As students continue to struggle to write at even a basic level, the question of where to place the blame can prove tricky.
College professors share one major complaint when it comes to their students, and it’s not related to their penchant for showing up late for class, or that they are too easily offended.
Instead, professors agree that students’ lack of strong writing skills is the single biggest factor keeping them from achieving collegiate success. Because this issue is so important, colleges and universities have set up a number of systems to try to correct the issue, ranging from tutoring centers to online writing coaches to mandatory remedial writing courses. However, in order to understand why writing has become such a major problem for colleges, it’s worth looking at the problems with writing at the high school level.
One of the major challenges when it comes to writing is having the time and the resources to teach it properly. At the high school level, teachers are overtaxed and overburdened by increasing class sizes, decreasing budgets and a never-ending series of standardized tests.
Because of the immense pressure to teach to the test—because many teachers’ salaries and jobs are tied to student test scores—those subjects covered on standardized exams receive the lion’s share of attention. In many cases, standardized tests rely on multiple choice questions, which reduces the time and attention given to writing skills.
Similarly, even when tests do include writing components, teachers instruct students how to score well on exam writing, not how to write the kind of essays that readers will find compelling. Consequently, students receive a warped view of subject matter and the importance of specific skills.
The setup of the modern classroom is also not particularly conducive to students learning to write well. In most schools, high school students attend classes that last 30 to 40 minutes, which means that the majority of their writing is done at home, as homework, and is then corrected by a teacher who might be handling five classes and 150 essays all at the same time.
Consequently, the time and attention that a teacher can devote to any one student is highly limited, thus reducing the effectiveness of that teacher in terms of developing an individual student’s writing skills. Unless the student is self-motivated to develop her or his writing skills, it can become all too easy to slip through the cracks and not gain those essential skills that can make all the difference.
However, the single largest factor that has limited students’ writing skills is the decline in reading. In today’s world, almost half of people read no books at all, and among students, most say they no longer read books outside of those assigned for class. In order to write well, one must be exposed to good writing, and good writing can be found in literature, in high quality magazines, and all of the traditional media that modern teenagers and young adults avoid.
Online writing, text messaging and social network postings may be things that they are reading, but they are not things that are teaching them the kind of good writing skills that help students to learn how to form crisp and concise sentences, or how to structure longer thoughts and sustain an argument.
There is hope, however. While much of our communication has moved online, this does mean that students do get at least rudimentary exposure to the importance of the written word when they text one another. The difficulty comes in translating the immediacy of online communication into the kind of reflective and substantive discussion that academic writing requires.
So, the question of why college students don’t write well isn’t one that can be answered by placing blame in one place.
Students, teachers, professors and the system are all partially at fault in creating a situation where writing skills are praised but not taught, required but not explained.
Too often, students are expected to “develop” skills as though through osmosis, and this is especially troublesome when it comes to students who need more help and direct instruction to achieve these goals. To solve these problems, teachers, professors, high schools, and colleges need to work together to prioritize writing and to make sure that it is a skill that can be tested and measured, not just one that is expected.
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