college in preparation for writing emails on the job, but it’s less clear from these prior studies how much (if any) rhetorical training students receive for writing effective emails. Furthermore, other frequently written genres identified by recent college graduates in the CEL survey—35.5% of participants write client correspondence weekly, 31.8% write reports weekly, 30.9% write social media weekly (for their jobs), and 29.7% write memos weekly—are not among the most frequently written genres identified in Grabill et al.’s survey of students. “Comments on status messages or post” and “status message updates” make an appearance as the eighth and ninth most frequently written genres, but neither makes students’ lists of most-valued genres (Grabill et al.). We were curious, therefore, what our campus’s students and alumni would identify as frequently written genres and as sources for their own rhetorical training for the writing they most value.

Participants, Survey Design, and Coding

Our mid-sized, private university enrolls approximately 6,300 undergraduates and 800 graduate students. A general education curriculum grounded in the arts and sciences prompts many to identify the campus as having a liberal arts focus, even though six of the top-ten enrolled majors in 2019-2020 were in the professional schools (e.g., School of Communications, School of Business). In 2018, the university completed a Writing Excellence Initiative (WEI), a quality enhancement plan focused on writing, which required both academic and student affairs to embed writing outcomes and associated support for learning into their areas. The university committed significant resources to sustain a culture of writing and writing instruction, beyond the end of the WEI, building a physical Center for Writing Excellence to contain an expanded Writing Center and Writing Across the University program and funding faculty and staff professional development around teaching, supporting writing, and research initiatives. Importantly, this university-wide initiative involved faculty, staff, students, and administrators in all areas of campus and was not limited to one program.

The 2015 Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) offers initial evidence of the university-wide positive impact of the WEI on writing pedagogy. For example, 58% of faculty teaching upper-level courses and 65% of faculty teaching lower-level courses created assignments to address a real or imagined audience, which is a 23% increase for both groups from 2013. The WEI’s 2018 internal assessment of the initiative found that, among faculty:

  • 89% very frequently/frequently “take writing into account when planning classes”

  • 80% very frequently/frequently “provide feedback on student writing at multiple points”

  • 79% very frequently/frequently “assign writing that is specific to the discipline”

  • 65% very frequently/frequently “assign multiple drafts to students”

While these data focus on writing in courses, the WEI also fostered a culture of rhetorical training for writing in on-campus jobs and in mentored student organizations.

To study the impact of these experiences, in December 2019 we surveyed students and recent alumni. We recruited participants through convenience sampling, inviting students and alumni affiliated with writing-intensive majors/minors and on-campus jobs (e.g., consultants at the Writing Center, student workers for administrative offices, etc.), and snowball sampling, asking our contacts to forward the survey to others with similar writing-related experiences. As a result, we over-sampled Writing Center consultants and English majors in relation to the current distribution of majors on campus; nevertheless, our participants include majors from all three branches of the College of Arts and Sciences and from all three undergraduate professional schools at the university. The IRB-approved survey was open for three weeks, and participants could enter a gift card drawing as an incentive for completing the survey. Eighty-eight current undergraduate students and 45 alumni took the survey. We provide additional demographic information in Table 1; participants were not required to answer all questions, leading to different rates of participation across questions.

Table 1. Demographic information for participants

Current Students (n=88)

Alumni (n=45)


  • 4 Males

  • 53 Females

  • 6 Males

  • 33 Females

  • 1 Non-Binary/Third Gender

Transfer status

  • 56 Started at Elon

  • 1 Transferred from another college/university

  • 38 Started at Elon

  • 2 Transferred from another college/university

Year in College

  • 5 first-year

  • 15 second-year

  • 15 third-year

  • 21 fourth-year

  • 1 fifth-year

Year Graduated


The 30-item survey included an informed consent acknowledgement, six optional demographic questions, and options to volunteer for follow-up studies and to enter the incentive drawing. Multiple-selection questions focused on writing-intensive college experiences (e.g., writing courses beyond first-year writing, writing tasks for on-campus organizations, writing-related majors/minors, on-campus employment, or internships), writing challenges, types of writing participants have done in the past, and the types of writing composed most often. From the five types of writing that participants indicated they composed most often, they selected one type they most valued, for which they answered a series of questions about the rhetorical situation for that genre (modeled on the earlier Revisualizing Composition survey).

