The Corner

Education

Most Students Write Poorly — Does This Program Help?

Teaching young people how to write in English used to be the job of K–12 schools, and long ago they did it pretty well. But then came the student self-esteem mania, and what lowers self-esteem faster than seeing a lot of red marks all over a paper? Besides, the older teachers who knew how to critique student writing and thought it important to do so gradually retired and were replaced by teachers who themselves weren’t good writers (think of some of the handwritten teachers’ union protest signs you see during strikes). Thus, lots of entering college students have lousy writing skills.

What do colleges and universities do about that? Most affect to help students learn to write well and toward that end, many have “Writing across the Curriculum” programs. In today’s Martin Center article, Anthony Hennen examines this approach, focusing mainly on the highly-ranked program at North Carolina State.

State’s program may be highly-ranked, but that ranking is not based on any real evidence, Hennen observes. “Until students enter the workforce, it may be hard to know how good they really are at communicating — and gathering information post-graduation to draw conclusions about writing programs can be a daunting task,” he writes.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) sounds great — schools tell faculty in all disciplines that they should work on the quality of student writing. The problem, however, is that enforcing that is nearly impossible because many faculty members just don’t want to be bothered with the unpleasant task of correcting students’ writing mistakes. Again, it’s hard to measure effectiveness, but what research has been done casts doubt on WAC in general.

Some colleges have special “writing centers” for students, but, Hennen points out, most students only use them for last-minute help on papers that are due, not for on-going help with their writing.

The upshot is that although colleges pay lip service to teaching students how to write, many students still graduate with grade-school writing ability.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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