The other day my sister the epidemiologist overheard me talking about the writing problems of undergraduates and she jumped in with, “It’s a real problem for us, too.” She outlined one instance. When senior researchers conceive their projects, one of the first things they do is ask assistants of various types (interns, etc.) to conduct a “literature review.” That means reading up on the topic and summarizing every relevant study, report, essay, etc. Each item gets a one-page synopsis, a clear and short and simple but comprehensive description. No critical thinking required, and no other “21st-century skills” needed, either.
According to her, more and more young people rising in the sciences have a hard time with it, and it’s blocking the progress of research.
Her conclusion agrees with a survey conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The findings are here. The survey asked employers what skills and knowledges they wanted out of college graduates, and the AACU aimed to take the findings and determine how colleges are performing on the “workplace readiness” factor.
Here is one finding:
“Only one in four employers thinks that two-year and four-year colleges are doing a good job in preparing students for the challenges of the global economy.”
As for employers having a narrow, vocational view of higher education, this finding is a surprise:
“Employers believe that colleges can best prepare graduates for long-term career success by helping them develop both a broad range of skills and knowledge and in-depth skills and knowledge in a specific field or major.” Note the general knowledge request.
Finally, when it came time to identify the most common skill or knowledge cited by employers as needed in the post-downturn, globalized, 21st-century universe, what came up first was a basic, longstanding skill: “The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.” Eighty-nine percent of employers highlighted it; “critical thinking” and “analytical reasoning” came in second at 81 percent.
We hear lots of talk about the rise of “nonlinear thinking” in the Digital Age and “interactive writing” in Web 2.0, but I take “effectively communicate orally and in writing” as a straightforward, linear practice, one that serves best in most scientific settings. And business, too, according to my brother the actuary, who told me a while back: “Anyone who can write is a major asset in business.”