Why Learning to Write Well in College Is Difficult

Bill Cerbin, Assistant to the Provost, UW-La Crosse

Terry Beck, Department of English, UW-La Crosse

The following list is not, of course, meant to rationalize sub-par writing by college students. Nor can one course instructor address all the challenges listed below. We can, though, learn from this list and push ourselves, for example, to teach explicitly the genres we assign or—when we confer with students about their papers—ask them about the previous writing advice they’ve received. By understanding why writing is difficult for some of our students, we can work to help students develop as more confident and able writers.

  1. Variations from discipline to discipline. Disciplines are discourse communities with their own methods of developing and communicating knowledge. However, students take classes in several disciplines (i.e., several discourse communities) at the same time and often have difficulty mastering the different forms of inquiry and the different stylistic conventions that apply. It takes a long time to develop writing proficiency in one discipline, let alone several.
  2. Lack of uniform criteria and standards. Criteria, standards, and definitions of good writing differ from course to course (even within the same department). Students develop the idea that these are arbitrary and a matter of instructors’ personal preferences. This prompts them to search out “what you’re looking for” or “what you want” in their assignments.
  3. Lack of explicit criteria and standards. In some courses, students have little or no information about what constitutes appropriate writing and no clear sense of the goal they are supposed to work toward.
  4. Undeveloped writing processes. In many classes students are expected to write well, but are not taught to do so. Courses do not try to develop students’ writing: they simply require it. And students are left to use whatever strategies and competencies they have. But unless they are given feedback and helped with their composing processes, students will not get better by simply writing a lot.
  5. Misleading or incomplete writing instruction. In some classes, formal writing may be treated solely as a list of rules governing the use of language (grammar, spelling, punctuation) rather than as purposeful communication of ideas. If this is done, mechanical aspects of language are emphasized to the exclusion of important conceptual abilities. Often key writing concepts are never addressed in courses. For example, how to adapt one’s knowledge to the audience and the situation (i.e., rhetorical thinking) is extremely important but rarely taught. Similarly, how to develop a coherent train of thought is crucial to good writing—but rarely taught.
  6. Incomplete understanding of the subject matter. Students very often have to write about subjects that are unfamiliar to them. And, typical of novices in any subject area, their understanding as they write tends to be incomplete and naïve. Thus, it is very common that their writing lacks coherence and structure—reflecting their fragmented understanding of the topic, not necessarily their incompetence as writers.
  7. Lack of experience with and failure to understand genres. Most assignments are academic writing exercises: “tests” in which students demonstrate their knowledge to the teacher (e.g., essays, library research papers). These are genres that are rhetorically difficult and confusing—and poor preparation for the writing they will do after their university careers. Students have fewer opportunities to develop knowledge of other forms of writing and to write to different audiences.
  8. Lack of consistent coaching. As students go from class to class, they experience writing as a hodgepodge of activities, assignments, advice, etc. It is unlikely that these unrelated, discrete experiences promote cumulative learning and develop writing expertise.
  9. Non-reflective writing experiences. Students probably do not treat writing as a deliberate skill to develop. For the most part, they do not analyze their own writing or reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, and development as writers.
  10. Students do not care about what they write. Often students perceive academic writing as a chore rather than as a meaningful learning experience. While this is part of current student culture, it is not inevitable. Students are more likely to be invested in their work when they have some control over the selection of the topic and the work has an “authentic purpose” beyond getting a grade.

©2001, Bill Cerbin and Terry Beck.