Open-ended questions then focused on three aspects of rhetorical training:

  • The writing process for participants’ most-valued type of writing,

  • How past experiences prepared participants for their most-valued type of writing, and

  • The most important thing participants learned (or learned so far) in college about writing.

Researchers worked in teams to code responses to each open-ended question, using emergent coding in Dedoose (Charmaz; Corbin and Strauss), and guided by our institutional culture of writing. For example, writing process coding was guided by terms and frameworks used in the Writing Excellence Initiative, and coding of the other questions was guided by findings from the prior scholarship (e.g., Revisualizing Composition and alumni studies). Within teams, researchers coded a subset of responses individually and then met to discuss and refine their coding strategies. Teams completed an initial pass of coding before meeting again to discuss potential parent codes and to refine child codes. Each team collaboratively revised codes until they reached agreement on coding for all responses to their open-ended question, following a consensus coding approach (Saldaña). The entire research team also met twice to discuss the codes and to compare codes across the questions.

Discussion of Themes

In the following discussion, we establish participants’ most frequently written and most valued genres and what participants shared about the rhetorical situations and writing processes for their most valued types of writing. We then examine what participants told us about prior experiences that prepared them for this most valued genre as well as other important things they learned in college about writing.

Writing Composed Most Often versus Writing Most Valued

Building on the Revisualizing Composition study (Grabill, et al.; Pigg, et al.; Moore, et al.), the survey listed 50 types of writing that participants could select from to indicate what writing they had done in the past, as well as an option for respondents to list other genres. Table 2 shares the five most frequently selected genres and the five least frequently selected genres; see the full list at

Table 2. Genres Participants Had Written in the Past

5 Most Frequently Selected Genres (# of participants)

5 Least Frequently Selected Genres (# of participants)

Research paper requiring source use (110)

Academic paper not requiring source use (109)

Email (109)

Presentation slides (108)

Outlines (106)

Video commentary (10)

Explainer video scripts (6)

Software error reports (4)

Patient reports (4)

Soundscapes (3)

From these 50 types of writing, participants selected five types of writing they compose most often. Students and alumni indicated that their most-often-written genres (in descending order of frequency) were texting, emails, research papers requiring source use, lists, and academic papers not requiring source use. As noted in previous studies (e.g., Moore, et al.), frequency of use did not correspond with value; participants’ most valued writing was research papers requiring source use, followed by—as a distant second—emails.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 compare these often/value responses from alumni and current students. Texting and email topped alumni’s lists of most often written types of writing, while texting and research papers requiring source use topped students’ lists. Alumni were most likely to identify email as their most-valued type of writing, while current students were most likely to identify research papers requiring source use as most-valued—corresponding with their second-most-often-written genre. Although both alumni and current students write text messages frequently, they do not identify the genre as valuable.

Bar charts comparing the most often written types of writing identified by current students and alumni, where texting and research paper requiring source use topped current students’ list while texting and email topped alumni’s list.

Figure 1. The Most Often Written Types of Writing: Current Students vs. Alumni

Bar charts comparing the most valued types of writing identified by current students and alumni, where research paper requiring sources and email topped current students’ list, and email and journal or diary topped alumni’s list.

Figure 2. The Most Valued Types of Writing: Current Students vs. Alumni

Rhetorical Situation Decisions for Most Valued Types of Writing

Alumni and students generally offer parallel purposes for writing their most valued types of writing: to fulfill work (alumni) or school (students) assignments, for personal fulfillment, to think through difficult or complex topics at work (alumni) or at school (students), or to collaborate with others. Alumni are slightly more likely to write to participate in public life (10% of alumni responses, compared to 7% of student responses), while students are more likely to write for entertainment (8% of student responses, compared to <1% of alumni responses).

Participants are most likely to write their most valued types of writing (across all most valued genres) at home (25% of all responses), in coffee shops (16%), at libraries or study spaces (14%), or in offices (12%), with alumni accounting for more of the office writing (22% of alumni responses) and students accounting for more of the writing in libraries (18% of student responses). Interestingly, even when looking specifically at alumni’s most valued type of writing—email—participants are slightly more likely to write emails at home than in an office. This (pre-COVID) pattern might reflect the mobile nature of writing or the spillover of work and school tasks into home spaces.

Participants report writing alone for most of their most valued types of writing (51% of all responses), though alumni report collaborating with work colleagues (25% of alumni responses) and students report collaborating with friends (13% of student responses) or classmates (10% of student responses).

