Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Are Our Graduates College-Writing Ready?

By Steven Horwitz — September 04, 2007 3 min read

Teachers of the students who graduated from American high schools in the spring may think that their charges are well prepared for the colleges they are entering this fall, but the professors who will greet them on campus disagree, according to a recent national survey.

The differences in perception among 6,568 teachers and professors who responded to the survey, conducted by the educational testing organization ACT Inc., were apparent in virtually every college-preparatory subject.

Perhaps most significantly, the high school teachers surveyed had more confidence that their students were prepared to handle the fundamentals of writing—basic grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation—than the college professors did.

As someone who deals each fall with the orientation of college freshmen, I believe that their writing problem goes deeper. High school students need more preparation in the critical-thinking skills essential to writing college-level research papers. The Internet and other technologies divert attention from the basic skills of evaluating sources critically and gracefully integrating them into an argument of the student’s own making, which will and should be expected of students in college and university classes.

New college students who have grown up in the world of the Internet are often very good at the brute mechanics of finding sources, but they are largely unaware of the differences between peer-reviewed, scholarly sources and popular sources like Time magazine. They need to be engaged in high school projects that ask them to assess sources with a critical eye, no matter how they are found or in what form.

New college students are largely unaware of the differences between peer-reviewed, scholarly sources and popular sources like <i>Time</i> magazine.

A high school student assigned to do a research paper on “inequality in the United States” might turn in a paper that is a series of summaries of the sources he found. In college, he would be expected to articulate a thesis, assess competing arguments, and make his own conclusions.

In high school, finding that long quote that made the point you wanted was the holy grail of the research paper, as it demonstrated that you had found good source material. But in college, students will have to show that source material supports the argument they are making. So the long quote is not very impressive, especially if it substitutes for the student’s own analysis. Quotes do not substitute for an argument, they support it.

In the last decade or two, more and more colleges have created first-year seminar programs designed to address students’ uneven high school preparation by teaching the research process and its associated skills, often at a very fine level of detail. Those of us who teach in such programs would love to see more students arrive with better preparation for college-level research.

High schools can help by doing the following:

• Begin to teach the research process itself, but in short, focused assignments that help students become comfortable recognizing and evaluating the different types of sources and the differences between the Web and library databases.

• Use short assignments that ask students to try to identify the various positions that sources take on a controversial topic and the core of their disagreements, even if that does not involve taking a position of their own.

• Work with students on the ethical and accurate use of sources before they begin to do actual research, so that they understand that this is not just an “Internet problem” but an obligation central to all the writing they do, whether the source is a course reading or textbook, or the research materials they find using an old-fashioned paper index or a library database.

One thing teachers should not assign is longer papers. College writing instruction and the deeper level of content can help students master longer writing assignments, and assigning longer papers before the basic research skills are developed will retard students’ development and put unnecessary pressure on them to plagiarize to make the page length.

Students who come to college practiced in these skills and habits will find college-level work much easier, and college professors can begin to focus on cultivating the truly independent learners and critical thinkers that an information-rich society needs.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2007 edition of Education Week

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