Tuesday, May 25, 2010...8:30 am

Journalism student assessment: error round-up

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Just how bad can journalism student assessment work be, in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation and general accuracy?
The answer: pretty bad.
Let’s have a look at some of the most common (certainly the most noticeable) problems with student assessment work this year.

  1. Apostrophes
    No student, absolutely none, has the remotest clue how to use the apostrophe. They are scattered in copy like wheat grains after harvest, with no consistency or clue as to what they’re for. Generally they are used to indicate a plural, but not always. In some students’ work, you could have taken every apostrophe from its place and put it where there wasn’t an apostrophe*, and ended up with infinitely cleaner copy. The odd thing is, however, that when I ran a punctuation test, many of the students didn’t do all that badly. It seems they can handle the apostrophe better when they’re thinking about it, but that they don’t actually bother to think when they write. Which is a worry.
  2. Capital letters
    A very tenuous grasp of what the capital letter is actually for. Students cannot consistently cap up proper names (I do wonder if they even know what the term “proper name” actually means), and randomly cap up ordinary words, for no apparent reason. I’m not just talking about tricky brand names that even real sub-editors have to check a style guide for – like “iPad” – but celeb names and places (Miley cyrus, hollywood). And it’s not just the odd typo. The writing is littered with random capitalisation. Often this extends to the personal pronoun. What do they teach the kids at school nowadays? Jeez – I feel and sound old. Or, in today’s parlance, i feel and sound Old.
  3. There/their/they’re
    Another common area of ignorance – some mix them up, others simply use “there” for all three words. Not sure why, but I find this strangely disturbing.
  4. Run-on sentences
    A very, very common trait in student writing. Sentences just go on and on, with each thought separated, more or less accurately, by a comma. A full stop will be added when the writer runs out of steam – possibly at the end of a paragraph, maybe when they run out of material (otherwise known as the end of the story), sometimes before the end. Of a sentence which, is weird.
  5. Would of/could of
    Also very common in student writing – in so many ways. Understandable because of the tendency not to enunciate English any more (I could’ve spoken more clearly, but then I would’ve had to make an effort). But hideous.

What does all this say (apart from confirming that I’m a ghastly snob)?
There’s something dreadfully wrong with our school system if it turns out people with little or no ability to control the English they write – especially if they then go into a university degree that’s based on the ability to communicate in English.
But there isn’t much we can do about it now. Once you’ve spent 12 years or so not being taught the importance of getting English right, and not losing anything for it if you get it wrong, it’s going to be difficult to correct things at this stage.
Especially since university perpetuates this by not really judging student work on spelling, grammar and puntuation. (Yes, we do dock some marks – but there are other “Learning Outcomes” we have to take on board. You can get a reasonable pass at degree level without ever really addressing this.)
Maybe it doesn’t actually matter. Assuming my generation of students are the audience for media as well as its future creators, they won’t notice the mistakes anyway.

*Though where one might, logically, go.


  • Sadly it seems to me that many teachers these days can’t spell or use grammar correctly. Letters from my daughter’s pre-school are woefully full of inaccuracies, and yesterday I received a text message from one teacher that was so bad I almost wept. This isn’t a one-off either: I know other teachers who can’t spell for toffee. I don’t think it’s seen as all that important any more, plus our constant use of text/Twitter etc has led us all into bad habits.

  • To which I must add: ‘Meeja’ students of my close acquaintance mostly write in paragraphs. That is to say, when there is a long sentence or more than two shorter sentences, it is made into a paragraph. The result: a 10,000 word dissertation fills about 127 pages instead of a more manageable 50. My current duty of marking about 25 of the blasted things required hiring a Pickford’s Scammel to deliver them safely to my lodgings.
    Still, that’s better than the two page, 3,000 word essay in txt spk wht I wuns rcd.

