Page content: Employability and Written Communication
The literacy skills of graduates have long been a focus of interest and discussion by educators, employers and social commentators. Indeed, a review of research reports and articles in the mainstream media reveals a keen interest in levels of literacy across the UK population, including those of graduates:
Britain's biggest companies have warned that, despite a record number of graduates entering the job market, many lack the basic skills needed for employment. Almost half of businesses said that they did not expect to receive "sufficient applications from graduates with the correct skills" in 2006…Managers cite a series of shortcomings in potential recruits, including:
Poor spelling, grammar and mathematical ability which mean that graduates are making basic mistakes, writing illiterate memos and are in need of constant supervision…A survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) shows that many of the 260,000 graduates are being let down by the university system … [The Times, 7 February 2006]
Indeed, the issue of graduate literacy can be seen to be a long running press story.
The poor spelling and grammar of highly-qualified undergraduates has been exposed at a leading university, which has compared their command of English with that of its overseas students. It found that home students were far more likely to make basic errors than those with English as a second language.
The study, at Imperial College, London was carried out in the department of biological sciences, where competition for places means students come in with top A-level grades.
More than a quarter of British students did not know the difference between "complementary" and "complimentary", a mistake not made by any of the overseas undergraduates. 53% of British students misspelt "separate" as "seperate" but all the foreign students got it right.
The difference between "its" and "it's" confused both sets, but the British students got it wrong 78% of the time compared with 25% for those taught English as a second language. More than four-fifths of British students misspelt "occurred" compared with just over a half of those from overseas… [The Telegraph, 2 March 2006]
Recent research conducted by The Nuffield Foundation, based at Oxford University's department of educational studies, suggests that discussions relating to graduate literacy are in fact part of a wider debate about standards of literacy across the UK education sector as a whole. The report: Nuffield Review Higher Education focus groups, preliminary report, The Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education & Training, February 2006 is based on discussions with nearly 250 admissions staff from a wide range of Higher Education institutions and Further Education colleges offering Higher Education courses.
It could be argued that it is inevitable that any discussion relating to standards in education inevitably presents a negative view of the status quo, compared with a mythical past, however the report states:
Negative comments were not indicative of HE tutors and admissions staff whingeing or harking back to some golden age, but represented genuine concerns about young people and their capacity to benefit from the Higher Education experience.
Participants argued that students lacked the ability to manipulate language and number appropriately and effectively for the purpose of learning in HE. This point was in no way limited to the institutions recruiting those with lower levels of achievement. Indeed, one highly selective subject within a selecting institution commented that it ‘was able to skim the cream of candidates, but even they do not necessarily know how to use an apostrophe’. Also, it is notable that literacy skills were important to scientists as well as participants from an arts and humanities or social science background: We don’t want scientists who can’t write at all, or social and historical scientists who are statistically illiterate or unable to manipulate data.
The report presents the following statements as illustrative of the issues put forward by the admissions tutors:
Basic writing skills are lacking. [Admissions office]
They can’t even write in sentences. Their spelling is appalling. They can’t be understood. [Physics]
They don’t know how to write essays – they just assemble bits from the Internet. They can’t put decent sentences together. There is no provision in university for people who can’t write essays. [Biology]
They can’t structure a set of ideas in a logical sequence. [Physics]
They can’t write in sentences – they produce meaningless work. [Mathematics]
They graduate with a 2:1 but they still can’t spell or write English! [Physics]
Interestingly the report concludes that Universities do undertake responsibility for developing students’ key skills, but argues that undergraduates need to be better equipped with these skills upon entry to Higher Education.
Learning and assessment at Level 3 needs to place greater emphasis on what might be seen as rather traditional virtues: the ability to read critically, to communicate ideas in writing (which means using appropriate and grammatically correct language) and to argue a case. Essay-writing is a key means to achieve these ends. Higher education recognises its role in developing these skills further, but it needs more to build upon. The extended essay was perceived as a potential means to develop such skills. Nevertheless these skills need developing in a range of contexts with a good deal of practice and feedback from teachers, rather than being a one-off exercise…
The function of qualitative research is to provide insights into the topics under investigation and by its nature it contains a high degree of subjectivity and is based on relatively small samples. The framework of quantitative research findings provided by the above recently published studies in this area is a useful aid to interpretation of findings of the qualitative research undertaken as part of the ESAC project, and permits the filtering out of purely idiosyncratic findings.
