Student Writing: Strategies to Reverse Ongoing Decline

Michael J. Carter and Heather Harper

A writer is a person for whom writing is

more difficult than it is for other people.

—Thomas Mann

Introduction

Declining writing ability has been a mounting concern for those involved in secondary and higher education. Some believe the quality of student writing is worse than ever before, while others question whether a “golden age” of academic excellence truly ever existed. Unfortunately, a slew of empirical studies conducted over the past thirty years have provided ample evidence that those who believe that writing continues to decline are indeed correct. In the early nineties, the National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducted the first national assessment of writing portfolios gathered from students around the country. The NAEP’s findings were strong enough for Gary W. Phillips, associate commissioner at the National Center for Educational Statistics, to conclude that “the moral of the story is that the writing is not very good in the nation. Even the best is mediocre.”1

Plenty of research shows that student writing skills have been poor for some time, at least since 1970.2 Moreover, there is evidence that student writing is getting worse. One recent examination of graduate student writing proficiency using the SAT II Writing Test, Part B, supplies evidence of a downward trend, finding that graduate students do not write much more skillfully than the average high school senior.3 Studies like this force us to consider the disquieting reality that upon graduation students are no better writers than before they enrolled in college. It is ironic that compared to previous generations, more American college students today rate themselves as above-average academically, particularly in terms of writing ability.4 In this essay we identify some of the major causes of poor writing among college students and recommend strategies for educators to improve these worsening skills.

Causes of Diminishing Writing Ability

While we do not offer an exhaustive list of reasons that illuminates the full portrait of decline in student writing, we believe the following issues strongly contribute to it.

Changes within Academia

Secondary and higher education has been affected in recent decades due to budget cuts, an increasing emphasis on national standards, and the influx of market-based logic in education. Some see these changes as having a positive impact on instruction and learning; others believe it is more than coincidental that a substantial decline in student writing ability has accompanied these shifts and developments. Let us briefly examine a few changes within academia that have made such an impact.

Testing.

The use of testing as a means for assessment has a long history. Due to increases in average class size—especially at the university level—essay-style tests have become rarer as educators rely more heavily on multiple-choice and standardized tests.5 As a consequence, students are evaluated less and less for their ability to answer questions in written form.

There is strong evidence that relying on multiple-choice tests is detrimental to writing ability. Exams that feature multiple-choice questions often measure one’s ability to match concepts to definitions—a skill that relies on rote memorization. Exams that feature short answer or open-ended essay questions force students to provide a more thorough, detailed understanding of a question. Research has shown that a student’s ability to understand and answer test questions significantly drops as questions change from a multiple-choice format to a more open-ended essay format that requires more elaborate responses.6 An unfortunate consequence therefore accompanies the efficiency of multiple-choice testing: the process used to determine student aptitude also allays student aptitude.

Grade Inflation.

There is substantial evidence that grades have become inflated over time, especially at the university level. A UCLA study of various colleges indicated that the percentage of As given rose from 22 to 47 percent between 1968 and 2002.7 A more recent study found that between 1985 and 2005 undergraduate grades had risen while the information content associated with those grades decreased.8 Student work that is average or even below average is now being evaluated as above average or exemplary. The dysfunction of an education system that awards decreasing performance with increasingly higher marks is obvious.

Grade inflation does not only occur within universities. Many educators criticized the decision to “re-center” SAT scores during the 1990s (SAT scores had been adjusted numerous times before as well). Due to falling test scores, the SAT grading criteria was adjusted so that test-takers, on average, received eighty extra points.9 Regardless of where grade inflation occurs, inflated grades doubly mask poor student writing by (1) passing students who should not pass and (2) failing to alert students to their poor writing skills. Grade inflation makes it particularly difficult for instructors who mark students down for poor writing. Professors who stick to traditional grading rubrics are often seen as overly—and unfairly—strict.

Decline in Standards.

Beyond grade inflation, there is evidence that academic standards in general have declined. Following results from a longitudinal study of 2,322 college students at various colleges, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue in Academically Adrift (2011) that reading and writing standards have decreased significantly.10 Arum and Roksa report that a third of students sampled were required to read less than forty pages per week in any class the previous semester; half were required to write less than twenty pages for any course. The reduction in required reading has likely also contributed to mediocre writing among college students. Research has shown that reading well-written prose expands vocabularies and enables the reader subconsciously to assimilate principles of writing style and rhetorical structure.11 Over time, study habits seem to have followed the trend of relaxed academic standards. College students in 1961 spent an average of twenty-four hours per week studying and completing homework, while students in 2003 spent only fourteen hours on coursework.12

Many additional reasons have been cited for the grade inflation phenomenon and the decline in academic standards, including the emphasis on instructor evaluations that has led to a rise in leniency in the classroom and in grading, the coupling of national standards and school funding, and national school comparisons.13 Regardless of the reasons, there is compelling empirical evidence that grade inflation and falling standards affect student performance and writing ability.

