Better writing will enhance any degree

Better writing will enhance any degree by the Plain Talk Students at The University of South Dakota apparently aren�t writing as well as they should.

The news is both surprising and disappointing.

It�s surprising because South Dakota citizens never had an inkling that such a problem exists � until it was revealed in a story in a mid-November edition of the Volante.

It�s disappointing because it means somewhere along the line, be it in elementary, middle school or high school, South Dakota may not be placing as much emphasis as necessary on developing this vital skill.

We were caught off guard by the news. The South Dakota Board of Regents has consistently informed the public that South Dakota students seem to be doing very well in such key skill areas as writing skills, math, reading and science reasoning.

According to an Aug. 13 press release, the regents noted that in these four areas, the proficiency exam scores of students attending South Dakota public universities exceeded the average scores of their counterparts at other four-year public institutions.

For example, South Dakota students scored 65.3, on average, in writing skills during 2003-04. The national average is 64.5.

Take a closer look at some other statistics, however, and one can begin to understand why officials at USD are concerned.

Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the board of regents-required proficiency exam indicate USD scores are low nationally and behind the curve regionally in writing skills.

The regents keep track of the percentage of students in the state�s six public universities that require remediation in writing skills, mathematics, reading and science reasoning.

From the fall of 1998 through the spring of 2003, hardly any USD students testing for the first time needed remediation in science reasoning. The biggest blip in those statistics occurred in 1999-2000, when statistics showed remedial action needed to be taken to help 1.7 percent of the university�s students in that area.

At the same time, a whopping 9.1 percent of USD students required remediation in writing skills.

In the five school years beginning with the fall of 1998, the percentage of USD students who need remediation in writing skills has been 5.4 percent, 9.1 percent, 7.3 percent, 8.2 percent and 6.8 percent.

System-wide, the average percentages of students attending all six South Dakota public universities during that same five year period are 6.3 percent, 7.4 percent, 6.4 percent, 6.1 percent and 5.4 percent.

In other words, over the past five years, USD students taking the proficiency exam have failed the writing skills component at a higher rate than the regental average.

�I wouldn�t say ?shocked� is the right word, but certainly we�re concerned,� Royce Engstrom, vice president of academic affairs, told the Volante. �Our students have the capability to do significantly better than the national average.�

USD is taking steps that will hopefully give a well-needed boost to students� writing ability. In spring 2003, President James Abbott formed a task force to determine the best ways of reaching that goal.

English 210 � Introduction to Literature � will now be required by all general education students and will be more writing-oriented. Starting next fall, a five-credit first-year writing course will be offered to freshman students needing remedial help in English.

Traditional writing-intensive courses have been re-emphasized within many departments.

These steps underscore the fact that the worth of any university degree is enhanced if graduates also have demonstrable writing skills.

Even with all the shortcuts for fact-gathering and communication that the Internet provides, students are not educated until they are able to do the hard work of organizing and synthesizing knowledge. Certainly, all kinds of information and raw data are readily available, but much of it is meaningless without critical examination, creative thinking, and reasoning.

Writing accomplishes that: to write well, one must think well. And in today�s competitive job market, employers want to hire graduates who are able to write. Not surprisingly, as the cost of higher education rises, the expectation students have for the marketability of their knowledge and skills also increases.

To improve the quality of higher education in South Dakota, and specifically USD, writing must be an ongoing process. It is the cumulative effect of strong writing requirements across disciplines that makes the difference.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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