That our students both at the high school and university level are graduating with serious deficiency in writing skills is not news, nor is it exclusive to the United States (here is a related article about writing problems in German schools). Excuses for this educational failure are commonly attributed to demographics, lack of resources or government intervention. What gets tested gets taught, and the No Child Left Behind program that has been in effect since 2002 tests Mathematics and Reading.
When you enter the conversation about statistics and excuses common to the national debate on this issue, it is generally assumed that the concern is for those lowest quartile students who are managing to slip through the cracks in the system. These are the students that somehow manage to get by without these basic skills, face higher chances of dropping out, and attempt the difficult task of finding employment, much less a career.
However, we aren’t talking about those students.
We are talking about the Superstars
Yes. We’re talking about the cream of the crop, the new hires selected by some of the world’s top corporations. Top percentile graduates in high school who went on to our nation’s best universities. Graduates in engineering, mathematics, finance, some of whom have gone on to complete graduate programs in their fields. Employees that successfully differentiated themselves from their peers and landed their first jobs in some of the most high-tech research facilities or management rotations in the oil & gas industry.
These corporate partners all express a common problem:
New hires can not effectively communicate in written words at a level of proficiency expected of their educational pedigrees, whether in business or technical environments.
Even after skimming the cream of the crop, our customers are saying that these new hires lack the writing skills required to effectively communicate their ideas in technical papers, research documents, business proposals, and other communications with senior staff or customers.
The solution seems to lie in a relatively simple formula, counter to what is happening in the higher educational system.
1. Teach the fundamentals.
Unbelievably enough, our corporate clients require programs starting with the basics such as outlining a document and diagraming sentences. Colleges and universities assume a handle on these basics, but they are wrong.
2. Grade harshly, and give feedback.
Our ability to give and receive harsh constructive criticism underlies the problem. Writing is a constant learning process requiring both practice and feedback. The well documented effect of “Grade Inflation” highlights this reality. The idea that you pay the money, you get the degree is pervasive in graduate education.
According to this interesting article from Cornell, The Grade Inflation Conundrum, grade inflation is a particularly notable phenomenon in elite institutions. According to the Boston Globe, for example, in 1950, about 15 percent of Harvard students got a B+ or better; in 2007, more than half of Harvard grades were in the A range.
This Carnegie Mellon faculty resource shows either a lack of understanding of, or indifference to, the problem even at the highest educational levels. In an online resource to professors, the solution for “Students Can’t Write” suggests:
Learning to write well requires considerable practice. However, many faculty members are—understandably—reluctant to assign a lot of writing because of the grading burden it imposes.
Understandably? The stated problem is that STUDENTS AT ONE OF OUR NATION’S TOP UNIVERSITIES CAN’T WRITE!
It further suggests:
Use “minimal grading,” or extremely targeted feedback for some assignments. For example, you might make it clear to students that on one assignment they will only receive feedback on the strength of their argument and evidence but not grammar and spelling.
Our industry clients would disagree that you can make a strong argument and still have poor grammar and spelling.
3. Writing is a skill learned and perfected through regular practice across educational disciplines.
Writing needs to be taught across disciplines, and the benefits of improved writing spread beyond English and history class.
The Implications of Successful Writing Programs
This article, The Writing Revolution, highlights the dramatic turnaround of a failing high school in Staten Island, New York. Through rigorous and controversial self-examination, the faculty and administration found that the failure of writing communication skills was the common element to falling behind in all other disciplines. The ability to process and articulate complicated thoughts is needed in every class. Grammar reinforcement needs to be constant. They are now a model for how to attack this problem.
Related Article: Upstream vs. Downstream
About EKT Interactive
EKT Interactive, Inc is a leading provider of customized, large-scale, interactive safety and operations training programs for the oil & gas industry. Contact us to learn more about the EKT Interactive model for incorporating an oil & gas-specific writing program into your workplace, or subscribe to our blog to receive our our updates to your email.