Writing Processes

In the 89 responses (55 from current students and 34 from alumni) to our open-ended question asking participants to describe their writing process, both students and alumni describe robust writing processes, typically occurring in a linear order. Although we coded each element of the writing process separately using a framework for understanding stages of the writing process highlighted during the WEI (drafting, editing, outlining, referring to a source, asking for feedback), most respondents described a writing process that contained many of these components. Within 89 responses to this question, we identified 345 references to elements of the writing process, an average of almost 4 per participant. In addition, both students and alumni particularly valued feedback and collaboration.

“Rereading to revise” and “Rereading to edit” combined account for the most commonly mentioned element of the writing process (29 students [53%] and 12 alumni [35%]), followed by drafting (27 students [49%] and 8 alumni [24%]), outlining (18 students [33%] and 3 alumni [9%]), and peer response (17 students [31%] and 10 alumni [29%]). A higher percentage of students compared to alumni reference using each of these elements.

Students and alumni had other predictable—and less-predictable—preferences for elements of the writing process, differences we attribute to experience with and purpose for writing. To understand these preferences, we counted individual mentions of writing process elements and compared them, as presented in Figure 3. Even taking into account that more students responded to the survey than alumni, students mention generating topics, mentally planning, finding sources, outlining, and drafting more frequently than alumni. We attribute this trend to students writing longer pieces, such as research papers, and to alumni having less time on the job or less need to find sources, outline, and draft if they are working on a tight deadline or with repeated, routine writing tasks. We were surprised to see that no student reported setting an intention or goal for writing, yet 21% of alumni do this, a difference we might be able to interrogate in follow-up interviews. Because students are completing assignments for courses, they might not see the need to set writing goals because instructors set the expectations and deadlines, whereas alumni writing for their jobs may have more autonomy over their work schedules or have less guidance on workplace writing expectations.

Bar chart of the writing process described by alumni and current students. Alumni more frequently mention setting writing goals and switching modes, while current students emphasize finding sources, outlining, and drafting.

Figure 3. Alumni and Current Students Emphasized Different Steps of the Writing Process

Many participants reported that their process was somewhat linear; for example, this student describes a process that moves from brainstorming, to outlining, to writing, to receiving feedback:

I try to have a plan of the writing in my head, which I then write out in a rough outline. From there, I expand on each section and add more, making sure to comply with the rubric. When I’m stuck I take a break and come back or look for inspiration online. I try to ask for feedback, but will most often print out the work and read it with a colored pen to mark any mistakes.

This participant’s reference to outlining and using a rubric suggests that their linear process is tied to a traditional form of academic writing. No students described a recursive writing process when asked about important things learned from prior writing experiences, while alumni did speak to this more complex conception of the writing process.

However, in response to another question, at least one student writer describes a process that is slightly more recursive. Describing self-sponsored writing, this student reports making additional changes once their blog post is published:

I usually start by coming up with a topic (whatever happens to be on my mind) and find a time to write about it (I post usually once a week). I then draft the post on WordPress, google things if I get stuck on a specific point, and reread it to revise and proofread at the same time. After I publish the post, I sometimes return to it after some time and make small edits.

Some students might write recursively as an internalized process, particularly with non-academic forms of writing, but not attribute this process to prior learning or prior writing experiences.

Alumni preserve elements of a linear writing process for workplace writing, but because they may write under strict time constraints or typically prepare routine documents for work, their process may not need to be recursive. For example, this alumnus describes a somewhat truncated process for grant writing, taking steps that may reduce the need to return to earlier parts of the writing process: “I usually start by referring to previous examples of grants submitted to the particular organization. If that's not available, I typically will type out an outline of the general points I want to communicate and fill it in from there with pertinent technical findings and language.” This alumnus has learned that studying previous grant examples and organizing relevant findings in an outline leads to an efficient writing process. Making such deliberate choices about their writing process corresponds with our observation that most respondents describe an ideal writing process—one that they typically follow—but that they do not discuss what happens, or how they adapt, when that process goes awry.

Feedback and Collaboration

Both students and alumni value feedback and collaboration as key components of the writing process, with 50 references to seeking feedback from peers or experts. Both groups ask for feedback at various stages of their writing processes (prewriting, revising, or when they get stuck while drafting), with similar frequencies across the two groups. Many note that they collaborate with others at just one stage in the process. For instance, this student describes how they “read it through, revise, and make edits. After edits are made, take it to others for feedback. Take their feedback into consideration before moving on to the second draft.”

