An innovative online writing lab at Excelsior College boosts student skills and grades in pilot study

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Kresge-funded tool now open to public and being used on other campuses.


College students’ writing skills significantly improve through use of Excelsior College’s new Online Writing Lab, or OWL, a nationwide pilot study shows.
Students at Excelsior and five partner colleges in the study showed the equivalent of a half grade point increase in the final grade through use of the online writing lab. The study of was conducted by the Evaluation Consortium at the State University of New York at Albany.
Funded by The Kresge Foundation, the OWL is a highly interactive, media-rich website designed to help freshmen or adult learners returning to school make the transition to college-level writing.
“The Excelsior College Online Writing Lab stands apart from its peers both in scope and breadth,” says Crystal Sands, who directs the project at Excelsior, a private, nonprofit, distance-learning institution based in Albany. “The OWL is built to guide users through the core components of college-level writing, to learn new skills or polish old ones, in a fun, supportive, and engaging environment. The results of our pilot study illustrate the success that the OWL can have in the classroom.” 
“The OWL is a great tool for students and others looking for advice on how to improve their writing skills,” says Bill Moses, managing director of Kresge’s Education Program “We hope the OWL will be a trusted and helpful resource for students not just while they are in school, but when they are working, too,” Moses says. The Kresge Foundation works to expand opportunity for low-income people in America’s cities. Its Education Program promotes post-secondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. 
The OWL is now open for use by high schools, colleges, other institutions and the general public. There is no charge.
The pilot study was conducted during the fall semester 2013 and involved 152 students from six institutions of higher education: Excelsior, Valencia College, Howard Community College, Broome Community College, Union County College and San Diego Mesa College.
Preliminary findings indicate that students in the courses offering the OWL as a writing resource score on average 5.5 points higher on their class assignments —  on a scale of 100 —  than students in the control group. That’s the equivalent of a half letter-grade improvement at the end of a course. The treatment groups had the OWL integrated into the curriculum and were required to use the OWL as support on all written assignments.
Additionally, analyses show improvement when comparing student writing from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester. Students also show significant improvement in content and purpose for writing, and content development categories. The greatest improvement is in the areas of genre and disciplinary conventions, control of syntax and mechanics, and sources and evidence.
Further analyses are being conducted to assess such questions as the influence of student learning styles on the effectiveness of the OWL, student perceptions of the OWL and demographic characteristics of the student participants.
The OWL has already attracted more than 28,000 visitors and 1.2 million page views. It has been incorporated into a number of high school curriculums and is being used on more than 20 college and university campuses, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walden University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Texas-Permian Basin, Purdue University and Thunderbird School of Global Management.
Lisa Smart, an instructor at North Central Texas College, says she was amazed at the usefulness of the OWL. “Instead of telling my students to write academically, I tell them we are going to find their academic voice,” she says. “Not only has it inspired me, but it has lit a fire in them as well.”

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