Mandatory academic writing classes: they'll thank you for it later

The UK sector should tackle undergraduates' poor written English via a nationally prescribed update of the US model, urges Alex Baratta

August 5, 2010

Getting undergraduates to enjoy academic writing is a bit like getting a child to eat liver. First-year university students are usually more interested in content-based classes than skills-based instruction. But while they may see academic writing as boring, it is nonetheless a valuable and necessary skill for them to master, as the academic essay is still one of the main tools of their assessment.

Recent surveys have shown that employers consider proficiency in speaking and writing to be the most desirable skills for graduates to possess. A 2008 report for the Council for Industry and Higher Education, Graduate Employability: What Do Employers Think and Want?, found that 86 per cent of employers consider good communication skills to be important, yet many are dissatisfied with graduates' ability to express themselves effectively.

It is all too often the case that students enter the job market armed with a BA degree, but still unable to distinguish between "its" and "it's", not to mention "there", "their" and "they're". While relatively "minor" errors such as these may not prevent an essay being awarded a 2:2, the possibility remains that the same errors in the context of a cover letter could result in being passed over for a job interview, especially in the current job climate.

There are, of course, more serious writing deficiencies than punctuation and spelling errors: inconsistent focus; incoherent structure; describing the subject of the essay instead of providing an analysis; and using hyperbole when offering a personal opinion.

Given the challenges faced by many students, even in their final year, to produce written work to an acceptable academic standard, it is high time for the UK higher education sector to institute a mandatory writing class for all first-year undergraduates. The US academy has long acknowledged the importance of writing pedagogy; in the majority of institutions, undergraduates must take, and pass with at least a grade C, a writing class traditionally known as "freshman composition". Although many UK universities offer classes to remedy students' writing weaknesses, in the absence of a nationally prescribed syllabus, provision is still sporadic.

Moreover, most writing classes in UK higher education are offered to non-native speakers of English, very often as part of foundation-year programmes or pre-sessional programmes - which suggests that there is a prevailing view that native speakers of English have no need to learn how to write academic essays. All too often, writing provision for native speakers is left to individual writing centres and web-based resources within the institution. These services are undoubtedly helpful, but as writing centres often focus mainly on proofreading services, the potential for learner autonomy is taken away, and web-based information, while offering practical advice, is not a substitute for the actual teaching of writing. Writing centres and online "how to write" guides are best used as supplements to a writing class, not as replacements for one.

Consequently, the introduction of a national writing class for all UK undergraduates is overdue, but it should address two weaknesses of the US freshman composition course.

First, freshman composition, while mandatory, can be taken at any time within the first two years of a student's undergraduate degree. But given the importance of learning how to write proficiently, why wait? The British model should be offered as a first-year, first-term course, thereby helping students to get to grips with the demands of their writing assignments sooner rather than later.

Second, writing classes in the US often address students from a variety of academic disciplines, and thus are taught from a more generic perspective. But while some aspects of academic writing, such as the need for analytical depth, are common to all disciplines, there are stylistic conventions that may not translate well from one discipline to another: while figures of speech are valued in academic writing within the literature department, this style is often inappropriate for the sciences.

Therefore, by creating writing classes tailored to each discipline, or at least to each faculty, the UK sector has an opportunity to improve on the traditional US writing class, essentially by offering a freshman composition course tailored to meet the specific writing conventions of each discipline.

A mandatory academic writing class is unlikely to guarantee that students will like writing more or even hate it less; but it just may help them to understand the fundamental aspects of a genre of writing that causes many of them genuine difficulty. And it may well help to ease the frustration of lecturers confronted with piles of undergraduate essays.

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