Civic Online Reasoning in First-Year Composition
Recently, scholars in rhetoric and composition (e.g., Bruce McComiskey) have argued that their field has a key role to play in schools’ efforts to fight fake news. This field already engages with questions of how communicators build credibility and persuade audiences, and of how first-year writing courses (which many rhetoric and composition scholars teach) already often focus on skills like source evaluation and critical thinking. Thus, scholars like McComiskey have argued that rhetoric and composition can and should exert an influence on universities’ civic education efforts in the 21st century. However, despite an uptick in scholarly interest in fake news, empirical study of whether first-year writing courses impart civic skills is scarce.
An exploratory study examined whether students who take first-year composition courses experience any growth in Civic Online Reasoning (COR) when those courses’ learning outcomes invoke the notions of critical thinking, source evaluation, and digital literacy. It also investigated whether students’ COR gains differed between course sections and identified curricular features that might contribute to those differences. COR assessments developed by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) were administered to students before and after completing a first-year writing course. Participating instructors’ course documents (syllabi and major assignment sheets) were also analyzed via a qualitative coding procedure.
Students’ scores for the COR component skills of Ad Identification and Lateral Reading increased significantly after one semester of first-year composition instruction. However, students’ scores for the Claim Research and Evidence Analysis skills did not improve. Moreover, no significant differences were observed between sections. These results suggested the possibility that, even absent explicit COR instruction, first-year composition courses can impart some COR skill gains, but that the particular approach the instructor uses does not matter much. However, several methodological problems prevented the study from offering firmer conclusions. In addition to making a case for additional research, this dissertation argues that if scholars in rhetoric and composition wish to have a hand in defining universities’ approaches to civic education in the future, they should strive to generate robust, generalizable evidence of the benefits of their courses. This will require them to embrace empirical and quantitative methodologies and to engage with work in other fields more frequently.