The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 44% of college professors feel that their students are not prepared for college writing. My experience with colleagues is that 100% of them feel that some percentage of their students are not prepared for the challenges of writing in college and that the work they hand in is below standards. That seems like a pretty dire problem. I also know from experience that most high school English teachers are doing everything they know how to prepare their students.
It also seems that it could be the luck of which schools and which teachers within those schools students end up with. For instance, my son is a junior in high school and has never been assigned a paper longer than three pages. My daughter, on the other hand, is in 9th grade, and she has just been assigned a twelve-page paper. Of course, she isn’t happy about this, but I’m relieved that at least one of my children has an opportunity to do the kind of work that will help her when she transitions into college. It’s not just the length of the paper that matters, though.
Here are some elements that make a good writing assignment:
Length: Length for it’s own sake is not enough. Students do need to have an opportunity to explore a topic in depth and to have to explore more than two or three ideas related to a topic.
Subject: Students should be able to write about topics that interest them. They should also be able to investigate new topics in order to build interest in new topics. Not only should the write about materials related to literature, as in most Language Arts classes. They should be writing in other content classes about science and history. Because writing on a subject creates expertise, students should be writing at length in all classes.
Research: Students should be charged with researching topics using academically valid sources. They should learn how to evaluate the credibility of various sources and they should become familiar with experts in the fields they are writing about. Students should be asked to synthesize related ideas from varied sources and to draw some of their own conclusions.
Citation: Students should learn when it is appropriate to quote or paraphrase information. They should learn how to attribute ideas and words to their original sources. Finally, they should understand what plagiarism is and why it is problematic.
Of course, this is just a brief highlight of four of the major issues that students should experience in high school to prepare them for college. But these are challenges that many students don’t face until they get to college, when the expectations can be a surprise and a source of anxiety. The opportunity to learn and practice writing in high school where they can receive guidance in these key areas could save many students from being overwhelmed in college.