In other cases, respondents mention inviting collaboration at various stages in the process; this alumnus suggests that when they “get stuck, I typically ask for advice from colleagues and friends who are also English teachers. I ask for a lot of feedback from these people as well.” Here, the writer notes a difference between advice and feedback: advice helps when the writer is stuck and feedback is used at other stages in the process. Several respondents also reported that they ask for feedback from multiple sources on the same piece of writing; as one alumnus stated: “When I get stuck, I work with my colleagues, manager, and direct report for feedback and another perspective. We always ask for feedback from clients—our partnerships are most successful with collaboration, and that starts at the beginning.”

Those asked to review or collaborate on writing tend to be friends and colleagues/classmates (with 17 students and 10 alumni seeking peer review). However, some students (8) and alumni (6) also call on experts, depending on the context for writing. And some students ask for feedback from both classmates (peers) and professors (experts) for course-based writing, as this example from a student illustrates: “When I get stuck, I usually ask [a classmate] if they have what I missed or ask my professor. There is a lot of collaborative work afterwards to make sure I have taken the best notes I can.” In the workplace context, experts tend to be supervisors (for both alumni and students who have jobs). Respondents in both groups also noted turning to trusted family members. These examples align with the typical writing processes often introduced in high school and college writing courses; yet the variety of elements used shows robust adaptation of the basic linear framework.

Preparation for Most Valued Types of Writing

When asked which prior experiences prepared them for their most valued type of writing, participants were most likely to credit writing courses beyond first-year writing (22% of all responses), a writing-related major or minor (18%), or on-campus employment (12%) (see Figure 4). Even though the study heavily recruited participants with on-campus employment experiences, current students more frequently attributed their preparation to thesis/research papers (14% of student responses) than to on-campus employment (10% of student responses). Alumni were more likely to credit on-campus employment for preparing them (15% of all alumni responses).

Radar chart of the prior experiences that prepared alumni and current students for the most valued types of writing, where on-campus employment, advanced writing courses, and a writing related major or minor were the most credited experiences by both groups of participants.

Figure 4. The Prior Experiences that Prepared Participants for the Most Valued Types of Writing (Alumni vs. Current Students; % of all responses)

Current students were also more likely to credit high school experiences for preparing them for their most valued writing. While not a choice offered as an option respondents could select—since the survey focused on college experiences—several current students mentioned high school IB programs, magnet programs, and classes as “other” experiences that prepared them. In contrast, alumni were more likely to list specific degree programs or their comprehensive undergraduate education as preparing them; none of the alumni attributed their preparation to high school experiences.

Looking specifically at the two most valued types of writing—research papers and emails—suggests that both curricular and co-curricular activities contribute to participants’ preparation to write these genres (see Figure 5). Participants who most valued research papers attributed their preparation to thesis/research papers (23% of responses by participants who most valued research papers), undergraduate research (16%), writing courses (16%), writing-related majors or minors (14%), or senior seminars (13%). In contrast, participants who most valued emails attributed their preparation to on-campus employment (24% of responses by participants who most valued emails), internships or co-ops (18%), writing courses beyond first-year writing (18%), or campus organizations (12%).

Radar charts showing the prior experiences that prepared participants for the two most valued types of writing: email and research paper, where advanced writing courses, thesis/research paper, and a writing-related major or minor contribute to the writing of research paper, while on-campus employment, advanced writing courses, and internship or co-op experiences contribute to the writing of emails.

Figure 5. The Prior Experiences that Prepared Participants for the Two Most Valued Types of Writing: Email and Research Paper (% of all responses)

Writing courses beyond first-year writing contributed to writers’ preparation for both most-valued types of writing. Yet experiences beyond the classroom, such as on-campus employment and internships, play an important role in preparing students for the writing they most value.

