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Report: Long Writing Assignments Now Less Common at US Colleges

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Higher education can test a person's academic abilities in many ways. Most study programs require research, class discussions, presentations and group projects, to name a few.

Yet if you asked almost any professor or student, they would likely tell you that writing is one of the skills most often examined at colleges and universities. In the United States, writing long essays about complex subjects has been, in many cases, a major part of higher education for years.

However, a new study suggests that many current college students have never experienced the challenge of writing very long papers. And some experts argue this may not be as necessary a requirement for their success overall.

The higher education research company Primary Research Group published the findings of its study in late July. It includes data gathered from 1,140 students at four-year colleges and universities in the U.S.

The students were asked about the kinds of long-form writing they had done and the amount of writing training they had received. Nearly one third of them had never been required to write an essay of ten pages or more in length.

James Moses is the president of Primary Research Group. He says, ten pages might seem like an unnecessarily large amount of writing, especially for students in fields like math or science. In fact, he argues, many students avoid longer papers by choosing subjects in which they are less likely to be required.

Moses says students are likely attracted to those fields because they see many of today's highest paying jobs are at big technology companies.

But he says that many young people fail to understand that there is still great demand for skilled writers in the job market. And long form writing assignments do more than measure how much or for how long a person can write about any given thing.

"More than anything else, a long paper teaches you planning and organization, to a much greater extent than most other exercises that I can think of in higher education," he told VOA.

University of California, Davis writing teacher Dan Melzer agrees. He says long form writing assignments can teach skills that are useful even in fields that may not seem to be related to writing.

For example, engineers often have to write long, detailed proposals for building projects. Businesses require well-written business plans to get bank loans or money from private investors.

Both Melzer and Moses agree that there is a deep lack of writing instruction, at all levels of education. The Primary Research Group study found that about 40 percent of college students were not receiving any writing training.

This is not surprising to Melzer, He says it is common for colleges and universities facing financial difficulties to make cuts in such programs. And he says professors often expect students to be well trained in long form writing, from their high school studies or earlier.

But Melzer says that is not fair to students, especially those whose educational experiences were centered on skills other than writing. So, he says, professors of subjects that are not heavy in writing should find ways to include the skill in instruction.

"If your teachers are only giving you exams and you're cramming for the exam and kind of spitting out real short answers…you're not really doing in-depth thinking or critical thinking," he said. "You're not really using your mind to the fullest."

Elaine Maimon is the president of Governors State University in University Park, Illinois. She also helped establish the Writing Across the Curriculum movement in the 1970s. This was an effort to get professors in fields like science, technology, engineering and mathematics to make greater use of writing in their classes.

Supporters of the movement seek to train such professors in writing instruction. They also help professors share successful writing assignments with each other and show them how best to criticize students' written work.

Maimon shares the opinions of Melzer and Moses that writing instruction is highly important. Still, she is not as concerned about the lack of longer assignments. She agrees that in some cases, these long assignments can challenge students in a helpful way. But length is not the only quality that is important, she says.

"Counting pages,…that's not the way to assess whether students are learning to be writers," said Maimon. "If you say, 'We have a great program and the students have to write five ten-page papers,' what you're going to get is a lot of filler. So students aren't going to be learning how to write, rewrite, rethink. And when should something be brief instead of long? We want to make sure students understand that, too."

I'm ­Pete Musto. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor. We want to hear from you. How important is it for college and university students to write essays that are ten pages or longer? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

Words in This Story

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

essay(s) – n. a piece of writing that tells a person's thoughts or opinions about a subject

challengen. a difficult task or problem

page(s) – n. one side of a sheet of paper especially in a book, magazine or essay

attract(ed) – v. to cause someone to like or be interested in something

assignment(s) – n. a job or duty that is given to someone

extentn. used to indicate the degree to which something exists, happens, or is true

cram(ming) – v. to prepare for a test by learning a lot of information quickly

spit(ting) outp.v. to say or write something without thinking about what is being said or written

assessv. to make a judgment about something

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