Indeed, the findings of the qualitative research support other studies in this area in that written communication was widely reported by teaching staff and employers to be the employability key skill which presented the greatest difficulty for students and graduates. This comment was typical, and reiterated by teaching staff across all disciplines:
The standard of grammar, punctuation and spelling is abysmal … [Lecturer]
Employers did not report any improvement in the Literacy skills of graduates:
In general, we find that graduates have poor standards of Literacy… We have had students spell the name of their University wrong and not know the name of their course… [Graduate Recruiter]
It is evident that debate relating to standards of graduate literacy extends beyond the context of employability and has implications for teaching and learning across the education sector. However, the research in this area suggests that it is possible to achieve a successful degree outcome without attaining a high level of proficiency in written English; poor levels of literacy obviously do not preclude high levels of skill and experience in other areas.
It can also be argued that technical accuracy in application forms is not synonymous with proficiency in English, and that technical errors are not necessarily indicative of a lack of understanding of the rules.
It is also possible to make the case that students are proficient in a range of written English skills, relating to new forms of media of which an older, less technologically experienced generation of communicators are simply unaware.
A case can be put forward that the current debate on the literacy levels of graduates focuses on past standards of graduateness and literacy, and that this focus should move forward and consider the future needs of graduates and employers at a time when communication is undergoing its greatest transformation since the development of the printing press.
However, it is clear that today’s employers demand a level of proficiency in written English without which graduates are at a severe disadvantage, regardless of their subject expertise:
“Nobody cares ultimately whether they know about Michelangelo or the Battleship Potemkin, but they do care if they can write reasonable English...” [Lecturer]
It was striking however, that students who were interviewed during the qualitative research did not show the same levels of concern in relation to the development and application of their written communication – this factor is, in itself, symptomatic of the problem. The majority of students identified oral communication as the key employability skill with which they had most problems. However, this perception almost certainly relates to learners’ discomfort at speaking in front of a group, and does not accurately relate to levels of proficiency.
Although it is somewhat disheartening when faced with the many reports of students’ poor levels of literacy, it is encouraging to see that students themselves identify a number of successful approaches which they have employed to improve their standards of written English - these are presented in the section Strategies for Success, below.
The key issues arising from our research in relation to the development of the key employability skill of written communication are outlined below:
Some students underestimate the importance of written communication for employability.
I can get my ideas down on paper, not always in the best English, but so they are understandable… [1st Year Student]
A number of students interviewed during the qualitative research appeared to place a higher value on their own ideas than the technical accuracy of the language in which they were expressed; this viewpoint was not shared by the employers who took part in the survey:
“Ninety percent of what matters is how you says it rather than what you say…” [Graduate Recruiter]
Some students commented on the fact that written communication might be a factor in obtaining employment, but did not see its relevance for their long term employability:
As long as you spell things right on your application form, employers won’t know if you can write well or not, and once you are in the job, it’s too late for them to know… [3rd Year Student]
Overall, students with specific learning difficulties, such as Dyslexia, which had a direct impact on their written communication, appeared to place a high value on proficiency in written English, possibly through having encountered obstacles to learning as a result of their disability, which they had worked hard to overcome.
Many students have a very limited understanding of register in written communication, and are unable to write in an appropriate style for their audience:
“We receive standardised letters from graduates which show no thought… They use text speak in covering letters...” [Graduate Recruiter]
Indeed, it is noticeable that many students, in common with most young people, communicate extensively with friends through media such as text messaging, and online chat facilities and that this interaction is characterised by high levels of effusiveness and affection. This convention in written English, when used unthinkingly, can be disconcerting for the recipient:
“I have students send me emails in which they write “love from” and sign off with their MSN nickname…” [Lecturer]
Some students found it difficult to see the connection between academic writing and written communication for employability:
I can’t see what use writing essays is going to be when we are actually in jobs. What job do you have to write essays in..? [2nd Year Student]
This issue and strategies for helping students to explore the relationship between writing for academic purposes and developing their written skills for employability are examined further in the section: Employability and Personal Development Planning.
