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Why students struggle with writing

What to do about it.

by Roger Graves


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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I am a graduate student at Carleton University and I also did my undergraduate degree at Carleton. I am a hard worker and I have always loved school and done very well. I am a decent writer, but not a great one. One of the main reasons why I think that is is because nobody really ever taught me how to write at a higher level. I was a French Immersion student in primary and secondary school and I can only remember being taught English grammar once, in grade seven, for two weeks. One of the comments I consistently receive on my academic writing is that I use the passive voice. I'm working on that now, but I'll be damned if anybody ever told me what that was or why I shouldn't use it. You come to university and even if you're an arts student NOBODY teaches you how to write (at least in my experience). How is it that there are no mandatory writing courses based on your field of study? Employers and professors expect more developed writing skills, but they're not doing anything to help students improve. The student is left to revise the professor's comments (if any are provided and if they can even read them), make the appropriate changes and then try to remember for next time, without really ever knowing if what they're doing is right because most times there are no opportunities to resubmit. I think it's time that writing quality became a teaching priority, and not just something that professors can knock students down for without ever having told them what they wanted. When I started TAing last year I was appalled at the TERRIBLE quality of writing that I had to wade through when marking assignments and exams. True, university is not for some people and no number of writing seminars will change that, but the majority of students have good ideas and good intentions, but don’t know how to get them across, so their grades suffer because nobody could be bothered to take the time to help them. The average university student’s writing is not at the level it should be, but instead of lowering our standards or blaming the students we should be looking to other solutions, like teaching. What a crazy idea!

Posted by sam, Sep 23, 2013 9:49 AM

To follow up Peter's comments about digital literacy and writing, Andrea Lunsford oversaw the Stanford Study of Writing that looked at all the writing (digital and otherwise; in class or outside of class). This link is to an interview of her talking about the results:

Posted by Roger Graves, Sep 13, 2013 12:52 PM

Roger makes an excellent point about the value of small steps. It is easy to become overwhelmed by writing: students' needs are substantial, the variety of writing demands is great, the time needed to learn how to write and to mark writing is long, and writing is just plain hard work. Research suggests that small, frequent writing tasks are more effective than large tasks at improving students' writing. We need to plan and integrate more small assignments, including those that require minimal marking, if we want to help students learn to write better by practicing their writing.

Posted by Boba Samuels, Sep 13, 2013 11:38 AM

Great comments raising a lot of important issues. Andrea Williams and Herbert Pimlott raise the issue of feedback on written work: when the feedback comes (in-process or with the final grade) affects how or if students will act on it. Matthew Falconer and Sarah Anderson point to some of the complexities of making the move from academic writing to workplace writing. Much really good work has been done by Graham Smart, Aviva Freedman, and Natasha Artemeva at Carleton and Anthony Pare and Patrick Dias at McGill on this specific transition that supports, I think, what Matthew and Sarah's arguments. Russ Hunt's point that integrating real audiences for student writing is not a casual or easily done is well taken and worth repeating. Writing well is a difficult skill to nurture and develop. It is also, however, one of the most important attributes a university graduate can develop.

Posted by Roger Graves, Sep 12, 2013 2:50 PM

I believe there are obstacles to 'good' student writing that I have observed. One is that the huge increase in communications over the past couple of decades with changing technology, has resulted in the development of communication style and conventions that do not fit with academic perceptions of what is 'good'. When I was a teenager in the 1970s most of my writing was either formal school work or an occasional letter to a penpal - the propotionn of formal writing was probably in the high 90s as a percentage of my annual output. What would be the formal writing proportion for a 15 year old these days with GSM/Text social networking on facebook etc ? So perhaps there is an unfamiliarity with more formal writing conventions expected in a university environment, and a pull towards the less formally structured genres that are engaged with more frequently and which become their norm ? The other obstacle which also adds to this unfamiliarity of writing style and genres is the imposition in many disciplines of having to write in the third person and using passive styles which require a distanced or invisible authorial stance, without any real rationale. This is not how students speak or write in 'their' worlds. A tutor or institution may frown upon or even forbid the use of 'I/we' and 'my /our' in much student writing but that same tutor might publish an academic research paper using precisely those expressions in their own writing taking a very visible 'fronted' authorial position. This must be very confusing - especially also for those who are studying in a second or additional language (see the work of Ken Hyland in this area). This is an area I have begun to research using 'corpus linguistics' and concordancing techniques for my current EdD studies. I wonder if, rather than just looking for a problem in students - perhaps there are some questions we academics and instructors might ask of ourselves - the technology won't go away the genie is out of the bottle?

