Thursday, June 30, 2016

This Week's Big Thirsty. "How do you actually improve student writing? Is it even possible?"

Flava from InsideHigherEd:
Why can't my new employees write? I heard this question several times on my recent vacation... I then ask them why they think the next generation of white-collar professionals can't write. The most common response is a belief in a lack of "rigor" in their employees' educational pasts. I don't find the lack of rigor explanation persuasive... For me, the key to changing this is to make writing more engaging in every sense of the word,

The rest of the misery.


So employers say new graduates can't write because of lack of rigor in writing instruction, and the columnist immediately dismisses their input. The employers, he says, are wrong. The real reason is that we professors still aren't pandering hard enough (paraphrasing here), and if we were just that much more "engaging" our problems would be solved.

I, too, get this question from employers. Their complaint is straightforward: Graduates have not mastered basic grammar and mechanics..

The intro comp instructors agree. It's true, they say. We don't deal with grammar and mechanics. The deficits there are so overwhelming that we wouldn't have time to cover anything else.

So I'm not so quick to dismiss the employers' input. What I'd like to know is, what's the answer?

I'm not aware of any study showing improved writing via "engagement." Is this a real thing, or is it wishful thinking / a hipper-than-thou status display?

Q: Is anyone aware of any efforts that have actually improved college students' writing in their native language?


  1. When I was growing up, we didn't have Twitter, Facebook, snapchat, instant messages, or even email. Most of the time when I wrote something, it was something I was writing for school, and so it had to be well written.

    But nowadays the little snowflakes are writing constantly on their electronic devices, and they're doing in with HORRIBLE grammar, usually lacking any capitalization or punctuation. And their snowflake friends are encouraging this behavior because they couldn't grammar their way out of a life or death situation.

    This, I think, is one of the big problems. Students are constantly messaging their friends with awful writing and without any constructive criticism, so when they finally get told by a teacher that their writing is awful, they don't believe it or they don't care because their writing has this far been effective.

    1. This seems like a . . . fairly ahistorical explanation. Literate people have always been able to communicate in different registers; even people who had command of standard grammar and spelling for their own time didn't necessarily use it in letters to family or in their diaries.

      Put it another way, this letter seems to have been remarkably effective.

  2. It's like that joke: how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to really want to change. I've helped students improve their writing, both as an instructor and as a tutor, but it's always the students who *want* to do better in the first place. A lot of them don't see the point of taking writing anyway, so they don't learn. Also, a lot of them compartmentalize--they think writing is for English, so they don't take the skills with them, then they complain at their Psychology/Sociology/Biology/Business teachers that THIS ISN'T AN ENGLISH CLASS WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME WRITE (at all, let alone caring how good the writing is or whether they can use a semicolon). So I think there's a fundamental disconnect with a lot of these students for understanding how valuable gen ed and other outside-their-major courses are.

    1. This fits my experience (and also explains why it's often the multilingual learners who make the most progress -- they're actually open to learning about language and writing, and have some experience in doing, and incentive to do, so).

    2. Heck, the students enrolled in my English literature classes pull the "why are you making me write" card. If it's not specifically composition, they don't think they should have to write.

      On the other hand, returning students in my tech writing courses have learned the lesson that good written communication skills are a key to advancing in their (existing) careers.

    3. I am endlessly telling students that the (technical, white-collar, knowledge-working) jobs they think my major will get them will have them writing professional communications every single working week. And writing lengthy documents more than once a year.

      A few actually take that to heart and work at. Most are nothing special, but solid, clear communication is enough for those jobs; it is enough for them to communicate with precision.

  3. I'm going to follow the example of the summer-term students whose work I'm too busy keeping up with to properly attend to CM, and answer without doing the background reading or even reading the prompt very carefully. Oh, and I'm also going to recycle an idea that I know I've already described at least once on CM, which may or may not be entirely germane to the question (my students are great role models):

    The major problem is that they haven't read enough, especially long-form well-written writing (as opposed to "grade-level-appropriate" textbooks, readers, etc.). So I'd suggest locking them up somewhere for a year, or at least the summer before college, with access to plenty of books and analog writing materials and outdoor activities (equipment/facilities provided, but otherwise unorganized unless the students/campers do it themselves) and regular meals, but absolutely no access to screens, the internet, etc.

