• August 28, 2015

Writing Assignments Are Scarce for Students in 2 Majors at Texas Colleges

Writing Assignments Are Scarce for Students in 2 Majors at Texas Colleges 1

Scott Dalton for The Chronicle

A student takes notes in a freshman composition course at a public university in Texas. For students at 10 Texas colleges who end up majoring in business or education, a Chronicle analysis found, that course could turn out to be one of the few in which they would be asked to write more than 10 pages.

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close Writing Assignments Are Scarce for Students in 2 Majors at Texas Colleges 1

Scott Dalton for The Chronicle

A student takes notes in a freshman composition course at a public university in Texas. For students at 10 Texas colleges who end up majoring in business or education, a Chronicle analysis found, that course could turn out to be one of the few in which they would be asked to write more than 10 pages.

Business people and schoolteachers build their vocations around words. But at some colleges, it is possible to earn a four-year undergraduate degree in business or education without ever doing much writing.

According to a Chronicle analysis of 10 public four-year institutions in Texas, business majors and education majors are typically exposed to only a handful of writing-intensive courses—fewer than five out of the 40 or so courses needed for a degree, on average, for business majors, and fewer than eight courses for education majors. By contrast, history majors typically take 14 courses that require 10 or more pages of writing.

The Chronicle's analysis echoes a critique of the college learning environment in the new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press). In it, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa describe a study that tracked more than 2,000 students enrolled at four-year colleges in the fall of 2005. Among those who graduated on time, in 2009, exactly half said they took five or fewer courses that required at least 20 pages of writing.

"If students are not being asked to read and write on a regular basis in their course work," Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa write, "it is hard to imagine how they will improve their capacity to master performance tasks ... that involve critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing."

But Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa's study has a limitation: They relied on the students' own memories of their writing assignments, a subjective gauge open to error. The Chronicle wanted to find a more-objective measure of students' course experiences. That came from hundreds of syllabi from Texas, where a recently enacted state law requires all undergraduate course information to be placed online. Chronicle reporters scrutinized a diverse group of 10 Texas institutions, including the flagship campuses of the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station. (See a fuller description of the methodology below.) The Chronicle focused on education and business because they are among the largest college majors, and because Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa found that students in those two majors tend to have weak gains on a national test of writing and reasoning.

Zane K. Quible, a professor emeritus of management at Oklahoma State University who is a longtime critic of the writing instruction offered to business students, says he is not surprised by the Texas patterns. "At most business schools," he said, "tenuring and promotion are awarded purely on the basis of research and publications. Most faculty members don't see it as a priority to help students improve their writing."

A Simplistic Approach?

Other scholars, however, say that it is a mistake for Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa (and for The Chronicle) to focus narrowly on simple page counts of writing. "I'm all in favor of writing-intensive courses," said Alexander C. McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement. "But that doesn't necessarily have to mean a huge number of pages. What we've discovered is that it is often more important to ask students to write multiple drafts and to get feedback on each draft."

Valerie M. Balester, executive director of the writing center at Texas A&M University at College Station, echoes that point. "For our writing-intensive courses, we require a minimum of 2,000 words of writing," she said. "That might sound low, but we've found that careful feedback is really what builds students' skills."

Others in Texas suggest that The Chronicle's analysis might be misleading because its working definition of "writing" is too rigid. The analysis does not include assignments in which students wrote collaboratively in small groups. It does not count assignments that had students compose most of the writing in the classroom. And it does not count assignments in which students were asked to write short reflections on each week's reading.

The Chronicle set those limits because Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa have argued that some of the most powerful ways to improve critical-thinking skills do not appear to be collaborative projects, but rather the assignments in which students slave away alone at the library, composing a sustained argument.

Relaxing those restrictions would alter the findings.

In the management major at Lamar University, for example, The Chronicle found that students were required to take just two courses that require 20 or more pages of writing, and four courses that require 10 to 19 pages. But if the analysis counted group projects, in-class projects, and reader-response projects, the number of courses that require 10 to 19 pages would double, to eight.

