The Top 5 Challenges for Writing College Papers
May 8th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Entering a college course at any age can be daunting, especially to the new student. The workloads are heavier, the demands greater, and the writing assignments longer. Students are expected to communicate their ideas and absorption of course materials through carefully constructed essays and papers. Whether traditional or online, writing clearly and succinctly is core to the higher education experience.
But more students enter college unprepared. As I’ve worked with students, I’ve found there are five common issues related to their writing that influence how they write and the quality of their work. Students who struggle with one or more of these problems are often not aware of its influence until they’ve received feedback from their instructor for the first time. As you review this list, consider how you write and the areas that need your attention. Any student can improve and refine their writing skills through practice, and self-assessment is the key to knowing where to begin.
Lack of Preparedness
This is a common complaint that I hear from instructors who are teaching entry-point undergraduate college courses and I also find this is a common issue. The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted surveys to determine the perceptions held by faculty members about new college students and it concluded that 44 percent of college instructors “will tell you that students are ill prepared for the demands of higher education, specifically college-level writing.” This is not an insurmountable problem and one that can be addressed by instructors and students.
My approach is to refer students to the school’s writing center and I also provide supplemental resources they can access on their own. For example, a helpful online resource is the Guide to Grammar and Writing, sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation. Within this website there are modules students can choose from to learn about writing basics. A classic book about writing, The Elements of Style, was developed for English composition courses in 1918 by William Strunk and is still useful today. I’ve learned that every student starts with a different level of writing ability and it is a matter of developing a habit of taking time to practice writing and re-writing that results in improved skills.
Social Networking Influenced Writing
A post on Inside Higher Ed, The Facebook Mirror, discussed how communication through this social networking website has influenced the writing habits of users who are actively posting on it. One of the primary issues is that users “trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves, and they expect their friends to ‘like’ their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.” The mirror effect experienced by users is described as writing “only to themselves and to those who are just like them.” When students begin to write for an academic assignment they may not receive instant gratification and instead, they receive constructive criticism from their instructors that may be difficult to accept at first. In addition, they are required to write for a diverse audience, which requires the use of persuasive writing skills as this is not a group consisting of family and friends.
The Use of Text Speak
A Wall Street Journal article discussed the effect of text messaging on MBA students’ written communication and it was noted by several recruiters that the use of technology has had a negative impact on the ability of these students to “communicate clearly and professionally.” This is the nature of text messaging – it is an abbreviated form of communication that allows for a quick response and use of phrasing that becomes unique to the sender and receiver. I’m surprised that graduate students are struggling with this issue as most undergraduates quickly learn that this is not an acceptable form of academic communication.
A professor of English at Saint Vincent College indicated that text speak is a rapid form of communication and while it the format is quicker it does not make it accurate, which means it is suitable only for casual conversations. For students, it can take time to adjust to writing in a formal manner because their thoughts must be clearly stated, and they are now required to utilize proper spelling and grammar. Most students learn to switch modes and develop two forms of communication, casual and academic; however, many students struggle to change their habits, including capitalization of the letter “i” and using “you” in place of “u” in their papers.
Overused and Tired Clichés
A cliché is a simply a statement that has lost its effect through overuse. A Chronicle of Higher Education article, Clichés Are the Poster Child for Bad Writing, provided some examples of clichés that commonly used, including “the expression [to] throw [someone] under the bus, meaning to publicly betray an erstwhile ally.” There is also a category called “FFBC or clichés that are Famous for Being Clichés,” which includes clichés from the world of sports, “he gave 110 percent.” The reason why they are ineffective is that “they’re tired, overdone, unoriginal, dull, and mindless.” These phrases become so over-utilized that they are almost rendered meaningless.
Students get into a habit of using clichés, believing that everyone will “understand where they’re coming from” as they try to “think outside the box,” and yet as an instructor, it demonstrates to me an unoriginal point of view. (Those are two common clichés that I often read in students’ papers) When I read phrases like that one of my first questions is: what does that mean? That often catches the students by surprise and they have to take time to develop another explanation.
Writing with a Purpose
Another writing issue that students struggle with at times is writing clearly and concisely, and getting to the point of their paper. This frequently occurs when students do not have a central theme or thesis developed and they start writing whatever thoughts come to mind, without editing and refining their work. According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (another excellent resource for students), “the purpose of an essay is to encourage students to develop ideas and concepts in their writing,” and “essays are (by nature) concise and require clarity in purpose and direction – this means that there is no room for the student’s thoughts to wander or stray from her purpose; they must be deliberate and interesting.” The most effectively written and meaningful papers are those that are written with a clearly defined and communicated purpose. This requires conciseness and the elimination of unnecessary words that serve as filler.
Developing Academic Communication
What students must develop is an academic form of communication. Until they enter a college classroom, the typical format of communication occurs through the use of social media, email, and text messaging – which are often very casual in nature. Those methods are not necessarily ineffective; however, they are not appropriate for the development of written assignments as the thoughts and ideas expressed must be done in a clear and concise manner. While casual communication is often done quickly and spontaneously, academic writing must be done purposefully and with a broader targeted audience in mind. Students can improve upon their writing skills by finding and utilizing resources that are available through their school and online. This takes time but can be accomplished by any student who is willing to practice and learn.
Photo © Images.com/Corbis