If you google “students can’t write,” you’ll find a lot of people wringing their hands about the state of college writing.
But before you believe that Twitter is making us stupid or wonder what’s the matter with kids today, you might want to take another look at how students are actually writing. Research led by noted compositionist and rhetorician Andrea A. Lunsford of Stanford University analyzed the results of formal studies of error in U.S. college writing going back a century; Lunsford discovered that student academic writers today are making about the same number of mistakes per 100 words as their great-great grandparents did.
Of course, student writing then didn’t look much like student writing now. First-year college writers at the beginning of the twentieth century were usually asked to write personal narratives or essays on assigned topics (“On Coal” is one example from the period—try creating an original, engaging response to that), and the average student writing submission was roughly 165 words long. Students of that era were seldom called on to conduct or write about research, but they were often expected to demonstrate an impeccable understanding of the difference between “shall” and “will.”
A hundred years later, things have changed. Research is an integral part of many—perhaps most—writing assignments, and the average length of student writers’ responses to assignments has increased dramatically, to more than 1000 words. The rate of error has held steady, but the mistakes are different: “shall” is on the verge of extinction for American writers who aren’t lawyers, and spelling errors have greatly declined; however, students now have trouble citing their sources, and spell-checkers introduce lots of wrong words.
So the golden age of student writing is a myth. Students of the past struggled with college writing assignments, and students of the present struggle with them, too. And they will doubtless continue to struggle; as Andrea Lunsford has noted in her blog, “where English is concerned, there is never one solitary right way to proceed.”
But perhaps—hand-wringing aside—student writing is heading in the right direction. After all, doesn’t wrestling with others’ ideas seem more valuable than figuring out what to say about coal?