Similar large increases would occur in the bilingual-education major at Texas A&M's flagship campus. The Chronicle's analysis found that majors in that program are typically obliged to take no courses that require 20 or more pages of writing, and only six courses that require 10 to 19 pages of writing. But with the more lenient definition of writing assignments, the analysis estimates that those majors must take two courses that require 20 or more pages of writing, and 13 courses that require 10 to 19 pages.

Ambivalence About Shared Assignments

Ms. Balester, of Texas A&M, says she has mixed feelings about collaborative writing assignments. "Our writing center supports them because we know that many people will be expected to know how to write collaboratively in the workplace," she said. "But we are also realistic, and we understand that collaborative projects sometimes mean that not every student will do much writing." (For that reason, officially designated "writing intensive" courses at Ms. Balester's campus must have grades that are at least 35 percent based on individual writing.)

In any case, Ms. Balester says, writing requirements are much more substantial at Texas A&M than they were a decade ago. That point is supported by Emily Cantrell, a visiting assistant professor of education there. In an upper-level course last semester, she says, she assigned an eight-page research paper for which students had to submit multiple outlines and drafts. That kind of substantial writing assignment is far more common today than when she herself was an undergraduate in the same department a decade ago, Ms. Cantrell says.

Melissa Hudler, director of the writing center at Lamar University, is also ambivalent about the kinds of collaborative and short reader-response assignments that The Chronicle excluded in its analysis. "To support critical thinking," she said, "you definitely need longer assignments that require the student to sustain a thought process. But there is also value in short assignments. If students are asked to write short summary sentences instead of taking a multiple-choice quiz, that definitely helps build the flow of thought and the ability to articulate ideas."

It is probably not realistic, Ms. Hudler and others say, to expect most instructors to assign more full-length papers. If anything, there may be movement in the other direction, as the recession puts upward pressure on class sizes in Texas and elsewhere.

"If class sizes increase, instructors are going to be that much less likely to assign papers and give feedback," said Salvador Contreras, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Texas-Pan American.

A Troubling Pattern

The Chronicle's analysis of Texas syllabi cannot reveal anything definitive about the relative rigor of various majors. From this distance, it is impossible to know whether the dearth of traditional writing assignments in business and education courses means that students in those majors are actually being harmed.

But the numbers are troubling, Mr. Arum says, because of a pattern he and Ms. Roksa found in their national study. In their project, business and education majors reported that they study significantly fewer hours each week than other undergraduates. (On average, business majors said they studied 9.55 hours per week outside the classroom, and education majors said they studied 10.64 hours. The average for the entire pool of students in the study was 12.15 hours.)

Ms. Roksa says that it is costly for business and education majors—or any other college student—not to have extensive exposure to the kind of long writing assignments that build critical-thinking skills.

"Do we want teachers, for example, to know pedagogical theory but not to know how to think and analyze?" Ms. Roksa asked. "How much is it worth to have the subject-specific knowledge but not to have the critical-thinking skills that allow you to analyze and apply that knowledge?

"People change occupations today very frequently, particularly young college graduates. So you can have specific skills, but the question is, Is that enough?" she said. "Is that what we should expect of college graduates?"

How the Texas Syllabi Were Analyzed

The Chronicle looked at the official model course sequences for a business major and an education major at 10 public four-year colleges in Texas. (Here, for example, is the sequence for the management major at Texas A&M University at Commerce.)

The Chronicle's analysis then tracked the syllabi for all the courses in those sequences. It included almost everything: not just courses in the major, but also freshman composition and most other general-education courses. (It did not look at syllabi for courses in mathematics and laboratory science, assuming that in most such cases there would not be any substantial writing assignments.)

For courses that were offered in multiple sections by different instructors, The Chronicle sampled three syllabi and averaged the writing requirements for each section.

