Syllabus Study: Writing Disparity Between Different Majors

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Posted on 23 May 2013 15:19

Syllabus Study: Writing Disparity Between Different Majors
Christopher Aebig, Stephanie Bodre, James Kasakyan, Nelsyda Perez and Peter Zupo
The City College of New York


Engineers are often labeled as poor writers and are given a pass for their writing deficiencies because of their unique skill set and the widespread belief that writing is not an important aspect of an engineer’s career. However, as many have written about and as many engineers will tell you, this is a completely false conception. Some even go to the length of saying that writing is the most important skill for an engineer to have. This still leaves the question, do engineers know how to write, unanswered—and that is extremely disturbing. In order to find an answer to this question we devised an experiment that would try to answer this question by using syllabi from engineering courses at The City College of New York (CCNY) to determine if engineers are getting enough writing instruction in college. After extensively examining the syllabi of engineering courses and comparing them to liberal arts courses (a field that also requires a large amount of writing). Although our study was limited in scope and encountered some setbacks, we believe we gathered sufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that engineering majors at CCNY are not doing nearly enough writing, and that they will not be properly prepared for the writing they will do when beginning their careers.


One of the most enduring stereotypes about engineers is that they cannot write well—and they are given a pass by society because most people believe they do not need to write. In other words, engineers are permitted by others to have this deficiency because of their proficiency in another high demand area—practical, logical, and mathematical reasoning. However, the notion that engineers do not need to write cannot be further from the truth. Gary Breed, editorial director of and engineer of 50 years, bluntly states in a 2010 editorial: “When it comes to writing, it is a myth that engineers don’t need to write well. Let me repeat that: It is a myth that engineers don’t need to write well” (Breed, 2010) [Bibliography item breed not found.]. Linda Hargrove, a freshman advisor at The University of North Carolina in Charlotte, recounts snippets of conversations she had with engineering alumni (Hargrove, 2012) [Bibliography item hargrove not found.]:

“I think if many engineering students really realized how much writing is really involved in the job, they might reconsider their chosen profession.” – PE from Utah, USA

“Clear, concise writing by an engineer is extremely important. Those that can do this, will usually end up at the top” – PE from North Carolina, USA

They say all stereotypes are based on some truth. So what gives? It is obvious that writing plays a huge role in the career of an engineer, but then how alarming would it be if engineers were not proficient in writing? This is what we sought to find through our study of syllabi from engineering courses here at CCNY: Do engineers know how to write? You are probably asking yourself what syllabi from engineering courses at CCNY have to do with determining if engineers know how to write, and rightly so.

The question, do engineers know how to write, is one that is impossible to test or quantify in part because it is so subjective; who should be the one to judge whether an engineer knows how to write? In addition, people often disagree about what constitutes good writing and what does not. For this reason, we sought to break down the question into one that would be slightly easier to answer: Are engineers being prepared well in college for the writing they will have to do as engineers? This logically deduces from the original question, because if engineers are properly prepared in college for writing, they will no doubt be successful writers in their careers. However this new question—are engineers being properly prepared in college for the writing they will do as engineers—is just as difficult to answer or quantify. One plausible method of testing this is to devise a study to determine just how much writing in general an engineering major at CCNY does in four years. The logic behind this is that, in general, the more you do something, the better prepared you are for it, and the better you will be at it later on. For example, studying days for a test would make you prepared for the test, and would make the concepts studied easier to recall and remember even long after the test. In the same way, a large amount of writing in college would indicate that engineers are being properly prepared for the writing they will have to do, and would indicate success down the road. It is with this mindset that we devised our syllabi study. If we found engineers at CCNY were doing a large amount of writing, we could infer that they were being properly prepared and would be good future writers. If not, then it would indicate something is glaringly wrong with the system.


