Faulty grammar, but not dunces

January 28, 2000

Having just finished marking 76 scripts, I read William Rubinstein's article on history teaching ("A look to the future for Britain's past masters", THES, January 21) with some interest. I teach a different subject (film studies) at a different university. My experiences are also different, especially of student writing.

A rough estimate of the writing I marked is that 20 per cent of students have no problems and 60 per cent have some, but not substantial ones. They are of the kind most educated people have at some time - occasional misspellings, faulty grammar, clumsy sentence constructions, lack of paragraphs. If these problems are consistently discussed with students, they can be eradicated quite easily.

Twenty per cent do have serious problems. Some of this group need specialised and sustained attention while others need to learn to be more patient and reflective.

These figures are representative of all the courses I teach. The proportions have not changed significantly in the past 20 years - when higher education has moved towards becoming a mass system. The one difference might be that there are more students with serious problems. The discussion would be improved if there were more substantial evidence.

The questions about the intellectual quality of history as an academic subject are not ones I am qualified to discuss. However, I am sure that, if there are problems, they will not be solved by courses like "History 101: Plato to Nato". They encourage the worst kind of student learning. Sadly, there are too many of this kind in British universities.

Although frequently quoted, difficulties with the two forms of "its" is not conclusive evidence of cultural decline. I have these difficulties even though I was educated when students were supposedly more able and at a university that, according to the rankings, is at the very top!

Alan Lovell Senior lecturer media and cultural studies Staffordshire University

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