The Decline Of Student Writing and What Instructors can do About It

It is college application time and with that comes the dreaded college essay. Rather not write an essay? No problem, if you apply to George Mason, Tufts University, or St. Mary’s College of Maryland you can submit a video essay in place of a written one. Really.

The decline of writing skills in young people is a serious concern. The college essay bypass as mentioned above, is just one indicator of where we might be headed. Yet I believe there is hope for teaching students to be proficient, if not highly competent writers given the number of concerned educators I’ve spoken with and heard from over recent months. Furthermore, there are resources for developing writing and reading skills that our digital culture provides that can supplement instruction. In this post I’ll present the facts on the writing skill gap, as well as interesting data from The Writing Lives of College Students a report from Michigan State University that sheds light on student perceptions of their own day-to-day writing habits.  I’ll conclude with  a list of strategies instructors might consider using to develop the writing skills of their students.

Before I share resources and strategies for writing development, I’d like to put the problem into context. My intent is not to alarm, but I believe it necessary to examine data and facts in order for us to identify just how many students are affected by the ‘skills gap’.

The Skill Gap
A significant number of newly admitted college students, more than one-third, begin college without the required skills in writing, reading and math needed to complete college level work. It has become a national concern, and is beginning to affect public policy decisions.

“The need for remediation is widespread. Thirty-four percent of all students at public colleges and universities enroll in at least one remedial course. The number is higher at community colleges; on average, 43 percent of students require remediation.”  The National Conference of State Legislatures

Academically Adrift
Before I move onto more positive aspects, there is dire news about the number of college graduates that have failed to develop and improve their writing skills even after three or four years of college enrollment. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa include results from a study that followed 2,300 students at 24 universities. It appears that even after four years of course work, one-third of students surveyed showed minimal improvement in writing and critical thinking skills.

“The study [also] found that there has been a 50 percent decline in the number of hours a student spends studying and preparing for classes from several decades ago.” NPR

The Writing Lives of College Students
This 2010 study conducted by Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center at Michigan State University surveys first-year college students of seven college institutions within the United States.  The goal of the research was to identify student behaviours, perceptions and attitudes towards writing. What makes this study unique is the digital forms of writing included in the survey, emails, text messages, instant messaging in addition to academic papers, lecture and reading notes.

Given the relatively small sample size of students (n = 1366), and small population of only seven schools, the study’s statistical significance is questionable, however the charts  included in the paper are worthy off consideration. Below is one that displays the five modes of writing most valued by students in comparison to the frequency of their use. Click the image to expand its view.

What is surprising is that students view sending text messages as a writing form and consider it to be the most valuable form of writing over all others. Yet, what is heartening is that the academic paper and lectures notes rank in the top three of valued writing forms. 

Strategies to Develop Writing Skills
The burden of responsibility for the skills gap as described above, rests with many. There are several programs in place, both at the high school and college level for college preparation skill development, yet the problem persists. Course instructors have a unique opportunity to make a difference with students – can encourage students to seek support and strive for improvement. I realize the strategies listed below may not be applicable in all situations, but one or more may be feasible and just might make a difference in helping a student become an effective communicator.

  • Consider breaking one large writing assignment or report into smaller assignments that builds into a final, comprehensive assignment. This allows the instructor to give feedback early on in the writing process, with corrective action and constructive comments.
  • Consider the course weighting in favor of written assignments rather than exams or other types of grade items. The more writing required of students, the more opportunity for skill development. This is difficult for math and science courses, yet incorporating a written component of some sort is ideal

Peer grading can be an effective activity that develops writing skills from a different perspective. Consider including a peer grading assignment on the draft of the final paper, before submission to the instructor. This assignment can be executed in a number of ways, with a grade component or not. A participation grade could be assigned for the action of giving feedback, or a formal grade that the peer would assign by using a rubric. Groups of three or four are ideal, with each student grading their group members. This could be facilitated through the LMS platform with small groups set up where each group has access to their own discussion board, group file exchange and contact list.