Lecturers who took part in the qualitative research reported that levels of competency in written English do not generally form a large part of formal degree accreditation. The qualitative research, supported by the findings of the Nuffield report, suggests that it may be possible to achieve success at degree and postgraduate level without developing a high level of technical proficiency in written communication.
Universities commonly have a central resource bank, typically accessible online and available in a paper based format in a central repository such as a Learning Centre. The scope and content of such resources are generally of a high standard and typically address key skills. However, there is very little evidence that learners access such resources independently other than for formulaic information such as referencing and bibliographies: none of the respondents in our research reported the autonomous use of self directed learning materials. One lecturer who had helped to create a bank of online resources for students to use independently to develop their employability skills reported that the materials were significantly under used and suggested that such resources are generally used far more effectively when their use is directed and supported by a tutor or other facilitator.
A number of respondents reported that their written English had improved significantly during their time at University and, as impressively competent self reflective learners, were able to identify how they had developed their skills.
The most common reason that students gave for their improved standard of written English was reading more widely, both in relation to their course of study and simply for personal enjoyment:
I’ve started reading more sophisticated literature which is coming out in how I talk and how I write. I started reading Victorian literature. Also I started reading the Economist which gave me an idea of appropriate writing styles... [1st Year Student]
I didn’t used to read very much, but I think my written skills have improved by reading more… [3rd Year Student]
A number of respondents also pointed to peer group learning as a very effective skills development strategy. This comment was not atypical:
My written English really dragged my ‘A’ levels down, but now I have really improved since I got to University and that’s one of my strengths. Basically, a friend who was doing English showed me how to write an essay. He told me about the appropriate language to use. I now use a thesaurus to expand my language. I don’t really remember being shown how to do an essay before, although I probably was. The teachers just used to say “oh, of course, you all know how to write essays”. Once my friend showed me, my essay grade went from 55% to 80% [2nd Year Student]
Peer group learning can also be used effectively in the more formal environment of in-class support:
We have PhD students who help us in practical lessons, so once we’ve done some written work they’ll read it through and see if we’ve got the right answers and give us positive feedback. That really helps …[1st Year Student]
I get my friends to re-read my work, and then if I have problems after that I go to my tutor. I find that less daunting and scary. They are very happy to do that... [1st Year Geology Student]
A number of students identified good assessment and feedback from tutors as an essential tool for improving their written English.
Teaching staff do, however, need to be aware of the impact that their feedback can have, and the ease with which it can be misconstrued, particularly when it is given in writing; students can be baffled by comments relating to their written English which may seem self-explanatory to their instigator:
I got really horrible comments on my essays like: “no structure, no style etcetera.” I didn’t really have to write essays at school. I’d never considered structure; I didn’t know what it meant…” [3rd Year Student]
In my last project, my teacher just put “well written” which wasn’t very helpful… [3rd Year Student]
The following website from Oxford Brookes University presents a guide to giving students good feedback: www.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsd/firstwords/fw21.html
One to one support for students in key skills is generally provided within Universities through a central support service. Although some students complain that the support they require needs to be from tutors with specialist subject knowledge, there is no doubt that one to one support can achieve dramatic results within a relatively short time frame. Learning Centres first appeared in Universities in the 1990s and their development has had a significant impact on teaching methodology and practice in the area of key skills teaching in Higher Education.
Writing Matters: the Royal Literary Fund Report on Student Writing in Higher Education
Writing Matters examines the difficulties many students face in writing effectively and proposes a range of measures to address these. The report argues that much greater attention should be paid to helping students adjust to the demands of writing at university and that writing development is a key factor for progress in the HE sector…
A Report on the Teaching of Writing in Higher Education
Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams' research on the teaching of writing in universities: attitudes, methods and ways forward…