Posted by Peter McGunnigle, Sep 12, 2013 12:00 PM

I have taught writing in universities and been a staff editor for professional writers - I am now working with writers new to working as consultants. I do agree that understanding the audience is important but finding secondary audiences is difficult in universities (even leaving out the time required), especially where the main purpose is evaluation rather than information. Having as part of the rubric an explicit description of oneself as audience is a way around that - students definitely understand that different profs want different things, and that gives them a framework for understanding new audiences later.

What students also find difficult when they get to the workplace are the consequences of the fact that the organization is the author and owner, not the student -- bits of boilerplate get reused everywhere, sections have to match sections from other reports and documents, other people can tell you to rewrite pieces that concern their work ... I believe (without studies to support the belief!) that this is as much of a problem with new grads as the new genres.

Posted by Sarah Anderson, Sep 12, 2013 9:44 AM

Herbert raises an important question: how do we get students to read and act on our feedback? Some students may never value learning to write well, but research suggests that many students don't act on feedback because much of it isn't very helpful. Having worked in writing centres for many years, I've seen countless examples of feedback on student writing that is vague, confusing, and contradictory. Providing students with useful feedback is a difficult skill that TAs and less experienced instructors need to be taught. As for getting students to read and act on teacher comments, if as Roger points outs, students had more nested assignments and received more formative feedback, they would be more likely to act on the feedback.

Posted by Andrea Williams, Sep 12, 2013 9:11 AM

I second Nicola Koper's comments on grammar. The writing challenges faced by many of my students go beyond grammar and sentence structure, however. Substantial numbers of students struggle with the overall organization of their work, frequently turning in loose collections of random paragraphs devoid of any unifying theme. I can only assume that the information on which they base their essays exists in a similar state in their heads! Hence my repeated mantras these days: "remember to tell the story behind your data" and "write your thesis as though you actually wanted someone to read it!".

Posted by Andrew Park, Sep 11, 2013 11:19 PM

I think that this is a very important issue that has been very well articulated here - thanks for that, Roger. Having previously been a tutor in Carleton University's Writing Tutorial Service for two years, I can relate to the issue of attempting to assist students better understand how to write to different audiences. As many tutors in other writing centres across Canada may confirm, students bring in a huge variety of writing assignments that their professors may or may not have provided effective guidelines to assist the students' writing process. In my experience, students in the early undergraduate levels tend to be more confused - not only are they faced with a huge breadth of new discipline-specific genres, they have to write up to five essays at a time for up to five professors asking very different things of their students. In my role as a tutor, I was able to offer the one-to-one assistance that I found students reacted to in a very positive manner. Those that returned (which is, of course, a significant issue in a writing centre) demonstrated improved understanding of writing in the particular context of their courses. But, this took time and repeated coaching sessions with the same student. Given the recent focus on university as functioning as an institution for preparing graduates for the workplace, I have another perspective to offer related to this.

I am currently a research intern at the Council of Canadian Academies in Ottawa and am learning to write in a new workplace context. My workplace writes reports to inform science policy in Canada - my BA was in History and my MA was in Writing Studies. Coming at this from a generalist perspective, I have found that my team leads are finding my writing style - which has been very much adapted from what I wrote in both of my degree programs - is effective. My point is this: it's possible to adapt to different situations if we (i.e., writing instructors, writing coaches, and those who are professors) raise awareness of writing for different purposes and audiences. Also, including an aspect of genre analysis only improves the likeliness that young graduates transitioning into the workplace will be able to succeed in that new environment. I sincerely believe that writing should be taught from the perspective of rhetorical genre studies - research your new environment and the genres being used and then try to negotiate your way into the community through your writing. That is what I tried to do with students visiting the Writing Tutorial Service and is what I am trying to do in my own workplace learning and coaching of other entry-level employees.

Posted by Matthew Falconer, Sep 11, 2013 6:58 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.

Posted by Russ Hunt, Sep 11, 2013 5:17 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).

Posted by Herbert Pimlott, Sep 11, 2013 4:08 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".

Posted by George Tillman, Sep 11, 2013 3:14 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:
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.

Posted by Roger Graves, Sep 11, 2013 1:03 PM

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.

Posted by Nicola Koper, Sep 11, 2013 11:50 AM

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