Students’ Reading/Writing: Take Nothing for Granted

Welcome back to the new academic year here in the US. Related to one of faculty members’ perennial concerns about college student learning and their abilities as nursing science writers, I want to bring to your attention a growing body of research about college students as readers.

First, and if you take nothing else away from this note, don’t take anything for granted about our students as readers, especially readers of longer, complex scientific and technical texts (their previous GPAs and SATs, notwithstanding). They are often inadequately prepared for these cognitive tasks.

As noted in a recent blog post:

Literacy scholars often advocate that we should pay more attention to reading.  A number of these scholars argue that some of the difficulties students experience with writing stem from difficulties with reading.  For example, Ellen Carillo suggests that “Without explicit attention to reading and the relationship between reading and writing, students will not have strategies for making sense of new or difficult texts, arguments, images, and ideas they encounter.”  Carillo’s statement is supported by recent research on student citation practices.  In their study of student writing at 16 different institutions, Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard learn that students largely cite information found in short segments of text located in the first two pages of a referenced source.  This finding, they claim, indicates that students typically use sources to satisfy checklist requirements more than to engage the content. (Polk, “We should pay more attention to reading in our writing courses,” )

Carillo is one of our UConn English colleagues; you can read her chapter on this topic here: (Ball & Loewe, eds., Bad ideas about writing, pp. 38-43). Carillo observes:

Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of work to be done since recent studies such as The Citation Project, a multi-institutional, and empirical research project show that students’ reading abilities are largely underdeveloped. This research seeks to understand how students read sources and use them in their writing. With less than 10% of students using summary in their writing (as opposed to paraphrasing, copying, and citing), scholar Rebecca Moore Howard and her colleagues noted that their findings raise questions about students’ abilities to understand what they are reading. Recent studies from Education Testing Services have corroborated these findings as did findings from studies conducted by ACT, Inc. and the Pew Charitable Trust, which found that close to half of the college students in their samples did not meet minimum benchmarks for literacy or lacked reading proficiency. These deficiencies are major problems particularly in this digital age for, as literacy scholar Donald Leu and his colleagues have pointed out, foundational literacies such as reading and writing print text will continue to play a crucial role—and maybe even a more essential role—in this digital age because of the proliferation of information. (p. 40 [emphasis mine])

The Citation Project cited here reports (from a study of first-year students’ papers [N = 174] from 16 colleges and universities in the US):

Analysis of the 174 researched papers found the students working from one or two sentences in 94% of their citations; citing the first or second page of their sources in 70% of their citations; and citing only 24% of their sources more than twice. While 78% of the papers include at least one incidence of paraphrase, 52% include at least one incidence of patchwriting, with students moving back and forth between the two within the same paragraph. ( )

So, as I have often said, writing is not a “skill” but a mode of thought, as is reading. Please keep in mind that many of our students need to be guided in how to read (including how to read their textbooks and how to read nursing research articles).

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