In cases in which students could choose from among several electives in the major, Chronicle reporters randomly selected courses to analyze. But in cases in which students were required to choose general electives outside their major and outside the core curriculum, The Chronicle did not do any analysis, under the assumption that in most cases students choose courses without substantial writing requirements.

If a syllabus said, for example, that a paper must be between five and nine pages long, the analysis used the midpoint of that range: seven pages. If a syllabus said that a paper must be "at least 10 pages long," The Chronicle assumed that students would on average submit papers of 125 percent of that length (12.5 pages, in this case). If the syllabus said that a paper must be "no more than 10 pages long," the analysis assumed that students would on average submit a paper of 80 percent of that length (eight pages, in this case).

If the syllabus gave assignments in word lengths rather than page lengths, The Chronicle assumed that one page equals 250 words. In the case of assignments where students were asked to compose, for example, five-minute speeches, the analysis assumed that one minute equals one page.

The Chronicle did not include group assignments, assignments for which it appeared that students would do most of the writing in the classroom, or assignments for which students were expected to write short reflections on each week's reading or to post short weekly reflections online.

The following departments were included in the analysis:

Angelo State University
The management major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, reading and language-arts concentration).

Lamar University
The management major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, reading and language-arts concentration).

Texas A&M International University
The marketing major.
The early-childhood-education major.

Texas A&M University at College Station
The management major.
The Hispanic-bilingual-education major.

Texas A&M University at Commerce
The management major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, reading and language-arts concentration).

Texas State University at San Marcos
The marketing major.
The education major (grades 4 through 8, generalist concentration).

Texas Tech University
The marketing major.
The language arts/reading/social studies (education) major (grades 4 through 8).

University of Texas at Austin
The management major.
The English-as-a-second-language (education) major.

University of Texas at San Antonio
The management major (international-business concentration).
The education major (early childhood through grade 6, generalist concentration).

University of Texas at Tyler
The human-resource-development major.
The education major (early childhood through grade 6, generalist concentration).

Tushar Rae and Ben Wieder contributed to this article.


1. mbelvadi - January 18, 2011 at 07:37 am

I'd like to second some of the comments in the article about feedback process being more important than page count. I remember a few undergrad classes in which a big chunk of my grade was a 20+ page paper due at the end of the semester. There was no discussion about the paper, no preliminary guidance, or anything else in the entire semester that supported the students to work on that paper. Like everyone else (at least the ones not plagiarizing), I would sit down a week before the deadline and "cram" that paper as if it were a test. I would get the paper back usually with a single grade, or possibly a sentence or two critiquing my handling of the substance of the topic, but nothing at all about writing style. This apparently counts as a writing-intensive course, but if that term is meant to suggest that students learn anything about the writing process, I beg to differ. Such assignments always felt to me like some kind of hazing ritual, having nothing at all to do with the class but a hoop to jump through. Some people I know say that just doing the 20 pages is forcing me to learn about writing, but as I look back, I really don't think so, given the way I (and many other students) approached them. I think that mistaken belief comes from those who seeing writing as an "art", who approach it that way and assume everyone else does too. Those who see it as mere drudgery, who deliberately pay as little attention to style etc. as they can get away with based on their grade goals, just aren't gaining from the actual writing experience what you want them to no matter how many pages you force them to write. Iterative feedback is critical.

2. fullprof99 - January 18, 2011 at 07:40 am

Several Points:

In my 300-level literature courses students will do 5-6 shorter papers and one longer one. There's also a final exam essay. If they do the absolute minimum amount of writing, this will be twenty pages. Most do more. This is not considered a writing intensive course. In our 200-level intro to literature designed to be writing intensive students do considerably more, three or more brief response pieces each week plus a longer, term-end assignment. In both these sorts of courses students often make very considerable progress in their writing skills.