  • Ah, Mr Affer – welcome, welcome indeed, from the Wartime Housewife dugout.
    I find the opposite problem, actually – as students seem to write interminable paragraphs. Sometimes whole stories have no paragraph breaks at all. And given that I am teaching online journalism, where the convention is indeed for shorter paragraphs, this is a bit of a problem.
    Perhaps we could swap meeja students? Mine are half-tame…

  • “What does all this say (apart from confirming that I’m a ghastly snob)?”
    It doesn’t say that at all. It’s one thing for supermarket checkout operators to churn out poorly formed prose – it’s an entirely different matter when people who aspire to be professional communicators can’t get the basics right.
    The language rules you mention aren’t pedantic matters like prepositions at the end of sentences, but basic things that aid readability.

  • I have a confession. I’m one of those teachers who struggle with grammar and spelling. I seem to have to make an extra-ordinary effort to write anything and envy those colleagues who can knock out a paragraph or two in a jiffy. I hope it’s not a symptom of stupidity. It’s certainly something I take seriously enough to try to correct and work to improve.
    When I was at school in Belfast we still had the 11 plus exam, which I failed and went to a secondary school where illiteracy was common. I expect this wasn’t the case at the grammar down the road.
    The thing is, when I hear my older colleagues fret that we live in a post-literate age I can’t help reflect on my old school. Were things really that much worse? Or is it just that people who in years past wouldn’t have stayed in education past 16 are now at university.
    Despite being in the ‘slow-lane’ when it comes to grammar and spelling I think it is vital that students can write clearly, coherently and persuasively. For that reason I think essay writing is crucial but I get the feeling that as the ‘skills agenda’ has bitten deep into FE and HE, essay writing and the written word generally is viewed as a little bit antiquated.

  • Ah – Rabelais, welcome
    I think you’re right about higher education. Many school leavers are going further into education who would have left in past decades. Should they be barred from higher education?
    Well – I do think that the old idea of university/degree level education doesn’t serve them well. We shoehorn them into an idea of HE that is essentially elitist, and then struggle to get them through with a pass because it’s not in our interest to fail anyone (bums on seats bring us funding).
    First off, if you’re going to widen access to HE, I think you should also widen the idea of what HE is.
    Second, I too wonder if the ‘skills’ agenda is undermining basic literacy and numeracy and the idea that education should be about more than workplace readiness (if only because the move towards skills seems to be producing unemployable school-leavers and graduates, ironically).

  • Don’t you think HE has changed?
    I was sent to a training course a year ago designed to encourage tutors to integrate ’employability’ into their courses. I asked, why did we needed ’employability’? Had the university been producing unemployable graduates previously. I was thrown a look that would kill from the Dean.
    My students get less of the critical, higher education that is typical of Oxbridge and other elite institutions. My students get ’employability’, ‘skills’ and endless carer talks when they should be getting lectures.
    My looney left heart tells me that everybody should have the opportunity to go to university because education is the foundation stone of citizenship and democracy – education is a social and cultural good.
    But my head says, what is the point of passing kids through a higher education that is only ‘higher’ in name not in substance?

  • The fact that we can’t bring remedial communications education into the assessment syllabus when it’s clearly required indicates that HE hasn’t fully adjusted to the changing needs of its clientele.
    I think the problem is really that it’s trying to shoehorn more things into itself (employability, skills etc), while also trying to be what it was before (critical, academic) – instead of ripping up the legacy description of academia and trying to come up with an entirely new model.

  • At the risk of sounding like a fossil, the problem is in the filtering.
    Years ago, higher education places were strictly rationed. You had to have great O and A level results to get through the door. My degree was in Physics, but I had to have three decent A levels, 7 O levels including English and another language just to get in the door.
    Then, if you met that criteria, there was still a day of interviews before you’d get accepted.
    What’s more, huge numbers of students didn’t make it through the end of year exams in years one and two.
    It was brutal and not always fair. It was elitist.
    But it did mean you were unlikely to get through the door without the basics being in place. If you did have the right stuff for course A, you might have it for course B.

