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Student Voices

Category: Efficacy and Research

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Challenging times: Students still struggle with writing and numeracy


Posted on: 21/01/2019 |Written by Jason Bennett, Digital Solutions Marketing Manager, Cengage EMEA

In 2016 research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that one in ten university students in the UK had numeracy or literacy levels below a level 2 qualification and that these low levels of skills existed across a surprisingly varied group. It’s an issue that remains today and not only in the UK but across many other countries with an increasing number of students arriving at university lacking basic skills.

At Cengage we’ve recently been investigating how students learn, perceive their learning, and their views on the methods and tools that they are using to study. As part of this we asked students which elements of their course they find most challenging and most commonly stated was the ‘writing elements’ (32%), closely followed by ‘data analysis’ (31%) and ‘interpreting data’ (24%).

So, with writing and numeracy being such critical life skills, is this something we should be concerned about, and what can lecturers do to help students improve and boost their confidence?

Writing challenges and what can be done

‘Writing elements’, as cited in our survey, incorporates a wide range of challenges, from structuring and writing essays, reports and dissertations, to struggling with grammar, spelling, punctuation and tone. In many cases these issues may be compounded by students also being required to write in a second language, or having to overcome other related challenges such as dyslexia. What’s clear though is that the writing skills required in higher education is giving one third of students cause for worry and that they are all too aware of the shortfall between what they believe is expected of their writing and what they can achieve.

For a long time the quality of student writing at university has been the subject of debate, and most universities now offer students writing support such as library-based writing centres, one-to-one tutorials, or drop-in sessions provided by specialists such as the Royal Literary Fund writing fellows who offer writing support in many of the UK’s universities. But is there also more that teaching staff can do?

How can teaching staff ease the problem?

Firstly, lecturers might consider providing clearer guidelines as to how to write, structure and layout written assignments, particularly to first year students being set their first written assessment. Some universities provide pointers at the end of assignment feedback on how students might improve their work. A couple of these pointers could be aimed more specifically at helping them to finesse their writing. This might be particularly pertinent to courses where a percentage of the assessment grade is for the level that work is produced to a professional standard. Examples might also be provided of good writing practice, with students being asked to evaluate why one piece of writing might be considered of a higher standard than others, or by encouraging students to peer-review each other’s work. This helps students to spot potential areas of improvement and common errors that they might then see in their own work too.

It’s all in the numbers

Many of us can be a little intimidated by a sheet of numerical figures. I know I often am. It’s perhaps not surprising then that also scoring high in the challenges students said they faced in their course were interpreting and analyzing data. This was particularly high in third year students and with students in non-mathematical subjects – such as Business, Marketing and Psychology – who suddenly find that they are faced with data that they need to shape and draw meaningful conclusions from. As with the challenge of writing, looking at figures in detail and being able to analyse them should be introduced to students gently. Time should be spent guiding the class through the basic statistics they might be required to look at and how to read them. As with writing, the more opportunities there are to practice the better skilled the students become and the more confident they feel.

A digital helping hand

For both numeracy and writing skills, there is a wealth of digital resources available that can be employed either in the classroom or as additional support for students to use in their free time. With these students are provided with interactive exercises that provide them with instant and detailed feedback. This helps students to improve their basic skills and boosts their confidence. Writing activities, for example, help students learn how to best formulate sentences, paragraphs and full arguments, whilst real-world data-based activities take the fear out of the numbers by helping students become familiar with reading and analyzing data, improving their basic numeracy skills, and better arming them for academic and professional success.

Lecturing time, as we know, is always short but any opportunities there might be to provide additional guidance and practice is bound to be beneficial to students but also to teaching staff who will then be required less to provide one-to-one support. There may be a shortfall in the skillset that students arrive at university with, but, collectively, we can ensure that when they leave students are prepared, able and confident to put these vital life skills into practice.

To learn more about our research visit our dedicated Student Voices web page.

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Download the full research report here >

Opinions and outlooks raised belong to the author and don’t necessarily reflect any part of Cengage or our affiliates.