  • Graded discussion board postings (within the LMS platform). Include guidelines where the students must write a minimum number of words within the post (a rubric helps with setting expectations). Word counts might range from 100 to 250 words per one post. Within our online program, we try to include questions that require critical analysis of course content where student is forced to analyze, compare and contrast or synthesize information.
  • Consider developing a writing support program within your department  (or even within your own course) that consists of a series of actions that support students in need of writing skill development. Having a plan with specific guidelines of whom will step in, and at what time is a start. The type of support is also critical. Success rates of formal remedial programs are mixed, are time-consuming and often avoided by students. Alternatively, a thirty-minute session with a student to discuss writing strategies for an assignment might be an example of ‘support’. Offering guidance early in the course, rather than later can also be a critical factor in student success.
  • Blogging or journal writing is one of the most effective ways to develop writing skills. There are numerous ways to structure a blogging assignment, though in respect of your time, I will refer you to a previous post, Blogging and Bloom’s for further details. Another source, to view how a professor structures an entire course around a blogging assignment, is to visit Mind the Science Gap, a blog created by Professor Maynard from the University of Michigan. This assignment is excellent, as the ‘audience’ for student writing is open to the World Wide Web with ‘mentors’ giving feedback to individual students. You can find out more about the structure of the assignment and the course itself by visiting the website, Mind the Science Gap.


14 thoughts on “The Decline Of Student Writing and What Instructors can do About It

  1. I rarely comment, but i did a few searching and wound up here The Decline Of Student
    Writing and What Instructors can do About It | online learning insights.
    And I do have a few questions for you if you tend not to mind.
    Could it be simply me or does it seem like some of the responses appear as if
    they are left by brain dead individuals?
    😛 And, if you are writing on other online social sites, I’d like to keep up with anything new you have to post. Could you make a list of the complete urls of all your social pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?


  2. “Consider breaking one large writing assignment or report into smaller assignments that builds into a final, comprehensive assignment.” This strategy is being use also in solving math problems. It’s like simplifying it.


  3. Ugh . . . so true, so true.

    The realization on poor writing skills hit me again when the admin asked to raise the student enrollment cap for my graduate seminar because of increased interest. My first and primary concern was the need to wade through all of those additional weekly writing assignments. Two weeks into the course I have no student who is tortuous to read so that seems to be working out this semester.

    I am perplexed by the writing issue on two fronts. First, otherwise competent students are just uninterested in improving their writing skills. Multiple students have argued with me that their writing skills are wholly adequate when they are mediocre at best. So in many ways, students cannot distinguish good from bad writing.

    Second, the University where I teach does not offer quality remedial resources to address writing skills. Last year I “forced” two of my graduate advisees to go kicking and screaming into a technical writing class where the credit would not even count toward their degree. The course turned out to be online, taught by a GA who did not respond on weekly written assignments even four weeks into the course. I approached the department chair who informed me that he would look into the matter but the type of instruction I sought was not available on campus, to his knowledge. Arghhh!!

    I would like to tell my advisees that it is their responsibility to seek out the resources on campus to upgrade their writing skills, that I will edit the first page of their paper and simply write at the top of the second page “Rewrite remainder of this paper for organization and clarity.”

    In a course I taught last year I required all of the graduate students enrolled to submit a book review to a peer-reviewed journal as part of the class requirement. My intent was for the MA social science students to work on writing skills and also break through the intimidation in publishing. I learned a good bit in the exercise. First, when evaluating a short piece for publication, I realized how I had really let my own standards drop in reviewing student papers. That is, when reviewing student essays with publication in mind, I was much more critical than I had come to be when reviewing typical final papers, reports and theses. Second, students who rose to the occasion now have a published book review in a professional journal and those who fought the process do not, largely because their writing was substandard and their reviews rejected.

    A very frustrating discussion, but a necessary one.

    By the way, I have some hope for this course offering as a possible aid:


    1. Hi Robert, Your experiences with your students highlights what is happening in the ‘real world’ of academia. It must be so very frustrating when you are addressing the issue head-on, and yet there is little or no support or even demonstrated concern from others, both the students and the institution itself! It is a problem that should be shared by many – it is virtually impossible for a professor to ‘fix’ poor writing when students reach the graduate level – considering that writing is the vehicle to demonstrate deeper learning about the chosen area of study.

      Thank you Robert for sharing your experience with us, and for being candid about the frustrations you face with your students. As you said, though a frustrating discussion, educators and students need to engage in dialogue, face the issue and take it seriously. You have started engaging with the problem and I hope others will too. I wish there were easy answers. However, good news about a writing course offered through Coursera! It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Thanks as always for your insightful comments and for taking the time to share and contribute. Debbie


      1. You are certainly right that competent writing is “the vehicle” that allows one to demonstrate that one has (or has acquired) deeper insight into any field of study. (Competent writing is the vehicle for MANY things!) Now, if only we can convince the students of that, in say grade 8 and onwards…. Then, perhaps, by college/university, they will know how to drive that wonderful vehicle!