Education students not majoring in English are notorious for their poor writing skills, even at the graduate level, where plagiarism is a consistent problem with as many as 20% of some classes, despite warnings and assignments designed to minimize the opportunities for it. Big problem? These students aren't ready for grad level work, expect it to be more like a giant, semester-long in-service, and panic at semester's end when they realize they're under the gun to write papers they should have been working on all semester.

3. frankschmidt - January 18, 2011 at 10:15 am

"It did not look at syllabi for courses in mathematics and laboratory science, assuming that in most such cases there would not be any substantial writing assignments."

Bad assumption. At my university all students must take two writing-intensive courses (defined by a strict rubric) including one in the major. Students in my (science) department do plenty of writing throughout the semester they are in the capstone course, and in others they take, which are not strictly listed as WI in the course catalogue.

There are two recurring shibboleths that always accompany such articles: (1) We need more Humanities because that's the only place where students learn to write/think (2) the Modern University puts too much emphasis on research (Science) and not enough on teaching (Humanities).

It would be refreshing to find a story that didn't fall back on these easy answers.

4. 11232247 - January 18, 2011 at 10:28 am

Ben Johnson got it only half right when he said; "speak that I may see thee." In this country, while oral communication competency is nearly universal, people with even a modicum of written ability are nearly always in short supply. This is because written communcation is what defines and separates the educational haves and the have nots in this country.

In other words, show me a poor writer and I will show you a poorly educated individual regardless of what degrees they may hold.

5. demery1 - January 18, 2011 at 10:34 am

The commentary reveals a number of shortcomings with the page count measure. One more to add is that business documents are often written in block for and single spaced. While my students do only 17 pages of writing, they write in professional genres that have different assumptions about document design.

I appreciate the message a great deal, but the holes make this message easy to dismiss.

6. demery1 - January 18, 2011 at 10:39 am

Eliminating "group" writing is another obviously foolish idea. Should we tell faculty in sciences that their co-authored work with their lab groups doesn't count as writing?

Again, I appreciate the message, but it might have been a good idea to pass the "more rigorous" methodology past someone who has taught writing at University.

7. bdbailey - January 18, 2011 at 10:39 am

It is true that the number of pages required is a crude measure. As a liberal arts undergrad, I once took a course on the 19th century American novel that was listed as writing intensive, and it was. However, the page total was not large. We were required to read an assigned novel each week. We were then required to write a paper about that novel which could not exceed one page. We learned to find a focused topic, and write in a direct and succinct manner. I assign more writing to my current graduate students than most of my peers, but I always have maximum rather than a minimum number of pages required.

Until we are able to account for nuanced approaches like this, the total number of pages is probably the best measure we have. It is important to recognize when this or any other measure is imperfect (they all are), but that does not mean we should not use it until we can replace it with something better.

8. lizsiler - January 18, 2011 at 10:41 am

I take issue with the types of assignments the study looked at. At the very end of the article it states, "The Chronicle did not include group assignments, assignments for which it appeared that students would do most of the writing in the classroom, or assignments for which students were expected to write short reflections on each week's reading or to post short weekly reflections online."

In contemporary writing practice, teachers use many of these assignments to help shape students' writing and critical thinking development. It is possible to find many classes in both business and education in which students are assigned to write short journals (for which they receive feedback and response), do in-class writing (more feedback and response) and write a group project, for which they receive more formative feedback and response --- but in your survey these assignment (and thus the classes they are assigned in) would not count. Teachers who give these assignments often develop them in such a way that they mimic, to some extent, "real world" tasks. For example, in some business classes, students may be asked to write --- in class --- an impromptu memo each day. The literature in contemporary writing theory supports these practices. These practices are widely used in many writing-across-the-curriculum programs by subject area teachers who want to ensure that their students get the writing they need to develop as writers and critical thinkers. Yet your study did not count these assignments!

Why wouldn't you count assignments (and thus the classes) ? It seems like you decided to opt out of counting any assignment/class that is using modern writing practice. I think if you recounted, you'd find that students are exposed to a lot more beneficial writing assignments than you think they are.

