Can students write?

This article in the Guardian is pretty scathing about Irish university students’ ability to write, especially essays.

I teach all years of a four-year science degree and my thinking about writing skills is this:

Students arrive in college and they can write reasonably well – slightly childishly but generally ok  from a grammatical point of view.

They then find themselves having to write about subjects that are often quite technical and in areas where they are complete novices. In science, for example, they are required to write very precisely and they are asked to write about material that they might be struggling to understand. And they have to do it on a computer, something that creates many challenges especially in the sciences where equations may be involved.

All of this novelty leads to  cognitive overload and my sense is that students writing skills regress as  a result, only to recover by the time they are in final year when they have a far better understanding of the material they are writing about.

I think we need to be a little less critical of them, and us.



About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Can students write?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Can students write?

  2. I found the article unnecessarily scathing, and its calls for continuous assessment completely beside the point, but its poor assessment of students’ writing skills may be justified. If we look at the Leaving Cert English syllabus, it’s not preparing students for the type of reading and writing they will do at third level. I don’t believe for a minute that it’s schools’ job to be teaching kids how to do independent research or technical writing, but I do think we could do a lot more to help them at least comprehend dense text that’s not necessarily written to entertain. Depending on where they go to school, teenagers may or may not be required to read a 19th century novel, pre-twentieth century poetry and study a Shakespearean tragedy in detail. These things are on the course, but they are not compulsory. (It is compulsory to do a Shakespearean play but teachers may opt to do so in the Comparative Section that does not require the same depth of understanding as the Single Text option). Take the prescribed list for 2018: they choose between Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” or “King Lear” as a single text. “All My Sons” is a great play, but it’s not “King Lear”. A student could be presented with “Emma” or “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, but studying “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “The Spinning Heart” (a very good book but fairly easy reading) technically counts for the same credit. The move away from a compulsory 19th century novel is not just an issue for those hoping to study English literature; the complex sentences, descriptive passages and extensive vocabulary of these books would bring students up to a university-ready reading level. I’m not arguing that there isn’t a place for the great literature of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries on the course or in the classroom. They should be there, but if we want our school-leavers to be able to read hard books independently, we have to read hard books with them first.

  3. Greg Foley says:

    Hi Kate

    I definitely think that there is a problem with attention span and attention to detail and having to read dense texts might help that, not just in English but in all subjects. School texts these days seem to be filled with coloured boxes and bullet points.

    I am wary though of third level people moaning about the LC and how it doesn’t prepare students for university. In general I think the ‘raw material’ is pretty good and we have 3-4 years to develop it. I think our moaning about the LC is a bit like industry/business giving out about us in the third level sector.


    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Greg

      Yes, it’s not just an issue in English. All the books contain a lot of infotainment, especially at Junior Cycle when they could be building up their reading stamina. Agree totally with the moaning of each sector about the sector before. My older colleagues talk wistfully of a golden age when kids would arrive from primary knowing what a paragraph was, and being able to name a part of speech other than a noun. I’ll bet their bubble-writing skills were rubbish though.
      To be fair, approaches to reading have improved and almost all of our intake can read reasonably fluently. I’d like to see us capitalise on this and drive them on knowledge-wise rather than worry if they can “collaborate” and “innovate”. Time enough for that later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s