My students can't write

Uff. Just finished reading and grading a stack of term papers. It is not usual for computer science students to have to write term papers, but I find it important for all students to be able to do research and to be able to express themselves in the written word.

But many of them can't write their way out of a paper bag.

Research for many starts and stops with the Wikipedia. The structure of the paper follows the Wikipedia article, rambling here and there from one irrelevant detail to the next. Those that actually cracked a book or found alternative material on their topic had a hard time setting up a thesis statement and deciding what they wanted to say.

The concept of tell 'em what you are going to say - say it - tell 'em what you said seems to be quite foreign. A number of papers just stopped the minute they hit 5 pages. No summary, they just quit. There were lots of footnotes: one used Roman numerals; one had footnotes in every heading, I suppose as the source for the information to come; one referenced Wikipedia extensively, but not the permalinks. One had no footnotes, but lots and lots of references.

And the concept of proofreading or using a spelling checker seems to be quite foreign to most of them. Even if you are writing in a foreign language such as English, spelling checkers can be quite useful.

And then there were three really wonderful papers, a joy to read. And I learned something from each. Now, how do we get the rest of them to learn how to write?


James said...

Get them to take a scientific writing course where they are coached by a linguist over the period of a semester to produce at least one written text. Part of the scientific writing course should have them read a good book on scientific writing and apply what they read.

I use "Scientific writing" by LeBrun as my refresher and reference text.

WiseWoman said...

That would be great - but we don't offer such courses, not even as electives! They are presupposed to come to university able to write.

James said...

Scientific writing is something that we cannot expect schools to teach, since school teachers almost never do it themselves.

The people who should be teaching scientific writing should be those who actually do it, partnered with linguists, who have expertise with language.

Anonymous said...

>...how do we get the rest of them to learn how to write?

...and only profs who actually can teach ?!?

one can hire a good ghostwriter... but a good ghostteacher ?!?


andre said...

well I discovered someday the digital library of the ACM. And then I became a fellow to be able to read as much as possible. So I think many of your students should know about organizations like this or even IEEE and what they offer, especially for students.