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IN MY OPINION

Why students struggle with writing

What to do about it.

By ROGER GRAVES | SEP 11 2013

The quality of student writing at university has been the subject of debate for more than 140 years and shows no sign of going away. At a recent panel of employers invited to address the faculty of arts at the University of Alberta, two speakers referred to the less-than-stellar quality of writing in the graduates they interviewed. In an online forum, a faculty member said essentially the same thing about student writing. The arts faculty is doing a review of our BA requirements and we need to know: Is the writing of our graduates as poor as these employers and professors claimed? And if so, what can we do about it?

As director of Writing Across the Curriculum, I work with thousands of students across campus every year. Since 2009 I have given guest lectures to several thousand students at the university in more than 130 classes from art history to nursing to pharmacy to sociology. My primary goal in these lectures is to ensure that students understand, in detail, the writing assignment given to them by their course instructor. My secondary goal is to get them started writing that assignment by creating a thesis statement, drafting a sample argument or planning an outline for the assignment. As follow-up to these lectures, we offer one-hour small-group writing tutorials led by grad students focused exclusively on the course assignment. These group tutorials are available only to students in that class.

Perhaps the single most important lesson I draw from this experience concerns the variety of tasks instructors ask students to write. We ask students to master an impressive range of written genres, and they try diligently – but with varying degrees of success. The second most important lesson for me is that our research at the University of Alberta has shown that small, targeted interventions such as the small group tutorials have measurably improved student writing.

Why is it so hard for students to write these assignments well? In an effort to identify exactly what professors ask students to write, my research team has collected more than 2,000 writing assignments at nine universities across Canada. The results give some insight into how instructors might create the conditions for better student writing.

Research on writing development suggests that students who learn to write for multiple audiences early in their academic career are the strongest writers when they graduate. However, our data shows that instructors across the university rarely ask students to write for any audience other than the instructor.

Writing studies research also shows that the quality of writing improves most when students revise. But, from our data, only 24 percent of assignments allow for feedback prior to assigning a grade. Some instructors, though, have adopted linked or “nested” assignments – such as proposals for an essay that lead to the essay. This strategy adds some feedback to the course.

Writing studies research reveals that a grading or scoring guide – a rubric – improves student writing. However, barely 27 percent of assignments contain any information about how the assignment will be graded. As employees, we know how we are being evaluated for tenure and promotion, and we make choices about our careers accordingly. Similarly, students can make better choices about how to write an assignment if they know how it will be evaluated.

Clearly, instructors across the university can adapt their syllabi and assignments in ways that will create the conditions for better student writing in academic contexts.

But will this respond sufficiently to the employer complaint that the graduates they interview cannot write well? Employers bring a very different set of expectations for business and professional writing from the expectations that university instructors have for academic writing. Employers often want very short, direct documents. They may expect that students will already know how to write a press release or formal report in a format particular to their company.

While it is probably beyond what universities can do to prepare every graduate to write for business and professional contexts, we can help by encouraging students to develop writing portfolios. These collections of their written work could include writing done for a variety of audiences; writing done within the course and outside of courses; and writing that shows their revision process. These portfolios would also counter the damaging outcomes statements issued casually by employers and professors about the quality of student writing. They would show that within a set of defined circumstances our students can, in fact, write well.

Roger Graves is a professor of English and film studies and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Alberta.

 

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  1. Nicola Koper / September 11, 2013 at 11:50 am

    I really like this article and intend to include some of the recommendations into my courses. However, the authors don’t address one key issue in student writing: in North America, students are taught virtually no grammar in high-school. As a result, students are totally unprepared for academic or professional writing at or beyond university. Some students learn how to write through reading, but many do not. The writing skills of many of the students who get to graduate school is, frankly, abysmal. While the small writing groups recommended in the article are a great idea, there is no guarantee that the student t.a.s are capable of teaching undergrads how to write.

  2. Roger Graves / September 11, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Nicola. Just a note: in a study we have done we did find that for 230 students who attended group writing tutorials (run by GTAs) the students in the “C” range did improve their grades (Pr>0.0004). I’ve also written about the research on the relationship between grammar instruction and writing quality here: http://www.humanities.ualberta.ca/WAC/Pdfs/WACQuickGuideGrammar.pdf

    It is a complex topic, but the upshot is that teaching traditional school grammar outside the context of student composing doesn’t lead to better quality written products.

  3. George Tillman / September 11, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Your quick guide is sensible. I would only add (as someone raised in French) that fluent knowledge of more than one language tends to make one more attuned to the constructions that count as grammar.

    A minor complaint: you write in your fifth paragraph “our data shows” sic! and yet this does nicely illustrate that language evolves, and that there is seldom an absolute value if “correctness”.

  4. Herbert Pimlott / September 11, 2013 at 4:08 pm

    I read your post with interest. As someone who has worked as a media professional where writing in different genres/media (e.g. analytical, pitches, proposals, news, features & reviews, and for video, radio & print), I recognized with hindsight how much my undergraduate humanities and social sciences education prepared me (in all the ways that university education should benefit one).

    However, one of the problems with engaging students, at the university where I teach, in providing writing feedback is that so many are either not interested or do not feel that it matters. Although I still provide feedback (not just on content/substance, but on style, structure, grammar, argument and so on) as I stress to the students in every class that ‘language’ is their ‘toolbox’ which provides them with the ‘tools’ that most of them will need in their jobs and with which they must be skilled, if they are to be able to use their education (in an instrumental sense), but I am much more cautious since I could easily end up wasting my time as at least 50% of students wouldn’t bother to pick up their written assignments.

    It would appear that students do not believe that we have anything ‘useful’ to offer them – it’s the tiny few who listen to the exhortations of myself and my colleagues who tell them how important their ability to use language is to succeed in almost any kind of white-collar, professional career (and beyond).

  5. Russ Hunt / September 11, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    While I agree with just about every word of this, I’d like to point out that implementing recommendations like “include writing done for a variety of audiences” is not a casual process. It requires some profound changes in the way writing is handled in classrooms, and some deep changes in the way teachers (and students) think about it. Right now, not only is it true that almost no writing in university is done for any audience other than the teacher; it’s also true that it’s almost never done for any other purpose than to be evaluated.

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