Participants offered a variety of explanations for how these experiences prepared them to write their most valued genres. In the 79 responses (48 from current students and 31 from alumni) to our open-ended question about how prior experiences prepared participants for their most valued type of writing, several participants noted that prior experiences helped them understand that expectations vary by audience or genre, which we discuss in more depth below. Participants also suggested that their experiences gave them opportunities to practice writing (4 students [8%], 2 alumni [6%]) and helped them refine their writing skills (5 students [10%], 1 alumni [3%]). Further, respondents reported that these experiences taught them how to write specific genres, such as lab reports or podcasts, and how to write in specific disciplines or professions, such as mathematics or newswriting. It’s reassuring that respondents identified learning about writing specific genres in specific disciplines, and also about broad writing and rhetorical strategies, as this combination of rhetorical training can be applied in a variety of contexts and situations.

Audience and Genre Awareness

One of the most frequent responses—with 18 total occurrences; 9 alumni (23%) and 9 current students (14%)—about the most important thing learned in college about writing was that writing expectations vary by audience (see Figure 6). Participants wrote that they learned to “always keep your intended reader in mind,” “you must understand your audience,” and for the grade-conscious, “different professors have very different expectations.” This comparatively high response rate suggests that students and alumni found their writing experiences provided them with broad rhetorical training, including knowing expectations vary by audience, a foundational rhetorical consideration that can serve them well in a variety of writing situations.

Stacked bar charts comparing the most important things learned by current students and alumni, where expectations vary by audiences, expectations vary by genre, and conciseness topped current students’ list, and expectations vary by audience, importance of editing, and revision topped alumni’s list.

Figure 6. Most Important Things Learned (Current Students vs. Alumni)

Another common student response about the most important thing learned about writing, given by 13% of students, was that writing expectations vary by genre, another foundational rhetorical consideration, reinforcing our finding that their writing-related experiences prepared them to be rhetorically aware in a variety of writing situations. Participants often commented about genres requiring different moves than those they learned to use successfully in high school, as in the following student quote: “I've learned how to better tailor my writing to fit various different genres and how to step away from the standard five-paragraph structure to create works I feel more satisfied with.” It would be a mistake, though, to assume students learned this genre awareness only from courses. For example, one respondent mentioned learning how to adjust their marketing pitch and offerings by working with clients in an internship, three respondents identified on-campus jobs and involvement with student organizations as the experiences that taught them how to write effective emails, and one respondent mentioned that working at the Writing Center helped them write more clearly and, indirectly, how to write in math classes. Despite this preparation, “adapting to my readers’ expectations and needs” and “writing a type of document I had not practiced or encountered before” were the most frequently identified writing challenges (accounting for 17% and 15% of all responses, respectively).


Collectively, this data suggests that rhetorical training across the university prepares students and alumni:

  • To write in a variety of genres, though those genres are valued differently post-graduation;

  • To enact writing processes that embrace feedback and revisions, even though students and alumni emphasize different elements of their writing processes; and

  • To make rhetorical decisions guided by awareness of audience and purpose.

Responses like the following illustrate these outcomes:

Most of the work writing I do is curriculum planning, and I always ask myself the following questions before I write: What do my students need? What resources do I have? How do I meet the needs of students with these resources? I often edit on the fly throughout the lesson as student needs change, edit the written plan or add notes after the lesson is over, and write a brief reflection if needed.

Participants develop this type of audience awareness and tailored writing process in more places than the classroom. Rhetorical training extends to on-campus employment, internships, and undergraduate research experiences, suggesting that educational development initiatives also should extend to curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular realms across campus.

Potential Future Research

The data collected from this study are deep and diverse. While we draw several conclusions from the data, our analysis also suggests areas for future research. Students—but not alumni—reported valuing research papers that integrated sources. Given that “the research paper” is such a common university genre, often held up as the epitome of academic writing, it seems appropriate to interrogate exactly why students find them valuable while alumni do not. Do students value this genre because it requires deep thinking, conducting research, analyzing sources, and integrating evidence? If so, we might interrogate whether alumni indeed do not value these intellectual activities, or whether they don’t value the genre of the research paper (a genre widely recognized as not regularly occurring in writing beyond the university), in which case instructors might consider teaching these activities through genres other than traditional research papers.

Texting was at the top of both alumni and student lists of the most often composed types of writing, and the top reasons they texted were for collaborating with others, for personal fulfillment, and to participate in public life. Despite being a commonly written genre that participants use for reasons academia tends to find important (such as collaborating and participating in public life), neither group identified texting as valuable. Future research might interrogate this discrepancy, revealing why participants fail to value this commonly composed genre, and helping us to decide whether texting should be addressed more directly in college curricula. As a commonly written genre outside academia, participants might benefit from understanding its functions and value in contexts beyond the university.

