Faith in Learning
Academic writing: just grammar and spelling?
At the end of last week a report from the Office for Students appeared that dealt with the apparent ignoring by a small number of higher education institutions in England of the quality of grammar, punctuation and spelling in student academic submissions. The gist of the report is that there were some universities, in the name of a desire to ‘achieve or promote inclusivity,’ that had policies that encouraged markers to ignore issues of spelling, grammar or punctuation in favour of content. The OfS report, said their press release sets out the OfS’s view that students should be assessed on spelling, punctuation and grammar in order to maintain quality and protect standards.
Maintain quality and protect standards. I would perhaps have hoped for a richer and more useful reason to base the OfS’ view on. Fortunately, Susan Lapworth, OfS’s director, explains more:
Students should be able to communicate their ideas effectively. This means their written work must be of a high standard, with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. It is not possible to analyse and explore complex theories and arguments without being able to write well, and universities should recognise this as they assess their students. Some universities and colleges ask academics to ignore poor spelling, punctuation and grammar to make assessment more inclusive. The idea that they should expect less from certain groups of students is patronising. It threatens to undermine standards as well as public confidence in the value of a degree. It risks placing new graduates at a disadvantage in the labour market, and could leave employers spending time and money training graduates in basic written English. Universities and colleges can – and should – ensure that they are supporting students with additional needs, including making reasonable adjustments for disabled students, while also maintaining academic rigour.
I agree almost completely with this. Yes, there is a hint of the neoliberal trope coming through in comments about standards and public confidence, about the money spent on training, etc. but fundamentally the argument is sound.
Last year we had to fail an able teaching student simply because she could not write to a level of clarity that we (and at least four of us had a go – two markers and two moderators) could even understand what she was saying. It is not uncommon, in my limited experience of HE, for the quality of writing that comes to us from undergraduates seeking to participate in a postgraduate qualification with masters level components to leave me wondering about the assessment practices at the institution they came from. In the case I referred to above, it was a syntactical, rather than a grammatical, problem with the writing. All the words were there: just not in an order I could make head or tail of.
Many, if not most, universities use programs like Turnitin to assess student written assignments. Whilst each assignment is set up with its own assessment rubric and assignment brief, the scope for correcting and marking grammar, punctuation and spelling in the program is extensive. The opportunity for insisting on high standards is there, though with the numbers of scripts to be marked and the sometimes suspect functionality of online marking, I can easily see how busy lecturers might look for the meat of an essay rather than what might be regarded as the trimmings.
The desire for inclusivity is fundamentally a just one. We want, as HE providers, to eradicate as many barriers as possible to enable the widest possible number of young people to succeed in an academic qualification. But we don’t really do that by messing with the bar. We do it by teaching them better and being more evaluative in our admissions policies.
In the first case study cited by the OfS report, the institution defined their assessment practice to be inclusive in ‘seeking to ensure that no student is placed at an advantage or disadvantage by the assessment methods adopted, while ensuring that academic standards are maintained.’ That is quite a circle to square. The desire for inclusivity – which, I guess, means that students are not failed because of their linguistic, ethnic, social background or by their disability – may actually stand in the way of the attainment of academic standards. How are academic standards defined at this institution? In what do they consist, and is a high level of proficiency in written English one of them?
In our rubrics, we are told that we cannot fail a student simply on the transcriptional errors alone. If these errors are so significant that they get in the way of making sense or developing an argument, then that is a different matter. Perhaps that distinction is a useful one. The assessment policy for the institution cited for Case Study One in the OfS report states:
that technical proficiency in written English should only be assessed if it has been identified as a learning outcome for a module or course. This means that there is no general or universal requirement to assess students’ proficiency in written English.
This is, surely, taking the bar away completely. Inclusion policies are there to enable a widening number of students to get over the bar, not by moving the thing to a level so low, that as Nehemiah’s enemies put it, ‘a fox could jump over it.’
Susan Lapworth, in her statement, says that ‘effective assessment should take into account all aspects of a student’s work, and this includes their ability to express themselves effectively and correctly in written English.’
Missed colons, comma splicing, half-sentences. These are all common in written English in a variety of genres. Especially half-sentences. They come from the written form of our daily speech and to many people seem merely obvious ways of writing. They don’t, I believe, impede their ability to ‘express themselves effectively and correctly in written English.’ The problem is less punctuation and spelling (the latter these days simply shows ignorance and inability to use a spell-checker); it is more that the confusion of thought that many students have found hard to escape leads to an inarticulacy of written ideas. This means that syntax rather than grammar is the main culprit. This in turn has its roots in a different failing of the education system, namely, the failure to teach young people to think critically and to express a critique in reasoned language that focuses on the concepts developed and not the ad hominem irrationality of social media posts and cheap point-scoring.
At heart, we are talking about a particular type of writing: academic writing in the academy. It is not the only type of writing, and students may not use it much in their future. But for clarity of expression, attention to detail and the ability to develop argument and convince, it is unrivalled. On our postgraduate program – on any university’s postgraduate program – I believe we have a right to expect a high level of writing skill already from those joining a course with a masters-level component. And, by the by, we are educating teachers here, those who will be teaching a high quality of writing for children and inducting them into their own emerging critical thinking skills, so that grammatical and syntactical writing skills are improved.
About Huw Humphreys
I am a teacher and school leader by calling, now working as a lecturer in a large London university, where I have been since January 2021. I am also an educational researcher, seeking to help make education effective for the whole child. I tend to keep a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education… but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, pretend linguist and lover of history and literature…committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own and (hopefully) do not represent those of anyone I work for or with!
Often the challenge is multifaceted, cultural aside, there are a number of issues with historic access to education, experience and how students are nurtured into developing their writing style and technique.
I work in a discipline, where capability and technical ability outweighs academic writing, i.e. we all prefer our networks to remain operational, with the right professionals with sufficient skills/understanding – than having someone write about it (not that either may have helped Facebook last week).
However, we encourage academic writing, in fact we develop it at all levels – from UG 1st year or PG dissertation, giving guidance, nudges, activities that develop and much more.
So – do students need to improve their spelling, grammar and punctuation – YES, do we need to help them, also YES – however, it also applies to context and knowing what is needed and what is essential. A good student in Network engineering, must be able to be sufficiently dangerous, when faced with a technological disruption. An excellent student must also be equally dangerous and meet our own academic idea of excellence.
We must not lose the reasoning behind educating students because it has been lost to the political culture not the grooming of our future generations for the good of all countries.