Our main purpose was to create a qualitative study to see whether or not engineers do enough writing in college to be prepared for writing in their careers, and whether or not they do as much, or more writing, than liberal arts majors. We decided to conduct this qualitative study through different syllabi from different courses of both engineering and liberal arts majors at CCNY. We would use the syllabi in an attempt to estimate the amount of writing that engineering majors and liberal arts majors do throughout their college careers.

We broke up our study of syllabi into two obvious categories: engineering majors and liberal arts majors. The reason for using liberal arts majors to compare to engineering majors is because prior to this study, we believed that the popular belief was that liberal arts majors do an extreme amount of writing while they are in college, preparing them for their careers, while engineering majors do very little writing to prepare them for their careers. We felt that this would be a great comparison point since we are trying to debunk the idea that engineers do not write enough. After breaking up the syllabi into these two categories, we further broke the syllabi down into specific engineering and liberal arts majors. From here we were able to start to decide what classes we wanted to analyze for the study.

Our group broke up the syllabi into five majors for each overall category: Electrical Engineering, Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, and Biomedical Engineering for the engineering syllabi, and Economics, Psychology, English, History, and Sociology for the Liberal Arts courses. We decided this would be a great spread of different liberal arts majors, along with being able to account for almost all of the engineering majors at CCNY. The dividing of the majors like this gave the group the opportunity to study two majors total and three classes from each of the majors. This led to everybody studying six course syllabi each.

With each of the classes, we tried to pick three courses with their levels in an ascending order. As a general example, if we had an Economics class we tried to pick a 200 level, a 300 level, and a 400 level class so we can observe how the amount of writing changes as a student would get farther into his or her degree. In addition to each person having these classes, we added that each group member would look at the foundational writing courses for their corresponding majors.

From the syllabi, we attempted to find out how much writing one would do in each of the course, giving us an estimate on how much a student would write throughout the sequence of the major. We accounted for “classical writing”, such as homework, research papers and essays, along with more technical writing such as lab reports and computer coding. We then attempted to see how the writing in each of the different courses in each of the majors relate to each other, and whether engineers do in fact write more or less than liberal arts majors.

One thing our group did to supplement our main methodology was to contact professors of the corresponding courses in order to find out more information about the writing done in these courses. Although many of the professors did not answer, we were able to get some viable information from those who did answer. Because of this, and our other methods of study, our methodology proved to be fairly successful for our study and yielded some very interesting results.


There is a difficulty in quantifying writing through a set standard. Because we need to compare the amount of writing being done, we are going to describe the amount of writing in terms of pages and converting other quantitative data found such as lines of code or time into the amount of pages in a double spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font Microsoft Word document with 1 inch margins. These are the conversions that we will be using:

  • Average page per in class essay: ~3 pages (based on the average page count in a high school in class essay (2))
  • Average page per final in class essay: ~6 pages (about double the amount of writing in a regular in class essay)
  • Average word count in a MS Word page: ~350 words (based on the word count in a page on a normal academic essay)
  • Line count in a MS Word page: ~23 lines (based on counting the number of lines in a double spaced MS word document page)
  • 1 line of code = 1/4 of a MS Word line (based on typing a code in MS Word and using the ruler on the top of the page.)
  • Average length of a typical lab report: ~3 pages (based on a response to a question on Yahoo Answers.)

These aren't the most accurate set of quantifiers and some of them are pretty arbitrarily defined, but they do help give a general idea as to how much writing goes on in each course. Note that there is no mention of laboratory reports. That is because the length of an actual lab report is hard to determine as it depends on how much data and analysis was done in the laboratory. Plus, it also varies with differing lab experiments.

Engineering Courses

Biomedical Engineering. Biomedical Engineers do very little to no writing in their courses.

In the Bioelectrical Circuits course (BME20500), most of the writing that goes on takes the form of lab reports.

The writing in the Dynamic Systems and Modeling course (BME30500) involves coding assignments that are comparable to the lab reports in length.

The Biomedical Transducers and Instrumentation course (BME40500) requires you to write product descriptions for hypothetical instruments that you will design.

