Monday, March 12, 2012

Strengthening students’ writing skills across disciplines and into the workplace

According to a recent survey of college alumni and employers, writing skills are one of the most valued and frequently evaluated workplace skills, along with quantitative and computer software skills. The most frequently written documents in the workplace are memos, letters, email, proposals, training guides, and research reports (Holtzman & Kraft, 2010). However, the AACU reported in 2008 that “In none of twelve skills and areas of knowledge tested—from writing to global knowledge to ethical judgment—do a majority of employers rate recent graduates as “very well prepared” (AACU, p.10). Employees with poor writing skills can cost an employer billions of dollars in remedial training as well as lost revenue due to miscommunication (National Commission on Writing, 2004).

While most higher education institutions in the U.S. take a holistic, liberal learning approach, students assume they will also gain exposure and acquire skills and knowledge required for success in the workplace. College students take at least one composition course early in their college career and subsequently write at least one essay or report in most college courses thereafter. If the quantity of college writing assignments across the disciplines isn’t leading to stronger writing skills, how can colleges strengthen their preparation of students for writing in the workplace?

Researchers and scholars agree that faculty across the curricula and across disciplines need to agree on criteria and expectations for “good writing skills” while being mindful of employer expectations. College programs and their faculty should make these expectations transparent to students, consistently uphold them in courses, and provide a clear, supportive path for students’ writing development throughout college and into the workplace (Sanders-Reio, 2011).

However, George Williams, a writing teacher and blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests that “In many courses that are not focused on writing skills, instructors might not provide detailed enough instructions on their writing assignments to convey to the student what the instructors’ expectations are.” A business professor might have a very different idea of what “good writing” is compared to an art professor. Students moving on to a new course each term might also have differing opinions based on their instructors’ expectations in previous courses. Inconsistency, lack of transparency, and differing definitions and expectations for “good writing” in college may contribute to weak writing skills and adaptation to new types of writing that graduates encounter in the workplace.

The AACU has encouraged colleges and universities to revamp their curricula with learning outcomes that align with skills and knowledge needed for the workplace, writing being one of the highest priorities (2008). As a result, they have created a cross-curricula and cross-discipline rubric for writing. AACU’s Integrated Communication Rubric provides detailed criteria for “benchmark,” “milestone,” and “capstone” levels of writing with focus on context, purpose, content development, evidence, syntax, and mechanics. See Instructors can integrate these criteria in a rubric for any written assignment. Alongside the rubric, researchers and scholars suggest that instructors offer examples of “good writing” from previous students and emphasize the specific qualities in that writing that they consider “good” according to their rubric.

Depending on the assignment, instructors and programs can go one step further and add criteria for writing in a specific field or workplace, making it clear how writing skills are transferable from classroom to workplace. For example, science disciplines may value third-person, active voice, and APA citation style. Arts disciplines may value first person, a high level of descriptive detail, and MLA citation style. Business disciplines may value a pyramid structure and concision. Instructors in these disciplines can support their students by being mindful of those “real world” writing expectations, rules, and requirements and consistently and explicitly stating them in their syllabi and assignment instructions. Below are examples of rubrics used in San Francisco State’s Business Program and Health Education program: