Why College Students Can’t Write

By Conor McHugh, Class of 2016

Nick Dawybida wrote his entire high school career. Every discipline in his school required him to write as extensively as he could, from English and history, to the sciences. His senior year was no different. He went to his classes and he wrote five to ten pages of work per class. But everything changed when during a group project, where he was required to write a essay with three of his peers to convey an idea.

But Nick noticed a trend among his fellow students, he found that he was writing above the level of his classmates, and found himself editing a large portion of their contributions to make the essay more coherent.

“I had to do a lot of grammar editing,” said Nick, “It seemed like my writing was well above the others.”

Nick, like many who score high enough on the writing portion of the St. Peter’s entrance exam, only had to take one composition class instead of the usual two, but it seems that he is one of very few in the nation who can.

A report from The National Center for Education Statistics said that in 2011, 52 percent of twelfth-graders performed at the basic level on writing assessments, while 24 percent wrote at the proficient level.

The NCES claims that the basic level “denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills” in terms of writing, while reporting that the proficient level “represents solid academic performance” for the groups being assessed.

2011 Graphic

The same report from 2002 reports that 74 percent of twelfth-graders performed at the basic level, and 24 percent performed at the proficient level.

The report presents a 22 percent decrease in basic writing performance. This seems evident to Lajani Mason-Dixon, a history major, and composition tutor at St. Peter’s CALL Center.

“When they come in, they should improve, but many generally don’t do well” said Dixon. She went on to explain that many of the students who come to her aren’t proficient in grammar nor do they follow any standard format of essay structure.

Some professors at St. Peter’s University agree with Dixon.

They explain that generally our generation doesn’t extensively write.  Professors say there is a gap in writing proficiency because it’s not the skill students want to hone, and that there is no need to challenge them because many go into fields where writing long papers is not needed, like fields in the business world, and mathematics.

Nick believes that the education system is partially to blame for the lack of writing skills.

“Parts of the education system are moving from the artistic to the robotic.” he says, continuing by explaining that in the world today where people are more business minded and focused on short memos and emails, they find that people don’t care to nor is it applicable to write an eight to 10 page paper.

“Here’s your goal get to it. Emails work to communicate well, but other things do that too.”

A growing concern raised by many, however, is whether or not writing should matter when a student’s discipline is not part of the liberal arts. The answer is a resounding yes.

Professor Constance Wagner, the director of the St. Peter’s writing program, agrees that no matter what the discipline, a student should write extensively.

“Those who keep journals, write for fun, or even write emails, are better at communicating and clearly making their point,” said Wagner. She also asserts that there should be a “larger emphasis” on writing. She goes on to explain that the writing intensive requirement for college students spans every discipline.

Other professors agree that by the capstone, we want you to be able to defend a 25 page thesis in a coherent and well structured manner, so putting a writing intensive course in the core helps that greatly.

They say that students fear the numbers, and that every class, across every discipline should write, and not just write five paragraphs, but write as much as needed to to make a persuasive argument or a detailed analysis.

However there are some who think that writing should be based on the discipline rather than an umbrella standard. Political Science major Sam Lehmbeck is one of those students. In her opinion, it should vary.

“I think that based on your major you should choose a type of composition class that solely works with that. Writing memos for political science based majors is a lot different than writing a five page essay for English.”

But she also says that despite specialized composition classes, there should be at least one basic course to hone basic writing skills.

“It’s scary really,” said Lehmbeck, “In high school I was basically the Penguin Handbook. I could do what a lot of other students couldn’t. I think that if we at least offer one condensed writing course, so at least freshman can either re-learn the basics, or learn them entirely if they didn’t in high school.”

As for Nick Dawybida, he plans to try and break that trend by becoming a high school english teacher.

“I will emphasize writing in my class” says Nick, “To me writing is the most important part of communication, why ruin it by not caring? I do, and I hope that my students will too.”



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