Because most of the Biomedical Engineering courses are laboratory classes, the writing that is done across different levels tends to be the same or it tends to decrease slightly.

Civil Engineering. The Civil Engineering course syllabi studied barely touched upon writing in the class. There is mention of the lab reports that are in general part of the course, but the explanation requires supplementary data that wasn't obtained. However, it should be noted that most of the writing is done through huge projects that apply your writing skills in a large scale problem solving assignment. The writing is not super extensive though.

Computer Science. The main source of writing in a computer science course is, of course, coding. Some might argue that coding does not qualify as "true writing". However, as any computer science major or computer science professor will tell you, computer coding is a means of communication between you and the computer and it requires a great amount of attention to detail. Therefore, it is just as important and just as valid as any other form of writing.

A computer science major will see a declining quantity of writing as they progress academically. According to Professor Andy Nagel, in the Software Design lab course (CSc22100), a typical student will write a total of ~1500 lines of code (~16 pages of total writing) over the course of 10-12 coding projects. Nagel also claimed that he believes engineers in general do not write enough over the course of four years. In order to remedy this problem, he added an additional 1,500 word proposal as an assignment for his class [Bibliography item nagel not found.]. According to a words to pages calculator, this is ~6.2 pages of writing.

In the Software Engineering course (CSc32200), a student will write a total of ~750 lines of code (~8 pages of total writing) over the course of 4-5 coding projects.

The least amount of writing is done in the Computer Security course (CSc48000). According to Professor Nelly Fazio, a student will write a total of only ~500 lines of code (~5.5 pages of total writing). There are also article summaries that are ~500 words (~2.1 pages) in length. In this particular section of CSc48000, Fazio assigns around three of these particular assignments [Bibliography item fazio not found.].

This results in a total writing amount of ~42 pages of total writing over the course of three different CSc courses.

Electrical Engineering. The courses studied for this major (EE21000: Switching System, EE31200/S: Communication Theory, and EE47100: Intro to Digital Processing) have shown to have very little to no writing in the courses. Most of the courses have lab reports and coding projects that must be completed, but those portions of the courses have their own separate syllabi that we could not find. Also, professors did not respond to the emails sent which resulted in a small amount of data for the Electrical Engineering major.

Mechanical Engineering. A student of this major tends to write about the same amount over the course of three different ME courses. The students are mainly asked to write lab reports that will supplement their data and calculations from the lab. Each course asked for ~4 lab reports each, resulting in an estimated total of ~12 pages of writing.

Liberal Arts Courses

Economics. Most of the courses' writing focus on assigning readings then testing you on those readings. The Introduction to Economics honors course however had a ~6-10 page final paper and a couple of article summaries that are ~1 page each.

This results in a writing >8-12 pages of writing.

English. Because of the major, a lot of writing is expected to be done. The most writing is done in the 300 level courses where students are expected to write lengthy fictional pieces (ENGL32000) and large term papers (ENGL35301). Therefore, the writing does tend to increase as the English major progresses in their college career.

History. The writing done in these courses is related to a lot of reading the students must do.

In the United States and the Contemporary Middle East course (HIST31138), there are three take home quizzes per semester. There is no official word count for these quizzes. The students are also expected to write a 15 page final research paper.

In the United States History (HIST32600) course there are three papers. The first paper is ~2 pages in length, the second paper is ~3-5 pages in length and the third paper is ~8-10 pages in length, resulting in a total of ~13-17 pages of writing.

In the Age of Enlightenment course (HIST41101), there is one short paper ~3-5 pages in length, and one long paper ~8-9 pages in length resulting in a total of ~11-14 pages total.

This results in ~39-46 pages total.

Psychology. A psychology major experiences a noticeable increase in the amount of writing being done.

In the Psychology in the Modern World course (PSY10200), students are asked to write three papers that are ~3-4 pages in length.

The Applied Statistics course (PSY21500) seems to have no writing at all. If there is writing in this course the syllabus did not mention it and the professors did not respond to our inquiries.

