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Why Can’t College Students Write Anymore?

Writing skills are in decline among students today

Is it just me, or are student competencies like basic writing skills in serious peril today? Granted, I am about a decade in to my teaching career, but even within this fairly short span, I have noticed a startling decline in the quality of written work turned in by my students, regardless of which institution (community college, private, four year school) the papers are coming from.

It’s not just that students aren’t demonstrating critical thinking skills in their writing, basic competencies like proper syntax, spelling, and even proper structure like paragraph indentation and how to cite sources are being done very poorly. Teachers have been reporting anecdotally that even compared to five years ago, many are seeing declines in vocabulary, grammar, writing, and analysis (e.g. Westin, 2013; Bloomberg News, 2012). Moreover, on an international scale, our standards in literacy is similarly on the decline (McGuire, 2014).

There are only so many times you can correct a “their” that is meant to denote “there” before wondering, when was the last time this college student’s writing abilities were actually assessed? As a psychology professor, I am starting to feel like an English instructor, because so much of my feedback on these papers is focusing on such basic writing skills, that the coherency or theoretical merit behind the content is getting lost in the shuffle.

While it is all too easy to sweep this problem under the rug (“just assign fewer papers!” my friends quip when I share my frustrations regarding grading), or blame technology yet again for erosion of yet another significant skill among our youth, I fear that something deeper is amiss here. In the digital world where language is reduced down to 120 characters or less, is some essential part of ourselves that needs to be cultivated to express ourselves clearly through the written word, also being lost in the shuffle? I mean, it isn’t just that students can’t write that is the problem, in digging deeper, I wonder, what else may be lacking in the consciousness of my students today that I and my cohorts were able to draw on when we were students before them?

Bloomberg News (2012). Report: U.S. Teens Report Decline in Writing Skills. Houston Chronicle: U.S. & World. Retrieved on February 21, 2014 from:…

McGuire, J. (2014). Teaching of basic literacy skills is being eroded in our schools. South China Morning Post: Life. Retrieved on February 21, 2014 from:…

Westin, S. (2013). Social media eroding skills? The Inquirer, Retrieved on February 21, 2014 from:

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2014

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