Worse Than Ever?

Everyone complains that student writing skills have declined, but the evidence doesn't back up that view, writes Laurence Musgrove.

July 11, 2006

Recently, a colleague asked me if I thought students were writing more poorly than in the past. Each time I hear this question, my heart sinks. Professors get worn down and frustrated in all kinds of ways, and it’s most obviously demonstrated in their cries of despair about the sorry state of students today. And when it comes to complaints about student writing, there’s no group more outraged than the faculty.

“What in the world did they learn in high school?”

“How did they get into college in the first place?”

“You won’t believe how bad my students are!”

“It must be that damned instant messaging that’s screwing them up!”

It would be difficult to discover if students write worse now than students did decades ago. Which students are we talking about? What evidence would we examine? What does it mean to write well? What constitutes a writing error? What standards should we apply? But my inquisitor must have assumed that I would be able to answer her question because I teach college writing. Because I have been keeping track. Or because English faculty members have years and years of yellowing bluebooks in a closet somewhere that would reveal the sorry truth. Maybe our scholarly journals were filled with evidence of this nasty decline.

And perhaps she assumed that we English types must feel the same frustration. That we were in the business of constantly despairing about students’ writing. (What a sad career that must be!) Or maybe she was just looking for a colleague to share her misery. “You won’t believe how awful they write! Ain’t it a shame we have to put up with these numbskulls? Let’s go get a pint.” (By the way, no one has ever asked me if I thought students read worse than they used to. But that would be hard to prove, too.)

It would also be hard to prove how many of our colleagues are in their cups about what their students don’t know or can’t do, but it depresses the hell out of me when I hear professors ask questions like these because they sometimes seem more interested in bashing students than getting at solutions. (See my recent “Pitching Writing” for how teachers contribute to student writing problems.)

Still I did respond to her by saying that I think the main difference between students then and now exists mostly in our heads, since in many cases what we are really doing is contrasting our students' experiences with our experiences in school. By that I mean, our expectations are pretty out of whack if we expect our students to be the kind of students we once were, because once upon a time we were the kind of students who went on to graduate school and became scholars in a particular discipline. Most of our college classmates didn't. And that's who most of our students are. And quite a few other folks besides.

Given that reality, we shouldn’t be surprised when students don’t always rise to expectations built on false nostalgia. But the earlier we discover what students can do in writing (and in reading, too), the better off we’ll all be. That’s why we should get writing samples early in the term, rather than gnash our teeth and waste red ink when reading those final term papers. In other words, instead of assuming we can apply the same old syllabi, lesson plans, and assignments semester after semester, year after year, we need to study our students and then adjust our instruction as necessary. A stitch in time.

Still, I also could have pointed my colleague toward some empirical research on college students’ writing errors that shows they don’t write any worse than previous generations and, in some cases, don’t write any worse than writers they’re asked to emulate.

In a 1986 study described in College Composition and Communication under the title “Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research,” Robert J. Connors and Andrea A. Lunsford discovered that “college students are not making more formal errors in writing than they used to." They compared error patterns identified by researchers in 1917 and 1930 and found that though the length of paper assignments had consistently increased over nearly 80 years, “the formal skills of students have not declined precipitously."

Further they claim, “[i]n spite of open admissions, in spite of radical shifts in demographics of college students, in spite of the huge escalation in population percentage as well as in sheer numbers of people attending American colleges, freshman are still committing approximately the same number of formal errors per 100 words they were before World War I."

It may be that this 20 year old study is dated and student writing has gotten worse since then, but subsequent studies of student error are absent in our scholarship -- even though the complaints about alleged errors continues. However, it’s also possible that student writing has actually improved over that period. In the last two decades, word processors, campus computer labs, university writing tutors, and spelling and grammar checkers have become commonplace and have helped students better understand writing as a complex process of planning, drafting, revising, and editing.

In another College Composition and Communication article, published in 1990 and titled “Frequency of Errors in Essays by College Freshmen and by Professional Writers,” Gary Sloan both confirmed the Connors and Lunsford study and discovered that even though professional writers are often served up as models for student writers, their writing may contribute to student confusion about correctness because their essays contain almost as many errors as first-year themes. Sloan selected 20 published essays from a college composition reader and 20 student essays composed during the last week of an introductory writing course. He then analyzed these two samples using an error analysis technique derived from a grammar handbook commonly used in college writing courses. 

His conclusion? “Connors and Lunsford found 9.53 errors per essay or 2.26 errors per 100 words; my figures for the same are 9.60 and 2.04. The professionals have 8.55 errors per writer and 1.82 per 100 words." Further, given the fact that misspelling was the most common error in student writing, but absent in professional writing, the student error count would have actually been less than the professional average if students had only spellchecked their essays -- again an editing technology not available to many students in 1990.

Interesting stuff, but these studies may not affect the deeply ingrained attitudes some faculty hold about student writing. In the long run, it shouldn’t matter to us whether students write worse, or better, or just about the same as they always have. Or whether they were raised on a diet of instant messaging.

Our responsibility is to find out where they are as early as we can and to discover the best methods for getting them where they need to be -- even if that means mandatory treks to the writing center. And if they don’t succeed (or won’t play ball), then we shouldn’t play like they did. As always, students should be held responsible, too. There’s no question about that.


Laurence Musgrove is an associate professor of English and foreign languages at Saint Xavier University, in Chicago.


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