  • Yes – it was elitist. And in order to work as it’s supposed to (be a measure of excellence) it has to be.
    You’re absolutely right – the problem is that HE is trying to create an elite without actually being elitist. It’s an impossible task…

  • I think Bill makes a good point – but there is something missing. In the old days, we had places called Polytechnics…..marvellous places that tended towards vocational training and things like HNCs, and City and Guilds. Young people were proud to get HNCs because they weren’t easy; employers recognised their validity, and whilst some students were happy to rest there, others went on to degree courses. The outcome: we fed trained people into jobs.
    Then all was swept away – Polys and those good qualifications. Suddenly, EVERYBODY had to have a degree, regardless of their real abilities. With things like BTECs and GNVQ’s quickly socially derided, loads of people hit the soft degree route (Sociology with Ecology and Sardine Farming, Beach Guarding with Meeja and Wake Board Design). Bragging rights for the politicians, loads of money for the Unis, and who cares if there are no jobs for these people? We can always get Poles to do the plumbing and building….
    I don’t suppose we’ll ever get the Polytechnics back, and some of their value has been belatedly recognised with Foundation Degrees. But these are really (IMO) not as good yet as the qualifications we lost. Worse – much worse – the places in which they are delivered no longer have the Lecturer skills that Polys had: a mix of experience and qualification. Unis tend to demand a minimum of a PhD for new Lecturers, and the simple time-scale to achieve this is edging us towards academics with limited real-world knowledge. So not only are real skills being lost at Lecturer level, contact with the Industries they should be feeding has been lost – not, in all truth, that there are many Industries left in our land!!

  • Yes Affer I was thinking of the polytechnics – fine institutions.
    I was at Manchester University. Down the road was UMIST and Manchester Poly. UMIST sat somewhere between the two. There was also an education college in the area.
    The uni was academic with almost no vocational course except law and medicine. UMIST was vocational, but leaned towards academia, while the poly was vocational.
    Back then, I graduated in Physics and worked my way up from the bottom as a journalist. My wife did a Uni degree then spent a year on a postgrad Journalism course.
    Others I knew at Manchester spent a year doing journalism in a poly. Of course many journalists simply did a one or two year vocational course and skipped the degree altogether. In terms of bang for their educational buck, they were the winners. But I wouldn’t swap my three years of pure academic education for anything.

  • Spot on re: polytechnics etc I think.
    Probably why the government, having screwed everything up, is trying to reinstate vocational type qualifications via BTEC etc…

  • Lies! I stopped reading after your first point. My iPad article contains over 40 apostrophes.
    Looking through my other (admittedly poor) entries, I see many many more.
    Anyway, back to Twitter’s (see!) counter-verbose embrace.

  • Really, with apostrophes, it’s a quality over quantity thing…

  • Yes I know. I was merely being e-facetious in response to your claim that no students used apostrophes correctly, when I actually did.
    In regards to your actual point, Douglas Rushkoff recently produced a PBS doc called ‘Digital Nation’ that addresses some the issues above. It’s a great doc, and free to watch on the PBS site. I’ll fetch you the link and post it here, iPad allowing.

  • http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/
    Within a single generation, digital media and the World Wide Web have transformed virtually every aspect of modern culture, from the way we learn and work to the ways in which we socialize and even conduct war. But is the technology moving faster than we can adapt to it? And is our 24/7 wired world causing us to lose as much as we’ve gained?
    In Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier, FRONTLINE presents an in-depth exploration of what it means to be human in a 21st-century digital world. Continuing a line of investigation she began with the 2008 FRONTLINE report Growing Up Online, award-winning producer Rachel Dretzin embarks on a journey to understand the implications of living in a world consumed by technology and the impact that this constant connectivity may have on future generations. “I’m amazed at the things my kids are able to do online, but I’m also a little bit panicked when I realize that no one seems to know where all this technology is taking us, or its long-term effects,” says Dretzin.
    Joining Dretzin on this journey is commentator Douglas Rushkoff, a leading thinker and writer on the digital revolution — and one-time evangelist for technology’s positive impact. “In the early days of the Internet, it was easy for me to reassure people about what it would mean to bring digital technology into their lives,” says Rushkoff, who has authored 10 books on media, technology and culture. “Now I want to know whether or not we are tinkering with something more essential than we realize.”

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