Not Ready for College Writing

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 44% of college professors feel that their students are not prepared for entry-level college writing.  That figure feels low to me.  Almost all of my colleagues seem to feel that at least some percentage of their students are not adequately prepared to write college papers. Why is this happening?  My experience has been in teaching college students to write for over 15 years at diverse places, including a four-year public university, a four-year private university, a business college with non-traditional students, and a community college.  That experience has led me to a few insights into the shortcomings of our system.

First, high school students are learning different skills to succeed in high school than those they need in college.  In high school, teachers have to contend with many competing demands: discipline, curriculum requirements, testing, content-specific reporting.

Students learn to answer content related questions to show that they know required information and to report facts culled from research.  That is very different from what I would expect of my students in a college class, which may be way the 2010 Deloitte Education Survey states that only 31% of high school teachers think their students are ready for college.

In college, I expect students to be able to apply critical thinking skills to formulate original insights into their topics.  I expect them to synthesize information from their research into well-developed academic arguments.  And I expect them to offer credible evidence for the claims they make.  College students need to offer logically developed and organized papers. These are the standards of college-level work, along with being able to integrate sufficient breadth and depth knowledge on a topic (perhaps the single point of intersection with high school expectations).

The situation seems to be this: high schools tend to focus (largely but not exclusively) on other skills than those colleges expect, and nothing to enhance writing skills happens during the summer between students graduating from high school and beginning college.

What’s the solution?  Additional writing classes in high school? Summer writing workshops to prepare students?  More remedial classes (those these are often portrayed as the road to dropping out)?

I have often thought that even in college, if we truly wanted students to learn to write, instead of offering one or two semesters of writing classes, we would assign each student to a writing workshop and provide each with an individual tutor.  The students would continue in the workshop and with the tutor until they could reach a basic level of competence.  Of course, the expense of this, through student tuition or other means, would be enormous.  I’m hoping that the Writer’s Alley Interactive Writing Tutorial can offer a more cost-effective way of helping students work toward writing competence.

I would love to hear your solutions to this problem.

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