Responses which were unique almost entirely to students or to alumni deserve further attention and could give us insight into disjunctions between writing in and beyond the university. For example, in Figure 6 above, students identify “style” as one of the most important things learned in college about writing, but alumni barely mention it. In addition, alumni describe what we would call the “recursivity” of writing, while no student directly mentions this concept. In another example, we see 21% of alumni describing setting a writing goal whereas zero students mention goal setting.

Further complicating the data on recursivity, alumni identify the concept as one of the most important things they learned about writing and can speak to more complex conceptions of the writing process, yet they don’t report writing recursively. It’s possible that alumni value recursivity and have learned to plan more carefully and efficiently, integrating recursivity throughout their entire writing processes because they have more complex visions of their writing processes. Or perhaps alumni tasks become routine and rote, so recursivity isn’t needed. Exploring these potential contradictions could expand our understanding of writing processes, and the role of recursivity, when writing beyond the university.

The role that academic versus on-campus employment writing experiences play in writers’ preparation to compose different kinds of genres also deserves further exploration. Participants identified both curricular and co-curricular activities as valuable experiences that taught them how to write research papers and emails. Participants who most valued research papers tended to attribute their preparation for this genre to academic experiences. In contrast, participants who most valued emails most often attributed their preparation to co-curricular experiences. Additional research might reveal that this division of preparation should continue. However, it’s worth exploring if perhaps academia has been biased against teaching genres that alumni often write beyond the university, relegating them to co-curricular situations. If this is the case, faculty might consider altering their curricula to prepare students in a greater variety of genres.

Implications for Teaching Writing Across the University

What students and alumni identify as “the most important things [they] learned” about writing might not match what we hope they learned about writing, what we hope they’d identify as the most valuable thing they learned about writing, or what is built into our curricula. Some mismatch seems inevitable, as contexts for writing beyond the university are so diverse; yet the mismatch creates an opportunity to examine what we teach and value in our writing curricula. By analyzing existing writing curricula—including program-wide learning outcomes, genres in which students write, the writing processes or rhetorical strategies that are taught, and the writing outcomes for each class or assignment—programs can assess how well the lived curriculum aligns with program learning outcomes. Moreover, this analysis can guide curricular revision and programming to ensure that students gain experiences with the kinds of writing that alumni report as being the most valuable for their lives after graduation.

Preparing students for writing beyond the university requires collaboration with university, community, civic, and business partners and cannot happen only in one or two (writing) courses. After graduation, alumni move through multiple communities in their personal, civic, and professional lives, and adequate writing preparation for all these contexts requires collaborating with diverse stakeholders and partners.

Universities should commit resources to faculty development across the disciplines that (1) presents data from studies like this one and others cited here that examine the writing alumni do after graduation and the educational experiences that these alumni say helped them succeed in these writing tasks, (2) connects such data to best practices in writing instruction and writing across the curriculum program development (Zawacki and Rogers; Zawacki and Gentemann; Cox, Galin, and Melzer), and (3) introduces faculty to the concept of transfer (from school to work, from on-campus employment to work, from on-campus employment to classes, etc.) (Moore and Bass; Hendricks), so that faculty are prepared to adjust their curriculum accordingly. University promotion and tenure expectations should recognize and value faculty efforts to strengthen their writing pedagogy, to learn more about the writing their alumni are doing beyond the university, and to build connections to this kind of writing in their classes.

Given that this study heavily recruited participants with on-campus employment experiences, it’s telling that current students more frequently attributed their writing preparation to a thesis/research paper than to their on-campus employment. In contrast, alumni were more likely to credit on-campus employment for their writing preparation. It seems that, with the benefit of hindsight, alumni rate their on-campus employment writing experiences as more valuable than thesis/research paper writing. Since both of these experiences are valuable for preparing writers, then, writing program administrators and faculty conducting writing beyond the university research could work with on-campus stakeholders (such as offices of student employment or service-learning centers) to explain to the wider university community and faculty across the disciplines about the writing preparation students receive from on-campus employment, service-learning experiences, and client-projects. Finally, writing program administrators and faculty involved with such research should find ways to share with higher administrators (who make decisions about university priorities and the allocation of resources) these conclusions about writing beyond the university, and the roles that academic and co-curricular writing play in the preparation of alumni, because all institutions (whether liberal arts, R1, community college, etc.) want their graduates to be critical, reflective citizens.