    After an equally cursory glance at Frankie's post, I'm thinking maybe we could team up (or maybe pull a bait and switch -- for their own good, of course).

    Failing the above (which only seems to be offered, mostly sans books, to young people in extreme mental/behavioral difficulty), I'd suggest focusing on careful reading in class, not just for content, but also for overall organization and sentence-level structure. The lost art of diagramming sentences might help (one can even make it a contest, as my 8th-grade teacher did; they like contests, right?); practice writing sentences in formats parallel to a model (sort of mad libs that make sense) might work better.

    I *think* some of these ideas (e.g. reading a variety of prose, including nonfiction, and paying attention to its characteristics) are actually incorporated into the common core, but that's gotten caught up in so many cultural/political battles that I fear any positive aspects will be completely lost.

    1. Absolutely. They don't read. They don't see language in action. They don't know how written language is used in various rhetorical situations -- even when they move fluidly between oral discourse communities -- and they don't expose themselves even to the notion that writing differs by situation.

      Their critical thinking also sucks, which is a big problem.

      And, of course, many of them don't commit themselves to improving even when they recognize the need to improve.

  4. And after reading the article (hey; I deserve a break, right?), I find I pretty much agree with the author on all points, except, perhaps, the conclusion, which doesn't really address the question of how we provide authentic writing experiences in a higher ed context that is just as assessment-oriented as the K-12 one, with students who have been thoroughly indoctrinated in that mode for at least 13 years. Actually, the employers themselves might have a better shot at that, since at least some students expect the work world to be different (and do respond to its incentives -- witness their tendency to skip class when their work supervisors apply pressure to take an open shift).

    On the sentence/grammar level, I still stand by the argument that most people will learn such material best by reading, widely and deeply, preferably over a substantial period of time. It's not that these subjects aren't taught in K-12; it's just that they don't really stick when taught in a near-vacuum.

    But a bit of sentence-diagramming and sentence-modeling probably wouldn't hurt (but no, I have no proof of that, and am one of those writing teachers who focuses mostly on larger organizational/genre matters, with the exception of some sentence-level work on citation. If you get my students as student or employees, you should at least be able to tell where they got their information. Unless, of course, they just consider the desire for that information an odd quirk of mine, and slough it off as soon as I record a passing grade).

  5. Anyone remember how in scifi TV shows, everyone in the future is an expert at Calculus by age 12? I think that forecast suggests something telling:

    We're expecting entire generations of students to care about something that their parents and (especially) grandparents didn't need to know. My family is resolutely blue collar. My parents and their siblings all worked with their hands: construction, plumbing, factory work, mechanics, even retail sales. Most of them rarely had to write anything worthwhile. Yet, most of them were pretty smart, so they were rather proficient with basic writing (and math).

    But, nowadays, we're expecting people who are probably best prepared to be factory workers to instead enter white and pink collar positions that require communication skills that were not necessary to previous generations. Many of them lack a natural aptitude to acquire these skills... and far too many lack the necessary fortitude to acquire them. They can write "good enough" (and do math good enough too).

    Think about it: If we now have 80% of HS grads going to college (as opposed to 20% back 30 years ago), colleges engineered to retain and graduate them even if they lack the necessary skills, AND we have whole systems in place to ensure people get jobs (or else they starve), we have a whole mess of people who have empty college diplomas faking their way into their jobs (and often no longer getting fired for incompetence).

    Add to this what everyone else said above (lack of real writing in favor of social media mumblings, lack of reading, etc.), and we have a hot mess.

  6. please can I be locked up for the summer in Cassandra's training program? Sounds like my idea of heaven – books, food, Pen and paper, a bit of fresh air…

  7. I will say that among my older students, I can see significant improvement in their writing within the span of a single semester. I will also add that they often forget how to apply that knowledge in subsequent classes, as many have proven when they've taken my lit classes after successfully completing comp.

    1. Oh, yes, Greta! Even when students take my second level comp, they seemed to have forgotten almost everything from the first!