9. 11121641 - January 18, 2011 at 10:53 am

And we in the English Departments are exploited wholesale to do the job of teaching writing to students in every major--as if critical thinking and writing are skills divorced from any "serious" (i.e., marketable) major, such as Education or Business. I have been employed as a full-time,. tenured English faculty, as well as a community college adjunct. It is an absolute scandal the way English instrcutors are exploited, and it makes an absoliute mockery of a liberal arts education, the way bottom-line profit-making decides what is taught where, which teaching methods, cpourse workloads, and subject matter is carved up.

One freshman-level compositon course is supposed to prepare students across the board to deal with upper division level academic work? What a joke. And then English faculty are blamed when students can't write term papers, reports, or business letters.

10. kronos_soldier - January 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Apathy and passing the buck on many who cannot write effectively seems the norm. Here's a new trend that I'm seeing a lot in Masters level courses: graduate students turning in papers where they have written in 'text-ese' of the cellphone. Example: "The Supreme Court says ur going 2 have 2 invoke ur right 2 remain silent."

It seems many programs have lowered their standards to appease this deficiency crisis. What can be done?

11. roro1618 - January 18, 2011 at 12:33 pm

This so-called study is flawed namely because it presumes that the requirements of English and Business majors and careers are similar. They are not, exactly. Certainly, both require grammar, critical thinking, etc. but in Business, students need to learn how synthesize material, analyze it and write reports and case studies that are LESS than 20 or so pages. Brevity, while maintaining richness of content, is the key. This is what is taught in Business school, not how to write long papers that are not welcome in the corporate or entrepreneurship environment. I would never assign a 20 page paper to undergraduates as that enables to throw everything into the paper but the kitchen sink. Instead, they need to learn to display critical thinking and synthesis in 10 pages or less.

12. roro1618 - January 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Measuring quality of work by quantity of pages is simplistically ridiculous.

13. notredame1 - January 18, 2011 at 12:52 pm

The study by Arum and Roksa simply confirms what teachers/professors in Arts/Sciences already know about learning at the undergraduatge level in American universities--it isn't happening to any significant degree, and the blame can be placed squarely on the institutions and their administrations who do not care about learning on the undergraduate level. If they did, they would make fundamental changes in funding, and the way undergraduate writing courses are taught, beginning with first-year composition. They would focus on learning and not on page count, number of papers, etc., so that students can develop writing and critical thinking skills early on in their college years--one cannot write an effective, well-informed paper without combining the two skills. I believe this lack of learning is especially true at America's public universities, especially public research universities which put a premium on research, development and publication. For example, about a year ago, I sent an email to a friend and former chair of English at a major American research university, The University of South Florida at Tampa, about this, saying that very little learning was going on at the undergraduate level, especially in the Liberal Arts majors that he and I know best, and he responded with silence--across his department, he knows better than I, and he probably did not want to acknowledge what is glaringly apparent. At one time, he told me that even some of the Ph.D. students in the English program there who enrolled in his classes could not write. How did they get into the program then I asked? He said he had no idea, but that they could neither write not think critically, and they needed to learn or be kicked out of the program. Learning to write and reason critically is hard work, and the truth is many students simply are not interested in expending the effort to learn these skills, and most teachers of writing and critical thinking on the university level are simply overwhelmed by students numbers, and cannot give enough individual students the time and attention they need to develop these skills. I'm glad that The Chronicle has finally published this kind of news article to expose the lack of learning going on at our universities at the undergraduate level, and to focus the discussion on writing and critical thinking.

14. badger74 - January 18, 2011 at 01:31 pm

Unlike most liberal arts majors where long papers are the main form of graded work, business majors usually have weekly cases and problem sets to complete that require demonstration and application of actual gained knowledge in the course. Most take at least 8 hours to complete. Then there are actual tests with right and wrong answers that usually take place three times in a course. You can't BS your way around a question and use long ago acquired writing skills to dazzle them with your BS. You have to know it and apply it and the answer is usually right or wrong. Most tests did include some short answer essay questions that would require citing certain learned concepts and apply that to a situation.