        I do not know if it is shyness, lack of practice, lack of having read good writing, or what…. but I do see one thing lately: Young people do not seem interested in formal writing / communication. They think a tweet or a Facebook post is “writing” that it is all you need to communicate. Tweeting is good and useful. So are 500 character YouTube comments. So are Facebook posts (Though they can be, if desired, much longer). But they are sadly, all too often, not real writing, not real communication. And they are sadly often much too informal. And these habits of “informal speaking”, and “100 character sentences”, and “500 character posts”, seem to be becoming much too prevalent.

        I wonder: Is it the lack of proper editing and formatting facilities that many of these media lack… that might perhaps be “part of the cause” and/or “part of the problem”? They students get used to being short, informal, and quick…. And to not being able to edit or format readily. And that carries on into the academic world….

        What would the readers think might be the cause? For if we can find the cause… we might find, if not a cure, at least a partial solution.


        1. Hi Pete,
          You’ve highlighted one of the root causes of poor writing – the lack of skill development and practice in junior high and early grades of high school. And, without practice and more practice, the opportunity for editing and proofreading of writing is non-existent. The second point you mention is the forms of writing that students are using everyday that demand very little skill, text messages, Facebook posts and Twitter. In the study I reference in this post, text messaging is mentioned by first-year college students as the most valued and used form of writing! On the other hand, the study also shows that the students value academic writing and school papers. Therein lies the problem, these students may value academic writing, but they lack the skill development and practice to become competent writers. Certainly a complex problem. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Pete. It would be interesting to hear what other readers think.


          1. Yes, I found it stunning that they liked the text messaging (Well of course! It is new! Fun! Instantaneous! And Feedback is instantaneous, too! What is not to like?) AND… At the same time liked academic writing (perhaps because they yearn for an outlet for their creativity?) … but as you wisely pointed out, have no training in it nor opportunity to practice.

            I wonder, if “for credit courses” are not possible (at some high school, college, university, adult school), could not a few “rogue instructors”, band to gather, and start an after hours, non-credit “writing club”. Perhaps an “unofficial student press”. Research, opinions, essays, creative writing, ANYTHING … would be featured. Anything to give young people a chance to practice writing. The “papers” would be overseen/reviewed/corrected by some volunteer faculty members, and/or other member of the larger community. Perhaps even “peer review”. The works would then be published and sold at low cost, say $1.00 per issue. The issues would be, say, every 6 weeks. A person (student, or faculty, or other) could make as many or as few submissions as possible. As long as a submission met certain “quality requirements”, it would be published, eventually, within 6 months of being accepted. Community sponsors would be sought for things like paper, printing supplies, USB keys/cd’s, and coffee/tea/donuts.

            Today with the net, not all the students who submit to a particular publication need to be students at that particular institution. The odd “guest” item could be published. Likewise, the professors need not all be located at any particular institution. The publishing could be done on the internet, and/or as a real world paper publication. Perhaps a book or ebook might eventually result… One never knows….

            I know my idea is blue sky, impractical, not well though out, etc. I am merely submitting it in hopes that … someone better educated, more experienced, more involved, more knowledgeable than me … might not be able to modify it, and make it fly in an academic setting, somehow.

            Sincerely, PM Laberge, Ontario, Canada


            1. Hi Pete. I love your idea! You have a well-thought out plan, almost ready to go. Perhaps your ideas will inspire a reader to implement such a program. With several of the new publishing tools available, I could see an e-book publishing club appealing to students – where students learn how to write, then publish their book, that they could even ‘sell’. Apple has a program iAuthor, though there are several others out there. Yes good idea Pete! I see you are from Ontario – I’m from Toronto. I’m living here in Southern California now, and though it is beautiful, I miss Toronto very much :(. Thanks again Pete for your great ideas.


  4. Yes, you’re quite right.

    I know of a couple of teachers who FaceBook/Tweet their high school students’ work to the net. The students mainly do videos or “presentations”. I “read” the kids work. (There is often a little writing in the presentations. Sometimes there is marquee text at the bottom of the videos.) They work hard. They are very creative. But their writing sucks….

