Why Can’t Most College Graduates Write a Decent Essay?

Writing is a recursive skill.

It involves reading and analysis as much as it does writing and editing. After twelve years of writing instruction in school, students should have mastered the art of writing before coming to college. University-level scholarship should be where they refine their rhetorical skills while exploring courses of study.

Instead, college students are graduating with gaps in their instruction, a lack of writing experience, and desultory writing skills. In fact, most college graduates seem unable to write a decent essay.

Gaps in instruction

College students do not master the art of writing, in part, because they have not been held accountable for quality writing in middle and high school.  The instructional focus has instead been on reader-writer workshops that cheat students out of understanding the basic building blocks of language. A focus on whole language has destroyed student writing.

Attention to syntax and spelling has waned over the last decade, but that’s not the only challenge. Students are mostly incapable of mounting a coherent and logical argument. Their rhetorical skills are deficient and their grammar appalling.

Who is taking responsibility for the deficit in writing skill? No one, it turns out.

Lack of writing experience

College students have limited essay writing experience. Teachers do not require their students to write essays, largely because the teachers themselves have difficulty grading them.

Evaluating writing is labor-intensive, and teachers often skip giving an in-depth analysis and feedback of writing in favor of holistic scoring.

Mediocre writing is commonplace

Students are ill-prepared to write, and the result is mediocrity.

Excellent writing skills are rarely taught anymore. High school teachers do not teach rhetoric because they haven’t learned it. College professors do not have time to instruct students in logic and rhetoric because they have a course of study to present. It’s assumed that college students will already have the skills needed for writing, and it goes without saying that students should be able to write a grammatically correct sentence.

Instead, most college students can’t put their thoughts together on paper. They are unable to express themselves clearly and coherently in writing, they lack vocabulary skills, and the businesses who are hiring college grads have noticed the deficiency.

Writing is thinking. Until we teach writing in a systematic way that includes not only grammar, usage, and mechanics, but also logic and rhetoric, we’ll continue to award degrees to college graduates who can’t write a decent essay.



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