15. 1564prof - January 18, 2011 at 01:46 pm

Me thinks an awful lot of you doth protest too much. Would you count the pages of a text read aloud in class or a math problem worked in class as part of the assigned course work for which grades are awarded?

I wouldn't. And while I regularly use inclass writing prompts to jumpstart a class discussion or as a technique to help students think about how to approach a writing assignment, I don't count them as part of the graded final work.

Sure, there are flaws with assigning long papers if the assignment is not scaffolded to help students succeed. But I still prefer the faculty member who assigns a paper without giving enough support over the one who doesn't even bother to ask students to put their ideas and arguments down in written form. The fact that some people teach writing poorly is hardly an excuse for not doing it well yourself.

Teaching writing is hard. Responding to writing in ways that help students improve is hard too. And most faculty members do very little of either. I've worked in a community college, a state university, and a selective liberal arts school. The quantity of writing required has generally increased as class sizes and teaching loads decrease, but there are teachers who make excuses not to do the gritty work of teaching everywhere. There are also faculty who stand out in every discipline and every type of institution for maintaining high standards when it comes to writing. But the numbers in this study aren't lying--they may not be perfect, but the general claim that most college courses require little or no polished and thoughtful writing is painfully true.

16. notredame1 - January 18, 2011 at 02:12 pm

Badger74 is right--you can't BS your way through certain undergraduate majors like math, physics, biology, chemistry, and the like, but again the question of standards comes up. I remember a professor of architecture at Georgia Tech writing an article a few years back for The Chronicle in which he stated he felt responsible for student learning outcomes because the thought that a building design mistake by one of his students might lead to the collapse of a building gave him nightmares. Yes, there is a lot at stake in higher education, and there should be, because the trickle down starts from there--e.g. some college graduates become grade and high school teachers, informed/educated and misinformed/uneducated as the case may be.

17. archman - January 18, 2011 at 02:50 pm

In my field (STEM), few faculty want to give out writing assignments. Even fewer actually have their students do them. Fewer than that grade the writing assignments with any degree of rigour, or do plagiarism checks.

I have worked at both a large R1 and a large R2, and the pattern of faculty disinterest is similar. The general viewpoint from faculty is that teaching students how to write is too much of a time-suck. Unfortunate but true. The majority of writing assignments are given out and graded by graduate students, and lecturers "lucky enough" to not have 100+ class sizes.

I have watched student writing ability go progressively down the toilet in the 15 years I have been teaching. Poorer student performance puts a greater burden on writing instructors, as badly written assignments take MUCH longer to grade than well written ones. This further dis-invests faculty...

18. anonscribe - January 18, 2011 at 05:16 pm

3 - frankschmidt - As a writing instructor, I agree wholeheartedly. Rigorous courses of study, regardless of broad field, ought to - and often do - include strict writing requirements. I don't think we need *more* humanities *majors*. We do, however, need a more rigorous humanities education for all majors, meaning exactly the sort of WAC programs you have at your institution. (We also, clearly, need a more rigorous math curriculum for non-STEM majors).

19. csgirl - January 18, 2011 at 06:45 pm

I worked in industry (software and healthcare consulting) for years, and discovered that the level of writing in corporate America is appallingly bad. Many managers insist that everything be written as an Excel spreadsheet so they can avoid having to read (or write) complete sentences. I saw many cases of toplevel managers who could not write grammatical English, or a report that was coherent and made sense. The reality is that no one cares about writing skills, unless you are going into law or public relations.