    They “tweet write”. Sentences tend to be around 100 characters, no more. Paragraphs are 1 or 2 sentences long! Occasional abbreviations “sneak in”! (And, I have heard… Much to the teachers’ dismay!) Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are options!

    When they talk, they talk in short choppy sentences. Umm, Ah, Er, Unh, are all common. They don’t seem to be able to communicate “formally”. All they know is “casual with friends at the mall” communicating. A real speech is an effort for them. It shows.

    The bibliography is an alien thing to them. They are great at copy/paste, though, especially extracts from YouTube or some such thing. They can put in very loud sound tracks, and have access to hundreds of fonts. So they pick the smallest and most illegible ones they can! They love writing in grey on black. Artsy is the thing! Ugh!

    McLuhan said that the medium was the message. Now, I never bought into that crap. The message is the message. If you have no message, no medium will save it…. And the medium is the medium. If your message does not fit that medium, or if that medium does not fit the message, you will not successfully communicate. You may communicate, indeed, but it will be a less than optimal effort. These kids, cannot express their message. They may not have a message! I am not sure! But they have “multi-media”. All they know is “special effects”. Sad.

    Expect no Hemingways from this cohort! Expect no AC Clarkes! We will not see great poetry here. No Shelly’s! Not even any ee cummings! We may see vandalism, or perhaps some half decent graffiti. I think that to them, a major piece of writing… is a 1 page letter! Owww!

    It breaks my heart….. I ask you: How can a student do an essay in college or university… if they were never taught or had no experience in either grade school or high school?

    And worse, these kids are from elite private schools! Gads! Pity the inner city kid! Or would that kid, having less access to technology… perhaps write better?
    I would love to see some demographic breakdowns… Some well done stats.

    Now, I write very poorly, and unconventionally. But these kids, write worse than me.
    I think we are at the end of civilization. A new medievalism or dark ages is upon us.
    And it is sad. Now let me confess: I hated writing as a kid! My handwriting makes a doctor’s handwriting look like typewritten text! I welcomed the typewriter, but have a smashed finger, and other handicaps that meant that I used eraser pencils, correction tape, and whiteout by the gallon….

    But today they have computers with spell and grammar check! Correcting errors is easy! They can cut, copy, paste! Yet, they cannot communicate. Oh, well, maybe we will be lucky and the world will end by Dec of 2012!

    Teachers: Some of you still do have educations. Some of you can still speak and write properly. A few of you still bother to teach. The world is not all graphics and LOL cats! The ancient Egyptians tried and used graphics to communicate. We still cannot read the hieroglyphics! So we moved on to the Phoenician and other alphabets!

    Teachers… what happened when you were young? Were you not taught? Did you not learn? Do you not have a sacred duty to pass on knowledge, facts, principles, techniques, methods, etc…. to today’s generation??

    I hear a lot of teachers claim they “teach kids to think”… HAH! You cannot do that! So quit lying to me. You can encourage a student to think. You can ask a student to think. But…. you can no more “teach a student to think” than I can teach a horse to speak Spanish!!! The kid already has a thinking brain inside that skull…. You job is to try con the kid into using it!

    At the beginning of the day, the kid arrives in your class and knows X facts. The kid knows how to do Y things. Your job, that you are highly paid to do, is to make sure that: At the end of the day, that kid knows X + ## facts. That at the end of the day, the kid can do Y + ## things. In other words, the kid has learned something, during the day. The kid is not there to be entertained or babysat. If that is all you can do, fine. Then we will pay you accordingly. And it will be a much lower wage than you are getting now.

    Teachers! Grade yourselves! If you teach and then test, and the kid fails, it is not all your fault. It is not all the kids’ fault either! If you teach and test, and there has been no learning, you have failed. So at least try make a little time to show the kids the mistakes, and flaws and patch up their education. And at the end of the day, quiz yourselves! Did you send the kids home knowing more, and able to do more, than they could at 8 or 9AM? If your time with them did not yield something…. What are you doing being teachers? Do you not want to be in the classroom?

    And part of what those students really need is good old-fashioned reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. And here is why: If they cannot read, they cannot learn anything new. If they cannot write, they cannot communicate, take notes, or help pass on civilization. And if they cannot do basic math…. Once they can do that, then they can be shown Word, Excel, Powerpoint (easy on the transitions, please!), or whatever pretty little geegaw is the program, or app, or whatever of the day.

    Remember teachers…. These kids will someday be paying your pensions. Or not. As they may feel then!


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