The University of Waterloo is one of the few institutions in Canada to administer a language proficiency exam as a degree requirement. Although the university has used the test since 1976, students’ writing problems just appear to be getting worse.
“What we do know is that our pass rate is declining,” said Ann Barrett, managing director of the English language proficiency exam at Waterloo. She noted that 30 per cent of students now fail the test.
The proficiency exam isn’t designed to trick or fool students. Barrett says one of their goals is to be transparent. It is a simple essay question, where evaluators are looking for proper grammar, organization, and development. They want to see if students understand a standard essay format, present their thesis, and defend it effectively.
What makes a proficiency test in writing so important is the correlation between failing the test and doing poorly in university courses.
“Students that fail our exams are at risk because they won’t understand what the instructors are saying or what is in their textbooks,” Barnett said. “If a student is struggling with the basics of language, they will have difficulty with what they are being taught and what is expected of them.”
What becomes puzzling then is how students who earn strong enough marks at the CEGEP and high school level to be accepted to university can barely form a sentence.
“It puzzles us when we see students get 90s in high school and yet can’t pass this exam,” Barrett said. “We don’t understand the disconnect and it is frustrating.”
Sue Laver, of the McGill English and French Language Centre, said McGill students also struggle with prose composition.
“I have had a handful of students who are functionally illiterate in writing,” Laver said. “It is actually shocking that such students would make it all the way to a prestigious university like McGill.”
It is unclear, however, why students’ writing abilities are declining. Some critics point to the advent of social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook. Joel Postman, author of SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate who has taught Fortune 500 companies how to use social networking, argues that students no longer distinguish between communication with friends, professors, and even potential employers.
“If you cover your legal document with emoticons, with ‘lols’ and ‘l8rs,’ a contract could be invalidated,” Postman said. “What would happen if you used smiley faces and ‘cuz’ in a medical procedure? It is simply error in judgement, and it’s jarring and offensive for many people.”
Laver, however, believes that many secondary schools do an inadequate job of preparing students for the rigors of university writing.
“The problem is that they aren’t well prepared before they get here. If it is not taught or not taught long enough, they are in for a rude awakening,” Laver said. “And that leaves us to pick up the pieces.”
Though McGill doesn’t require language proficiency exams to enter or graduate from the university, Laver believes that McGill should develop an entry assessment to combat students’ declining writing abilities. The English and French Language Center does offer a for-credit course in academic English called EAPR 250: Research Essay and Rhetoric every semester. Because resources to help students are spread out, however, it can be difficult for students to improve their writing.
“Writing issues cannot be figured out by professors that are not experts in teaching academic writing, or even in simple tutorials or workshops,” Laver said. “So I think everyone should take an academic writing course with those that are specialized in this field, without exception. They have nothing to lose.”
McGill has recognized this problem and is currently engaged in serious discussions about a potential writing center for students.
“The ball is rolling,” Laver said, “and it’s moving in the right direction.”