20. txloopnlil - January 19, 2011 at 11:50 am

"It did not look at syllabi for courses in mathematics and laboratory science, assuming ..." this sentence reminded me of the old line - "never assume, it makes an a** out of you and me". I frankly find the Chronicle's assumption that lab sciences don't write in their courses offensive in its sheer ignorance of how science is done. I tell my students if they want to major in a STEM field because they don't like to write, then they are in the wrong profession (or will never be more than a low level lab flunky). A scientist who can't write reports and research papers, reviews, grant proposals, etc doesn't last long in the incrediably competitive world of science.

I'm in Texas in a regional university and the majority of the upper level classes in my STEM department would exceed the Chronicle's criteria easily. All of the upper division courses I teach have high amounts of writing, usually including lab/field notebooks, book reports, paper summaries, review papers, investigative lab reports, and multiweek independent research projects. Most upper division science courses produce least 25+ pages and in some courses as much as 60 pages by the end of the semester. Students are required to locate and find multiple reference and primary sources for background, methods, and comparison of results. They do much more writing & finding information and sources in library databases in our upper division laboratory classes than than they get in their Tech Writing class.

As a department we really aren't sure just what they are being taught in their Composition and Tech Writing classes, because they come to our classes with A & B's in their comp classes, but are not only ignorant of the basics of writing in the discipline, but most are sorely deficient in just basic writing skills. This is incredibly hard on the STEM faculty who are also trying to teach data analysis and interpretation, application of subject material, etc and students can't even make complete sentences,or paragraphs in a 2 page document or distinguish cite/site/sight - much less cite properly!

Even in my large 1st year intro STEM class students write on average 10-12 pages of reflection/responses throughout the semester relating course material to current event news articles with additional writing assignments for "bonus credits". With no TA assistance, I can't do much on the mechanics of writing, other than circle glaring errors and discount the grade for "writing below the college level" but I do comment on differentiation of fact vs. opinion, evidence, logic, application of course materials, etc.

Education & business tend to disproportionately draw the least academically qualified students at many colleges, so if the best qualified students majoring in the sciences write this poorly, then the lack of paper assignments in some degree programs may just be self preservation for the education/business faculty.

21. iredale - January 19, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I teach legal writing to law students, and I can tell you that the comments about the flaws in the methodology are spot-on. I can also tell you, unfortunately, that most undergraduate colleges do a very poor job of teaching both writing and critical thinking skills. Most of my students are above-average in terms of grades and test scores -- and that's above-average when compared to other law students, who as a group are more talented than the average college grad. Each year, I'm amazed by the poor skills of many of my students. I have students with a 3.4 or 3.5 undergraduate GPA who can't write a coherent paragraph or grammatically correct sentences.

As others have pointed out, the way to improve writing isn't simply to ask for more of it -- students need detailed instruction and frequent feedback. It's obvious that most undergrads aren't getting that. The fundamental problem is that most schools aren't willing to commit the faculty time and resources needed to do it right. Instead, they try to do writing on the cheap, with poorly-paid grad students and class sizes that are too large for effective instruction.

22. josgirl13 - January 19, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Aside from the frightening lack of writing required of students in these majors is the frightening lack of student study time outside of class. What is the point of going to collegge if you're not going to study for your classes? Nine- or ten-plus hours per week of study seems remarkably shabby and equally sad.

23. 11134078 - January 19, 2011 at 02:59 pm

Look at the curriculum at Texas A&M/Commerce. Writing skills aside, it is clear that students in that program will graduate as utter savages. And that is what really counts.

24. annon1234 - January 19, 2011 at 04:12 pm

I teach management.

Students have to write 500 words a week (and their problem is usually cutting it back to 500 because it is harder to be brief than to be wordy, but using this methodology you'd under represent what they write by 20%) which is a very sepcific, targeted reflection on events in the classroom, class concepts and applying them to management. I grade for grammar as well. Lets see typically 12 of them, 6000 words. That would be, at 250 words a page, 24 pages. But I guess that doesn't count, my classes apparently are not writing intensive, in fact they write nothing I guess, and I count in the group that does almost nothing. Yeah right.

