Demystifying Competence

Imagine a class of a twenty students. Your task is to grade their ability to play the violin on a normal curve. How many notes would you need them to play in order to do this? How much information would you need in order to assign 4 As, 6 Bs, 8 Cs and 2 Ds or Fs? The answer will of course depend on the distribution of ability among the students.

For example, you might ask them simply to play a high B flat. Some of the students, having never played the violin, might fail at this task completely. They wouldn’t understand what you are asking them to do. If all 20 of them happily do as you ask, however, you know that they all have some familiarity with the instrument. Still, even one tone can tell you a lot about how well they can play. You could ask them to hold it until you tell them to stop. The quality of the tone they produce, and their ability to sustain it, is good indicator of their basic skills.

But suppose they all do this so well that you can’t really tell them apart. Maybe you’re beginning to suspect that you’re dealing with a group of conservatory students. At this point, you might tell them to play a B flat major scale or a phrase from a piece of music. Or you might sing a tune for them and ask them to play it back to you. Or you might play something for them and ask them to transcribe it. There are lots of simple exercises that will reveal what level the students are at relative to each other.

I’m bringing this up, not because I know anything about playing or teaching the violin, of course, but in order to say something about writing instruction. I think we let competence in this area remain way too mysterious. Indeed, university teachers often don’t know very much about how good their students are at writing at the beginning of a course, which, it seems to me, is a bit like not being able to make any assumptions about how well music students can play their instruments. We need to demystify the craft of writing. We have to insist that, once students have gotten to a particular level at university, they should know how to write a coherent prose paragraph. We should also be able to demand some content knowledge.

For example, most students at a business school will learn some organization theory during their first year. At the very start of a second-year management course, then, the teacher should be able to demand they write a short in-class essay answering the question, “What is an organization?” Give them forty-five minutes to write 1 to 5 paragraphs . The ability to complete this assignment will be distributed throughout the class. Some will do very well, others will fail completely. Some will demonstrate their ability to write but also their ignorance of organization theory. Others might demonstrate familiarity with the literature but exhibit weak writing skills.

Importantly, this will be as clear them as it is to you. I want to spend a few posts this week working through the implications of this fact for writing instruction.

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