Communicating Writing Expectations with Students

In setting major course requirements, I believe it is important to communicate the basis and context of the assignments to my students. Sometimes, the communication has to be repeated as deadlines approach. That proved to be the case with respect to the 20-page research paper I assigned my students.

On the first day of class, I explained that one of my course’s objectives set forth on the syllabus is that students would be able to write in a reasonably clear and concise fashion. The benchmark against which student writing would be evaluated is the Modern Language Association (MLA) style.

At that time, I told my students that good oral and written communication skills are necessary for all walks of life, whether one is acting as a manager, employee, consumer, or job applicant. Effective writing gives one a better chance at making the case for one’s position or oneself. A better case increases the probability that one will be able to realize the goal one is pursuing. In contrast, ineffective writing skills inhibit one’s professional and personal growth.

Now, as the semester approaches a close, the Cleveland pear, magnolia and weeping cherry trees on Lehman’s campus have burst into bloom, and the deadline for the paper is just over two weeks away, a few students raised anew the question as to why I am asking for such a demanding paper. They added that other instructors have assigned papers, as well, and that there is just “too much work” to do.

With Lehman College just over a year away from presenting the Middle States Commission on Higher Education a Periodic Review Report (PRR) that covers, among other things general education (Standard 12) and assessment of student learning (Standard 14), I provided additional context to those students.

I explained that across the nation employer surveys indicate concern that college graduates lack the kind of writing skills employers expect. At the same time, in the present era of fiscal challenge, policy makers are becoming more demanding in trying to assure that tax dollars used to fund public colleges and provide financial aid to all qualifying students are a good investment. Accountability and value added are driving pressures for improved student learning outcomes, including in myriad content areas. I added that Middle States is responding to those developments in its reviews of colleges and universities.

PRR data for 2008 through 2012 reveal that Middle States has requested follow-up reports (monitoring reports or progress letters) for approximately 50% of the submitted PRRs. During the 5-year period, 18% of evaluations cited issues related to Standard 12 and 68% specified matters concerning Standard 14. During the last three years, requests for follow-up reports remained near 50%, while the figures were 25% and 68% for Standards 12 and 14 respectively.

In sum, the writing component is aimed at bolstering an important skill for students. It is also consistent with the context in which Lehman College in particular and American Higher Education in general are functioning. No institution can afford to ignore that context without ignoring its fiduciary responsibility of preparing students for the world in which they will live and work.

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