However, make a jump to the 300 level Experimental Psychology course (PSY32100) and you will notice that a typical student will have to write a lot of free-form pieces that vary depending on the professor and a 15 page final paper.

This results in a total of ~24-27 pages of writing in the course of three (technically two) PSY courses.

Sociology. A sociology major experiences a similar form of increasing workload.

In the Introduction to Sociology course (SOC10500), a student is expected to complete a journal assignment ~2-3 pages in length, a short essay ~5-7 pages in length, a midterm essay and a final essay. This leads to a total of ~16-19 pages in writing.

In the Fundamentals of Sociology Theory course (SOC23700), a student is expected to complete three small writing assignments ~3-4 pages each and a take-home final that is ~8-10 pages in length. This results in a total of ~17-22 pages of writing.

In the Immigration course (SOC29000), the professor who wrote the specific syllabus studied expects students to work in components. Aside from the two short essay exams (~6 pages), a student is supposed to write an outline to their final paper (~2 pages), a rough draft of the final paper (~5-7 pages) and the final paper itself (~10 pages). This leads to a total of ~23-25 pages of writing

Added together, a sociology major would write ~56-66 pages in the course of three SOC courses.

Foundational Writing Classes

We looked at the foundational writing classes and concluded that the amount of writing is uncannily similar to each other. We did expect this to happen since this is supposed to be a working foundation to the writing that you will be doing in general. The only differences between the writing in each class is in the genres that they are writing in.


From our results, we found that the disparity between the writing done by engineering majors and liberal arts majors increases as students progress in their major. When liberal arts majors reach higher-level courses, the amount of writing that they do increases rather significantly, while the amount of writing that engineering students do remains the same or even decreases a little. This is a rather concerning finding because writing is a crucial component in the work of an engineer. If an engineer were to be hired by an engineering company, a large part of his or her work would entail writing, whether through email, memos, or lab reports among other forms. If engineers cannot effectively communicate their ideas through writing, miscommunications will arise between co workers and ultimately slow down the progression of projects or possibly lead to the development of a faulty product.

This is a rather difficult issue to tackle as the curriculum of an engineer is already very rigorous and requires a large amount of credits per degree. One solution to such a problem would be to incorporate writing into the already existing classes. For example, in some classes, such as BME 405 – Biomedical Transducers and Instrumentation, students are expected to write design objectives for the products that they are designing and describe the behavior of the instruments in words as well as numbers. Writing could be implemented in such a way in other classes as well.

As this was a rather limited study, further research on this project would entail looking at a much larger pool of syllabi and could be expanded to comparing the amount of writing done by other engineering majors in other ABET accredited engineering schools.


Our hypothesis proved to be incorrect. We believed engineering majors do as much writing as liberal arts majors and our results revealed the opposite. From examining a total of thirty syllabi we found that the writing liberal arts majors do increases greatly as they reach higher level classes. Meanwhile, the writing that engineering majors do does not increase. From this we can conclude that the disparity between the writing that engineering and liberal arts students do increases with level. This suggests that engineers may not be as prepared for the amount of writing that they must do in the workplace.


[[bibliography title=""]]

Breed, G. (2010, May). So you think that engineers don't (or can't) write. Retrieved from
Hargrove, L. (2012, April 27). Engineers write a lot. Retrieved from
Fazio, N. (2013, May 08). Personal interview.
Nagel, A. (2013). Personal interview.


Appendix A: List of Engineering Courses

Note: The syllabi for the corresponding course will be linked to a PDF if and only if they are distributed publicly online.

Appendix B: List of Liberal Arts Courses

Note: The syllabi for the corresponding course will be linked to a PDF if and only if they are distributed publicly online.

Appendix C: List of Foundational Writing Courses

Note: The syllabi for the corresponding course will be linked to a PDF if and only if they are distributed publicly online.

  • ENGL21001- Writing for the Humanities
  • ENGL21002- Writing for the Social Sciences
  • ENGL21007- Writing for Engineering

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