Works Cited

Anson, Chris M., and L. Lee Forsberg. Moving Beyond the Academic Community: Transitional Stages in Professional Writing. Written Communication, vol. 7, no. 2, 1990, pp. 200-31. doi:10.1177/0741088390007002002.

Baird, Neil, and Bradley Dilger. How Students Perceive Transitions: Dispositions and Transfer In Internships. College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 4, 2017, pp. 684-712.

Bazerman, Charles, Arthur N. Applebee, Virginia W. Berninger, Deborah Brandt, Steve Graham, Jill V. Jeffery, Paul K. Matsuda, Sandra Murphy, Deborah Wells Rowe, Mary Schleppegrell, and Kristen Campbell Wilcox. The Lifespan of Writing Development. NCTE, 2018.

Beaufort, Anne. Writing in The Real World: Making the Transition from School to Work. Teachers College Press, 1999.

Blakeslee, Ann. Bridging the Workplace and the Academy: Teaching Professional Genres through Classroom-Workplace Collaborations. Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, 2001, pp. 169-192. doi:10.1207/s15427625tcq1002_4.

Bleakney, Julia. How Do Researchers Access Employers for Their Studies of Workplace Writing. Center for Engaged Learning Blog, January 9, 2020, Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. Accessed October 9, 2020.

Blevins, Brenta. Teaching Digital Literacy Composing Concepts: Focusing on the Layers of Augmented Reality in an Era of Changing Technology. Computers and Composition, vol. 50, 2018, pp. 21-38. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2018.07.003.

Blythe, Stuart. Attending to the Subject in Writing Transfer and Adaptation. In Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer, edited by Chris Anson and Jessie L. Moore. WAC Clearinghouse, 2017, pp. 49-68.

Brent, Doug. Transfer, Transformation, and Rhetorical Knowledge: Insights from Transfer Theory. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 25 no. 4, 2011, pp. 396-420. doi:10.1177/1050651911410951.

Brumberger, Eva, and Claire Lauer. The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Postings. Technical Communication, vol. 62, no. 4, 2015, pp. 224-243.

Center for Engaged Learning/Elon Poll. High Impact Undergraduate Experiences and How They Matter Now: Survey of College Graduates, Age 18-34. 31 July 2019. Accessed 14 October 2020.

Charmaz, Kathy. Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis. Sage Publications, 2006.

Corbin, Juliet, and Anselm Strauss. Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, 3rd ed. Sage Publications, 2008.

Cosgrove, Cornelius. What our Graduates Write: Making Program Assessment Both Authentic and Persuasive. College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 2, 2010, pp. 311- 335.

Cox, Michelle, Jeffrey R. Galin, and Dan Melzer. Sustainable WAC: A Whole Systems Approach to Launching and Developing Writing Across the Curriculum Programs. National Council of Teachers of English, 2018.

Cunningham, Jennifer M. ‘wuz good wit u bro’: Patterns of Digital African American Language Use in Two Modes of Communication. Computers and Composition, vol. 48, 2018, pp. 67-84. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2018.03.005.

Dias, Patrick, Aviva Freedman, Peter Medway, and Anthony Par. Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Contexts. Routledge, 2018.

Dippre, Ryan J., and Talinn Phillips, editors. Approaches to Lifespan Writing Research: Generating an Actionable Coherence. WAC Clearinghouse, 2020.

Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE). FSSE 2015 Experiences with Writing: Topical Module Frequencies, Elon University. Indiana University School of Education Center for Postsecondary Research.

Freedman, Aviva, and Christine Adam. Learning to Write Professionally: ‘Situated Learning’ and the Transition from University to Professional Discourse. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol. 10, no. 4, Oct. 1996, pp. 395-427. doi:10.1177/1050651996010004001.

Grabill, Jeff, et al. The Writing Lives of College Students. The Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center, 2010.

Green, McKinley. Smartphones, Distraction Narratives, and Flexible Pedagogies: Students’ Mobile Technology Practices in Networked Writing Classrooms. Computers and Composition, vol. 52, 2019, pp. 91-106. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2019.01.009.

