The Department of Psychology
THE WRITING CRISIS: A SERIOUS DILEMMA
Dr. David Perrott
The Problem: One does not need to teach the experimental (Psychology) sequence to be made fully aware of the fact that some portion of our students have serious deficiencies in the areas of basic skills. The fact that this problem reflects a systematic failure of our primary and secondary schools to accomplish their primary assignment is certainly not news. And of course it is not the University's responsibility to ensure that our students meet minimum requirements. (We are not, after all, English teachers!) But the University and it's general education program have obviously failed these students. Alas, we have a problem and the University, even with all its resources, has not proven to be adequate to the task. The Writing Proficiency Exam was a step in the right direction, but even this effort was, at its best, too little too late.
For the past three quarters I have been running a series of informal experiments with the students in my class and the results have been depressing indeed (more seniors than juniors and no lower division students are included in this sample). For example about 20 percent of the students tested could not solve the following equation: a + 4 = 10, what does a equal? When given the complete formula for calculating the area of a circle and the values of all terms (like pi, the radius) they could not solve the equation. Needless to say these students indicated a strong discomfort with "statistics" and, to make a point, even though they had "passed" Psy 202 and Psy 302, their knowledge was superficial at best (more rote than anything else). Similar problems can be noted with writing. This quarter fully half of the students in my 304A could not tell me either in written form or orally what constituted a paragraph or, certainly, how to actually write one. The writing deficiency is so great in some students that the reliable construction of even a sentence is impossible. In the immortal words of one student who, when confronted with the fact that her sentence in the assignment had no verb retorted, "That's your opinion!"
Probably the most depressing observation that I made is the minimum reading level that can be measured in some students (elementary school level). Why is this so depressing? Think about it.
Enough said? Finger-pointing isn't going to fix the problem although it can be "fun". The University, even if it were fully responsive (and I have grown cynical in my old age with regards to the "values" of the current administration) would take years to react. Again? But these are our majors and frankly we are experts (both as educators and as psychologists) so why can't we do something more than just "bitch"? There is hardly anyone of us that couldn't create a device to assess behavioral and/or cognitive function. All of us pay a substantial cost when we have to deal with students who are unable to read, write, compute, or think critically. Similarly, most of us do care what happens to our students and are aware of the "cost" to both them and to our reputation when they "fail" on the outside due to the inability to write an intelligible report. Indeed there are numerous "devices" that already exist (no construction is really necessary). And even though we are not rocket scientists, can it be so hard to establish whether or not Tommy can read, perform basic algebra, or write a sentence? This evaluation needs but the most "minimal power" to detect "gross" deficiencies.
1. That some form of assessment be completed prior to the student attempting any upper division course work in psychology. Somehow discovering that a senior can't write, count, etc. is wrong. We must detect such individuals much earlier. It is difficult to tell an individual who is, let's say, two quarters away from graduating that they cannot pass a course without extensive additional training (probably at or below the freshman level).
2. The assessment process must include some form of advisement, especially if remedial course work seems necessary for the student to meet the minimum requirements.
3. The process must be both "cheap" and easy to put in place. A significant increase in either staff or faculty work load would surely doom such an effort. Seeking to generate support from the administration is a reasonable course of action but it is equally reasonable to expect no such support will be forthcoming in the near future. On the other hand, the long-term consequence of such a program could actually lower the work load of both faculty and staff in the department.
4. The effort must be focused to aid students in succeeding in their long-term academic goals. To direct or re-direct their efforts, when necessary, so that they have the resources to meet the program requirements. I recommend avoiding the label "exam" (or even strictly speaking the "form" of exams) which would then appear to the students as barriers rather than, as intended, assessment of preparation for further studies.
5. Basic skills should include, at the onset of the assessment program, reading, writing and math. However, other "skills" are growing in significance (the so-called computer literacy skills: word processing, Internet, literature searches, etc.) and the "experimental" version of the program might do well to at least assess these skills as well.
(Note: The above memo was written in response to faculty concerns regarding ways to address consistently observed problems with students' sub-standard performance in the classroom, especially those enrolled in upper division courses. It reflects not only the faculty's general consensus in this regard, but also impending changes in terms of setting new and more stringent prerequisites for advancement into advanced course work and subsequent graduation.)
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