My students also have a major, typically project, a group presentation (using power point - guess they don't write on those slides either), and often some cases. Again I guess these don't count either. Nah - my students don't need writing skills in my class.

Nope, none of what I do with the classes I teach involves writing. I don't think the students would agree with this research's definition of writing. I sure don't.

A few methods problems here with this study and a few problems with their proxies ya think??? Geesh!

25. vinacs - January 19, 2011 at 05:25 pm

I used to teach English, business writing and technical writing at a large state school and a community college. I work now as a technical writer at a large multi-national technology corporation.

The writing gap is getting a lot of attention in the web coverage of this story although the book also mentions reading assignments. My experience is anecdotal, but I found, and still find in my current job, that reading comprehension is a bigger problem than writing. My students couldn't read at what I consider to be a college level: they struggled to identify the antecedents for relative pronouns and were generally adrift in complex sentences. When presented with unfamiliar constructions, they were often only able to parse the nouns and verbs, and lost any nuanced meaning entirely. When the verbs represented abstract relationships rather than actions, all they could do was memorize the statement.

I taught a technical writing class paired with a lab science course and saw related problems in the students' ability to parse quantitative relationships, their textbooks, the graphics in their textbooks, and even their notes from class. Most could not read mathematical graphs at all: they not only couldn't write about the graph, they couldn't explain verbally, even with assistance. The old canards about word problems plagued me even in the late '90s: my students were unable, for example, to figure out from a sentence about a ratio what numeral belonged in the numerator and what belonged in the denominator; they simply defaulted to whatever relationship between the numbers they'd seen most frequently in the problems they'd worked.

Until explicitely prompted, they did not recognize the need to draw connections between content in early chapters and content in later chapters: they made no effort to construct a big picture understanding in their heads and test that understanding. They memorized content, usually by means of visual cues; they worked problems by following models and tested their answers against a key; but they were just not trained to do the cognitive work required to understand relationships between pieces of content -- regardless of whether they content they were looking at was qualitative or quantitative, imaginative or empirical. Regardless of whether they were working with numbers or words.

Sustained essay writing teaches that cognitive work, sure, and so do mathematical proofs and lab reports and graphs and collaborative writing and oral presentations and many other kinds of assignments -- but no amount of writing, even writing-to-learn, can make up for a real weakness in reading comprehension and the ability to parse syntax, let alone for a lack of awareness by the student that comprehension is not memorization.

But students are supposed to have decent reading comprehension before they ever come to college...

26. joanneleejacobs - January 25, 2011 at 07:42 pm

The study finds that many students do not improve in reasoning or writing skills after two or even four years in college, as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Education and business majors were less likely to show improvement than students in liberal arts, math, science and other academic fields.

Progress in reasoning and writing correlates with taking more reading- and writing-intensive courses. Those with practice in writing long papers were likely to improve their skills. If practice writing collaboratively (how is this possible?) or writing responses to reading is just as good as writing long papers, it didn't show up in the study.

Note that ed and business majors don't study as much as the average student -- and the average is quite low. It should not be a surprise that students who don't work hard in college don't learn much.

27. 2011gradstudent - January 26, 2011 at 08:00 pm

Did the methodology take into account the focus in most business courses on concision and brevity instead of on document length? Given that most professionals would never read a 5-10 page document fully, there is no reason to teach a business student to write something that long. Instead, we are being taught to focus on the key points and exclude the fluff common in history, english, and other writings.

28. fullprof99 - January 26, 2011 at 10:55 pm

2011gradstudent wrote:
Instead, we are being taught to focus on the key points and exclude the fluff common in history, english, and other writings.

Wow, fluff gets shot down in any good course, particularly history and English with their emphasis on effective writing. I'm hoping you didn't get stuck with awful courses in these fields.

I know that in my institution several of the undergrad science departments try to get their students into 300-level literature courses (jumping over the prerequisites if they can) for the skills in analysis and written communication that these teach.

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