Class size.

The average class size in universities continues to expand as the population grows and more students seek degrees. Larger classes will also likely accentuate the decline in writing ability among college students. Recent research revealed a negative relationship between class size and “perceived student learning.”14 As the number of students per class taught by one instructor grows, there is a decrease in instructor interaction per student, student engagement, and course requirements—all of which have a direct impact on writing ability. As Alice Horning contends, “[E]xtensive writing cannot reasonably be assigned, read, and responded to in large sections.”15

Changes in Society

Changes that have negatively affected college students have occurred in society as well as in academia. The trends and developments discussed below have had a major impact on classroom performance in general and writing skills in particular.

Technology.

Considering the diminishing amount of physical time it takes to produce written work due to the shift from using typewriters to word processors, it seems intuitive that students would spend more time on the quality of writing content. Spelling, grammar, diction, and punctuation are all easily corrected on a computer. So why are students writing so poorly when the vast majority now complete college assignments on computers that are equipped to facilitate the writing process?

One possible answer is likened to the past debate about the use of calculators in schools. Some instructors viewed the use of calculators by students on tests as acceptable, while others believed doing so reduced their capacity to understand and employ basic mathematical skills. While technologies that eliminate the labor process in any task are likely to be embraced by the masses, word processors allow students to concentrate less on punctuation, spelling, and grammar than in the past. Grammar checkers in word processing programs are far from perfect, and yet most students rely on them to help edit their written work. Thus, technology that supposedly makes the writing process easier may do so at the cost of skillfulness. More empirical research is nevertheless needed to determine the specific effects such technology has on writing ability.

Media/Television/Video Games.

Forms of interactive media are another potential culprit in declining classroom performance and writing ability among college students. A 2010 study of time-use surveys reveals that students are spending 42 percent less time per week on academic work than students of the previous generation.16 The extra time is being spent on leisure—especially technology entertainment. And while leisure time in the past may have been dedicated to activities that could indirectly advance academic abilities (for example, reading for pleasure), many students now spend their free time watching television, using their smartphones, and keeping abreast of entertainment news as opposed to current events.

The Internet.

The Internet has been utilized as a resource for college, secondary, and elementary school students for roughly two decades now. Its impact on writing ability is difficult to measure. Now the primary research vehicle for students, the Internet as a tool for doing academic work demands a new skill: the ability to distinguish between valid and reliable knowledge and opinion-based, biased, and potentially incorrect information. Today’s students are savvy (and often more adept than their instructors) at surfing the Web, but can they use it properly as a research tool? Many professors cringe at the sight of Wikipedia entries in the bibliography for a research paper, but students continue to employ such online resources because they allow for quick summaries of assigned topics. Wikipedia seems to be this generation’s Cliff Notes.

Social Media.

Instant messaging, text messaging, and tweeting have emerged as new avenues of communication. One could imagine that this might lead to improved written skills, since this sort of communication is directly linked to writing. However, since these new media allow real-time interaction and often include character limits, formal communication—fashioning complete, grammatically correct sentences—is often considered too slow and cumbersome. What has emerged instead is a jargon that allows for quick exchanges. Much of this jargon is symbolic or compresses traditional English into an abbreviated form. For example, the common greeting, “How are you doing?” is bastardized in instant messages, phrased and spelled “how r u doing?” This formulation also (obviously) does not employ the rules of capitalization.

Many students are beginning to use this type of abbreviated “text language” when writing class papers and it is likely to become more common with the relentless increase in electronic communication. Studies on the effect of social media are varied. Some studies have found that text messaging positively correlates with literacy,17 but there is also evidence that students who use texting as a primary form of communication perform less well academically.18

Improving Student Writing

While countering societal trends is beyond the scope of academic instructors and institutions, there are strategies that can be adopted to address—and even counteract—the decay in writing ability and improve the overall academic performance of college students. We offer five.

Implement Intensive Freshman Writing Courses

While students may have taken several English writing and composition courses in high school, freshman-level writing courses should be required for all students as an integral part of any college program. Students arrive with varying degrees of skill, and it is in their first-year courses where they should significantly improve and refine their writing. This will enable them to communicate effectively throughout their college careers. Of course, many universities already offer freshman-level writing courses; their intensity, however, should be examined as class sizes continue to increase.

The Conference of College Composition and Communication (CCCC) recommends that the size of first-year writing courses be limited to between fifteen and twenty students and that writing instructors teach between forty-five and sixty students per semester.19 These numbers are supported by research that shows the benefit of one-on-one tutoring and direct discussions with students aimed at improving writing ability.20 Of course, such courses should only be the beginning of the development of writing ability in college—not the end.

