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We've all written innumerable essays from middle school onwards. All teachers appear convinced that this will improve students' essay writing skills. However, when trying to find out what this belief is based on, I found only a single study where some students were assigned practice essays and others were not, and their results on an essay-writing exam were compared. The result of the study, in the authors' words, was as follows.

As discussed in the previous Part, we found that, on average, students who received the writing interventions had higher average raw scores on each of the essay questions. Although this point spread did not rise to the level of statistical significance, we found between a two and three point raw score difference (out of a possible thirty raw score points on the first question and thirty-three raw score points on the second question). [My bold]

Effectively the authors seem to have found no effect. Does anyone have any more data on this?

Edit: I can amuse you further with the following quote from the article. It seems I am not the only one having trouble finding support for the claim that essay writing practice improves performance.

For example, we have found no work attempting to measure empirically the impact of practice writing exercises, combined with feedback, on student essay exam performance.

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    Are you having difficulty with the idea that practicing a skill, and receiving feedback and instruction on how to do it better, might result in improvement in that skill? – DJClayworth Jul 11 at 19:33
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    Careful. It isn't that they found no effect, it's that they did not find an effect. A lack of statistical significance does not rule out the possibility that there is an effect. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. – Nate Eldredge Jul 12 at 1:41
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    @ProfessorFlitwick You have misunderstood my point. When students write essays, they are also getting feedback on whether and why their essays are good or bad. And teachers also provide instruction on how to write better essays. That's pretty much how most teaching related to improving a skill works. – DJClayworth Jul 12 at 16:58
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    It is difficult to imagine what an answer here might look like. A brief intervention, as described, is likely to have a small impact compared to the innumerable essays in middle school that you describe. A study could easily show that essay from students get better as they get promoted through the grades, but how could we extract the effect that writing practice had from maturity, from reading experience, from direct instruction, etc? Comparing with students who did not receive tuition is likely to have other complicating factors. What would you expect an answer to look like? – Oddthinking Jul 12 at 21:07
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    @ProfessorFlitwick: I accept that this is an on-topic question for the site, but I suspect your priors are so different to that of an educational ethics committee, that such an experiment would never be permitted. (i.e. if the null hypothesis is correct, and essay writing is improved via practice, then a multi-year experiment which deprived high school students of practice time would jeopardise their opportunity for tertiary study), so I doubt it will receive an answer. I am ready to be surprised though. – Oddthinking Jul 14 at 11:56
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No, that was not the point of the study: it was the vehicle for it.

The very last sentence of the report's Conclusion states:

Of course, especially initially, the empirical results are not beyond scientific reproach, nor even conclusive. However, as is the case with all social science research, the first step is developing a model that can be replicated and improved upon. That is what we hope to have accomplished.
[My bolding]

So although the report focuses on essay writing, its overall objective was not to determine whether practice improves that skill, but to report on establishing a valid empirical methodology, with the aim of evaluating teaching methods more generally.

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  • I know it's not a very good study. I put it in because it was the only one I found at all. Really I was hoping somebody would know of any better ones. – Professor Flitwick Jul 11 at 17:32
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    The remit of Skeptics SE is to challenge notable claims and this attempts to answer what seems to be your claim that: a study finds that writing practice makes no difference. If your aim is otherwise you might find it helpful to take the Tour and also read What topics can I ask about here?. – Weather Vane Jul 11 at 17:37
  • @WeatherVane The claim was supposed to be "Writing practice improves writing skills", as per the title. This is a pretty notable claim since pretty much all school teachers support it. The issue is that I have found zero studies supporting it, and a total of one not supporting it. – Professor Flitwick Jul 12 at 16:22

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