Hendricks, C. C. WAC/WID and Transfer: Towards a Transdisciplinary View of Academic Writing. Across the Disciplines, vol. 15, no. 3, 2018, pp. 48-62. Retrieved from

Kreniske, Philip. How First-Year Students Expressed Their Transition to College Experiences Differently Depending on the Affordances of Two Writing Contexts. Computers and Composition, vol. 45, Sept. 2017, pp. 1-20. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2017.07.001.

Lanier, Clinton R. Analysis of the Skills Called for by Technical Communication Employers in Recruitment Postings. Technical Communication, vol. 56, no. 1, 2009, pp. 51-61.

Leydens, Jon A. Novice and Insider Perspectives on Academic and Workplace Writing: Toward a Continuum of Rhetorical Awareness. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, vol. 51, no. 3, 2008, pp. 242-63. doi:10.1109/tpc.2008.2001249.

Melzer, Dan, and Carolyn Pickrel. Writing Beyond Sac State: Alumni Writing in the Workplace. Sacramento State University: Writing Across the Curriculum Newsletter, 2005.

Moore, Jessie, and Randall Bass. Understanding Writing Transfer: Implications for Transformative Student Learning in Higher Education. Stylus, 2017.

Moore, Jessie L., Paula Rosinski, Tim Peeples, Stacey Pigg, Martine Courant Rife, Beth Brunk-Chavez, William Hart-Davidson, Dundee Lackey, Suzanne Kesler Rumsey, Robyn Tasaka, Paul Curran, and Jeff Grabill. Revisualizing Composition: How First-Year Writers Use Composing Technologies. Computers and Composition, vol. 39, 2016, pp. 1-13.

O’Shea, Annissa. Models of WIL. In Work Integrated Learning in the Curriculum. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australia Guide, by Sonia Ferris, pp. 7-14. Australia Collaboration Education Network Ltd., 2014.

Peltola, Arlene. Lead Time: An Examination of Workplace Readiness in Public Relations Education. International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, vol. 19, no. 1, 2018, pp. 37-50.

Perelman, Les. Data Driven Change is Easy; Assessing and Maintaining It Is the Hard Part. Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning and Academic Writing, 2009, 6.

Pigg, Stacey, Jeffrey T. Grabill, Beth Brunk-Chavez, Jessie L. Moore, Paula Rosinski, and Paul G. Curran. Ubiquitous Writing, Technologies, and the Social Practice of Literacies of Coordination. Written Communication, vol. 31, no. 1, 2014, pp. 91-117.

Rainey, Kenneth T., Roy K. Turner, and David Dayton. Do Curricula Correspond to Managerial Expectations? Core Competencies for Technical Communicators. Technical Communication, vol. 52, no. 3, 2005, pp. 323-352.

Rosinski, Paula. A Snapshot of Employers’ Expectations of Graduates’ Skills and Abilities in Technical Communications. Center for Engaged Learning Blog, 4 Aug. 2020, Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

Rosinski, Paula, and Julia Bleakney. Studying Alumni Writing. Center for Engaged Learning Blog, 11 July, 2019, Elon University Center for Engaged Learning. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.

Rosinski, Paula, and Heather Lindenman. Writing after Elon: Assessing the Writing Experiences of Elon Graduates. Manuscript in process.

Ruff, Susan, and Michael Carter. Characterizing Employers’ Expectations of The Communication Abilities of New Engineering Graduates. Journal on Excellence In College Teaching, vol. 26, no. 4, 2015, pp. 125-147.

---. Communication Learning Outcomes from Software Engineering Professionals: A Basis for Teaching Communication in the Engineering Curriculum. Frontiers In Education Conference Proceedings (W1e), 2009, pp. 1-6.

Saldaña, Johnny. The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers. Sage, 2009.

Tuomi-Gröhn, Terttu, and Yrjö Engeström, editors. Between School and Work: New Perspectives on Transfer and Boundary Crossing. Pergamon, 2003.

Yu, Han. Bringing Workplace Assessment into Business Communication Classrooms: A Proposal to Better Prepare Students for Professional Workplaces. Business Communication Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 1, 2010, pp. 21-39.

Zawacki, Terry Myers, and Karen M. Gentemann. Merging a Culture of Writing with a Culture of Assessment: Embedded, Discipline-Based Writing Assessment. Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Terry Myers Zawacki and Paul M. Rogers, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012, pp. 493-507.

Zawacki, Terry Myers, and Paul M. Rogers. Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 47 table of contents.