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.