Adjust Existing Course Requirements

While higher education institutions continue to deal with budget cuts and the implementation of standardized measurements, administrators and instructors can and should continue to emphasize—or, in cases where requirements have declined, place more emphasis on—writing and reading requirements in the curriculum and their courses. More intensive freshman-level writing courses will provide the foundation, but the development of writing skills must continue throughout a student’s college career. As has been shown, heightened expectations for reading and writing proficiency significantly affect writing ability.21 If students are not expected to read and write extensively in all of their courses, their writing is not likely to improve during college.

While implementing increased reading requirements is relatively simple to do (though likely unpopular among students), increased writing requirements and grading for writing quality will require additional work on the part of instructors. And larger class sizes will undoubtedly make such additional work even more difficult. However, there are class-design methods such as peer editing (discussed below) that instructors can implement to lessen the burden of such changes.

Organize Instructor-Student Feedback

There is ample literature that debates the efficacy of assessment strategies and how to communicate ways to improve to students.22 There is also evidence that an instructor’s feedback to students regarding writing assignments has a strong effect on improving writing ability. Feedback is most effective when a student’s level of writing ability is positioned relative to the performance desired, when key features of the desired performance are clearly defined, and when what is needed to achieve the desired performance is known.23

What this translates to is simply more thorough editing and specific comments provided by instructors to students that delineates in very clear terms exactly what must be done to improve a piece of writing. Simply identifying grammatical errors or problems in content is insufficient to move a student forward if such feedback is presented vaguely or without detail. Students need to be told why their writing is incorrect, and be shown how it can be corrected and improved. Asking instructors to provide feedback of this nature can be burdensome, due to volume of work and time constraints. But today’s students need to know why a sentence that lacks a subject and a predicate is a fragment. Scribbling “frag” in a paper’s margin is not enough.

Revise Grading Rubrics

There is a correlation between grades and lowered ability that warrants attention. One way to counter the inflation of letter grades is to include an additional grading criterion that represents how a student’s performance ranks among other students (on writing tasks or other academic exercises). This could be calculated as a percentile, in deciles, quartiles, or even as a raw number that lies between 1 (the best student performer in a class) and x (the worst student performer in a class). This procedure is not altogether new; some universities currently rank students using similar criteria. But the practice is not widespread, particularly in terms of grades per course. Let us examine why this strategy is an improvement, or at least an important complement to the current grading technique.

Letter grades were traditionally meant to represent whether a student’s performance is below average (grades of F and D), average (the grade C), or above average (grades of B and A). With grade inflation the symbolic representation of letter grades has been eradicated. Since most grades given in high schools and universities are As and Bs, those grades now represent average grades. With the majority of grades being skewed toward the A and B range, distributions have less variance. Less variance in grade distributions means that grades lose their utility in revealing, both to students and instructors, which students are excelling and which ones are struggling. Employing a rank-order system to represent performance would correct the problems associated with grade inflation. Rank-ordering students in terms of their relative ability among their peers may not appeal to those who worry about fostering a sense of defeat and low self-esteem in lower ranked students, but since letter grades no longer represent true ability, something needs to be done, even if such a change is as drastic as relying on a rank-order, quantitative system of assessment. Whether it is unfortunate or otherwise, with dire times—dire consequences.24

Establish Student Peer Editing

Peer review has long been a standard among prestigious academic journals as a way to uphold the quality of research. Some instructors have applied the same method in the classroom.25 Peer editing is a process whereby students edit and respond to each other’s writing under the guidance of the instructor. Over the decades, those who use peer review have found it to have a positive impact on student writing ability,26 though students are often resistant to the strategy.27 There are several benefits of peer editing: (1) students often spend more time proofreading essays knowing that at least one of their peers will be evaluating and judging the quality of their work; (2) peer editors, through their evaluation, have a better grasp of the impact of certain common mistakes; (3) by reading other students’ work, peer editors may learn writing “best practices” from their peers; and (4) by involving students in editing and evaluating, instructors are better able to handle assigning larger amounts of writing in their courses. Thus, peer editing may improve student writing due to the benefits of the strategy per se, but we recommend it as a supplement rather than as a substitute for instructor assessment, because college students obviously do not have the credentials and experience to evaluate competency.

Conclusion

If one of the explicit goals of higher education institutions is to provide students with direct, transferable skills that can be used in various employment sectors, then the development of proficient writing should be a top priority. National education curricula are often focused on science, technology, and math, but the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is a necessary skill for every college class, for work, and for life in general. While institutions and instructors must continue to deal with increasing constraints upon their time and resources, the strategies we present here, once implemented, can and will help ensure that students develop and refine this important skill.

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