'Appalling' writing skills drive tutors to seek help

March 16, 2007

Professors appeal for 'evidence-based' ideas on how to to address a growing problem. Melanie Newman reports

Two professors have issued an urgent plea for help in teaching increasing numbers of students whose written English they describe as "appallingly bad".

Tony Marcel and Diana Kornbrot, both professors of psychology at Hertfordshire University, appealed for "evidence-based solutions" to address a lack of writing skills among undergraduates. Writing in Psychology Network, an online forum and e-mail exchange service used by more than 300 psychologists, the pair say that, while some students appear bright in oral discussion, "in many cases their written English is appallingly bad".

They add: "Many students cannot spell; their vocabulary is poor and mistaken; they have little idea of syntax, cannot punctuate, have no idea what constitutes a sentence, let alone a paragraph."

Students are unable to detect errors when proofreading and do not realise that written communication differs from oral communication, they say.

In many cases, lecturers cannot understand what their students mean and the writers, when asked, are unable to explain their intentions.

The students' deficiencies will have "serious consequences", the pair warn.

They will do badly in written exams and in coursework, and their inability to articulate their thoughts will impede their thinking.

Although many undergraduates hope to find jobs that will involve report writing, Professor Marcel adds: "Students who are as disabled as the ones that I have encountered cannot hope to gain or keep such positions."

The two professors believe it is up to academics to help these students realise their potential. "If they are not helped by the time they leave university, the education system (and that includes us) will have seriously failed them," they say.

Professor Kornbrot, who heads the Health and Human Sciences Research Institute, told The Times Higher : "This is not a new problem, and there's no evidence that students are any weaker than they were, but lecturers have to cope with this problem on a larger scale than ever before. In the past they were dealing with 34 students on a course - now it's more like 200."

The professors used the Psychology Network forum to ask psychologists and educationists for tried and tested ideas on how to tackle the problem.

Fiona Jones, a spokeswoman for the British Psychological Society and a senior lecturer at Leeds University, said: "I recognise the problem, in that it is not unusual to find students who seem to be unaware of the basics of sentence construction and who do not know how to construct paragraphs."

Although most of Dr Jones's students are able to express themselves clearly, she teaches on a course that demands high A-level grades for entry. "I think this may be more of a problem where entry grades are lower," she said.

Dr Jones suggested that research should be done to discover effective ways to give students crash courses in writing skills.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "Lecturers have to be more stringent in their marking. Young people who come to university without that kind of correction may be resentful, and tutors may regard the distraction from their field as annoying, but accurate use of language is so important to precision of thought that mistakes must not go uncorrected."

Changes to national policy on the teaching of literacy in primary schools made in 1997 should mean the writing ability improves among future generations of students, he added.

A spokesman for Hertfordshire University said that the action by the professors was designed to address the widespread issue of writing skills of students.

He said: "As part of the university's mission to maximise the employability of its students, lecturers sent an e-mail to several higher education psychology and education lists requesting information on methods that can be shown by reputable scientific research to improve student writing skills."

So far, the professors' appeal has attracted more than 30 responses from colleagues in the UK, Canada, US and Australia, the spokesman added.


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