CSUN’s writing proficiency counters ‘Limited Learning on College Campuses’ study

Alison Geller

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Undergraduate students at CSUN have maintained a steady proficiency in their writing skills over the past several years, in contrast to a study done and published by two sociologists who say that students aren’t learning anything in college.

“Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” was written by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, who did a random study on more than 2,300 students at over 24 colleges, found that 45 percent of these students didn’t improve in their writing and critical thinking skills.

Because 50 percent of the students said they took five or fewer classes that would have required them to write at least 20 pages throughout the course, Arum and Roksa concluded this is why students are scoring lower on national writing tests.

CSUN students, however don’t seem to be following this failing trend, at least not according to the Upper Division Writing Proficiency Test Scores.

All undergrad students must take this writing test to graduate. Pamela Bourgeois, English professor and coordinator of the Upper Division Writing Proficiency Exam Program said the passing average has remained steady at about 75 to 80 percent for first time test takers.

The Chronicle of Higher Education did a similar study focusing on 10 colleges in Texas, like Arum and Roksa, however they did not count group projects, in class writing assignments or written reflections on class readings when it came to page counts.

“That seems like such an old fashioned way of judging writing,” said Bourgeois, who has been teaching for 30 years.  “We’re trying to look at writing more, not just as communication, but writing as a way to learn and to discover.  So a lot of that writing that is going to take place is going to take place in the classroom itself.”

Jake Walker, 21, sophomore psychology major, said that while he didn’t write a lot in his lower division classes he felt it was sufficient because he received a lot of feedback from his professors and doesn’t feel hindered from it.

If a student feels that their writing skills are not up to par at CSUN then there are classes and workshops that they can take in order to help them.  All students who enter as freshman must take English 155, an analytical reading and expository writing course. If they place lower then the college English course in their placement test, they take a developmental class for what they scored low on.

Students who have transferred from community colleges or other four-year institutions can be exempt from taking English 155 if they have taken equivalent college English courses at their previous institution.

Walker also said that the study that was done should have taken group projects into account by not taking that work into account it doesn’t accurately reflect the work students are doing.

Arum and Roksa, as well as the Chronicle, feel that it is the number of pages that a student writes that will help improve their writing and critical thinking skills.

And while there seems to be a general consensus that CSUN students are not writing as much as professors would like, it has nothing to do with the professors lack of concern for the students development as writers and more to do with ever growing class sizes.

Kathleen Rowlands, assistant professor in the department of secondary education whose specialty is composition and rhetoric does not like that the study is placing the blame on teachers and professors.

“You know I think that’s really crap, that’s really garbage,” Rowlands said.  “I think teachers are very concerned, I think there are a couple of issues going on.  Teaching writing is really hard…it’s not something that is an easy thing to do, it requires really careful analysis of what a student can do and what steps he or she needs next.”

Rowlands, Bourgeois and Richard Horowitz, history department chair, agree that class size is a big issue when it comes to students and their writing skills as well as what they are bringing with them from their high schools and community colleges.

“At the high school level right now, I know teachers who have 240 students a day,” Rowlands said.  “The one I’m thinking of in particular is in our Masters in English Ed Program. She’s working with advanced placement classes.  How much writing can she have her students do?”

“She has them write something, she spends five minutes looking at a piece of student work,” she added. “Now I’ve never spent that little amount of time, it always takes longer.  So five times 240 gives you a number of minutes divided by 60 (20 hours).  You cannot give teachers that many students and expect a lot of writing to happen.”

The professors also agree that it’s feedback that counts even more so then writing a lot.  If a student is not getting the proper feedback from professors then they aren’t going to be able to evolve their writing skills.

“What I’ve done recently, I’ve gone to much shorter assignments because I felt that the difference between a three page paper and a five page paper was that a five page paper had two more pages of words on them but not more content,” Horowitz said.  “If people just have to write a lot and they aren’t getting any feedback, if no one’s saying, ‘Hang on they’re isn’t an argument here,’ they’re isn’t evidence here, you have to stay in one verb tense, you’ve got to properly punctuate.  Then you’re not going to get that much out of it.  Students need feedback to improve writing.”