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I think I can write, but grammar confuses me:
Pre-JMC students' high school and college
language skill instruction, perceptions of self-efficacy,
and variables that predict success on a required language skills exam
by Peter Gade, Ph.D.
University of Oklahoma
13817 Norris Circle
Norman, OK 73026
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Paper submitted for consideration of the Scholastic Journalism Division of
the Association for Education of Journalism and Mass Communication for the
Toronto, Ontario, August 2004.
This study explores the perceptions of students entering JMC programs on
their experiences in English courses in high school and college, the extent
of their language skill instruction, and their sense of language skills
self-efficacy. This study finds that students are not getting much grammar
and basic language instruction in their college composition courses. For
scholastic educators, this study suggests that they do their students a
service if they make a considerable effort to teach the basics of the
English language. This study also finds that students enter their JMC
programs saying they like to write, and their moderately high level of
self-efficacy indicates they are motivated and willing to work at improving
their language and writing skills. This suggests that a challenge for high
school instructors is to strike a balance -- one that provides a stronger
foundation in grammar and language while maintaining students' enthusiasm
and affinity for writing.
I think I can write:
I think I can write, but grammar confuses me: Pre-JMC students'
high school and college language skill instruction, perceptions of
and variables that predict success on a required language skills exam.
The importance of language skills (grammar, punctuation, usage and writing)
for journalism and mass communication students has been a focus of debate
for at least the past quarter century (Oukrup & Brown, 1977). More
recently, there is a general concern that there is less emphasis on
language skills in journalism curricula, as journalism/mass communication
(JMC) schools have become more focused on new media, emerging technology,
multi-cultural awareness and balancing graduate and undergraduate programs
(Seamon, 2001). Media professionals have questioned what JMC schools are
doing to produce graduates with sufficient language skills to succeed in
their careers (Kees, 1996; Urban, 1998). Although there is widespread
agreement among JMC faculty and administrators concerning the value of
their students having strong language skills (Geimann, 2000; Smith, 1997),
there is little agreement on how language skills fit into JMC curricula.
Some administrators have argued that students should already have strong
language skills when they enter a JMC school (Oregon, 1987). However, most
JMC schools have required for admission into their programs some
combination of: (a) English Composition courses, (b) a minimum grade-point
average, and/or (c) a language skills test as evidence of language
proficiency (Oukrup, Brown & Parsons, 1998).
As JMC faculty struggle to find the best places for and relative emphases
on language skills in their curricula, it seems relevant to explore the
perceptions of students entering JMC programs on their experiences in
English courses in high school and college, the extent of their language
skill instruction, and their sense of language skills self-efficacy. The
study reported in this paper explores these issues and variables through a
2002-03 survey of more than 200 pre-JMC students at a major southwestern
university. This study can assist JMC faculty to understand better what
their students perceive they know prior to entering JMC school, which can
serve as a guide as educators shape the role of language skills in their
curricula and individual courses. This study can also serve scholastic
educators as a measure of the strength and value of language skills
instruction that students perceive they are getting prior to coming to college.
Language skills instruction. The perception among JMC faculty that their
students lack the necessary language skills to be successful in journalism
programs is not new. Williams (1983) found that faculty said the news
writing class was the most difficult journalism class to teach because
students lack basic English and grammar skills. Stone (1990) lamented that
the erosion of student skills considered minimal for success in higher
education was a reason why teaching writing has become more difficult.
Williams (1985) suggests, "The most common reason for bad writing is, I
think, the simplest: Most writers have just never learned how to write
clearly and directly in the first place" (p. 5).
Much of "blame" for deficient language skills has been placed, correctly
or not, on college English composition courses and their instructors. Olson
and Dickson (1995) contend that role of English composition courses is
largely undefined, and continues to be unquestioned as faculty tend to
agree that students need all the writing instruction they can get. However,
this role ambiguity creates composition classes that are "disciplineless,"
with content that is not necessarily applicable to other fields or academic
disciplines. The authors asked about 300 journalism students from programs
in 10 states about the value of writing instruction they received in high
school and freshman composition classes. They found that 56.2 percent of
the students having quite a bit of grammar instruction in high school, but
only 16.8 percent said they received quite a bit of grammar instruction in
freshman composition. They also found students reported that English
composition courses have significantly more focus on writing creatively and
opinion writing than journalism writing classes. These findings reinforce
what Olson and Dickson call the perception that writing instruction in
English composition classes "rewards creativity and ignores grammatical and
stylistic correctness" (p. 48).
This critique of English writing courses has been connected to creating
students who have "unrealistic evaluations" of their writing ability when
they enter the introductory level media writing course (Collins & Bissell,
2002). Masse (1998) came to a similar conclusion in a study of his
journalism students' writing journals, finding that students with high
grades in English composition generally start journalism writing classes
with high confidence, but their confidence plummets when their journalism
grades do not match the success they had in English composition. Plopper
and Rollberg (1996) studied students in the first media writing class and
found that "students do not believe that what they learned in English
composition courses transfers well to journalism courses" (p. 8).
High school English and writing instruction has been shown to lack
sufficient emphasis on grammar and basic language skills, although high
school journalism experience has generally been shown to have to have
positive effects on writing skills. Ryan and Findley (1982) found in a
study of journalism students at the University of West Virginia that many
students reported they were taught English language skills early in their
high school careers and then received little or no such instruction during
the remainder of high school. Further, those students who received
substantial grammar instruction in 12th grade English courses scored
significantly higher on a college-administered diagnostic English test than
those who did not study grammar in their senior year of high school.
Exploring the impact of high school English and journalism courses on
language skills, Dvorak (1990) found that students who took at least one
high school journalism course responded that they perceived journalism
courses prepared them to fulfill language skills competencies better than
English courses. Collins and Bissell (2002) studied university students'
self-efficacy (their confidence in their ability) and found that students
with high school journalism experience (newspaper or yearbook) had higher
levels of self-efficacy. In another study, Bissell and Collins (2001)
found that students with high school journalism experience wrote
significantly better stories than their peers without such experience. This
finding, too, held for both students with high school newspaper and
yearbook experience; however, the study also found that high school
journalism experience (newspaper or yearbook) was not a significant
predictor of student success on a grammar exam.
Writing and language skill self-efficacy. Several journalism and mass
communication scholars in recent years have adapted concepts from social
psychology and social learning theories to better understand predictors of
student writing success. The most common concept that has been studied is
student writing or language skill self-efficacy. Bandura (1978, 1986)
contends that as people reflect on their capabilities, one concept that is
important is their perceived self-efficacy. Self-efficacy has been tested
in many studies across numerous disciplines, and the pattern of results
supports that people who possess particular skills tend to have higher
self-efficacy in that particular skill area. Perceived self-efficacy also
affects behavior, as those people with higher levels of self-efficacy
appear to have more motivation and perseverance on tasks related to the
self-efficacy. Thus, self-efficacy can be understood as a type of
self-fulfilling prophesy (Collins & Bissell, 2002). Students who have
higher levels of self-efficacy have more confidence that they can succeed
at a task, so they are more likely to work harder and perform better, which
leads them to perceive a higher level of self-efficacy.
In a study of predictors of success in the first media writing course,
Bissell and Collins (2001) found that there was a "modest but significant"
correlation (r = .16) between self-efficacy and writing performance.
However, they also found no significant relationship between self-efficacy
and grammar scores. College GPA was the only variable in their study that
was significantly correlated with success on a writing test and a grammar
test. They concluded:
Students appear to be rather poor judges of their own command
of the rules of grammar. The fact that many students clearly have
deficiencies in this area yet fail to recognize this may be a byproduct
of the fact that many instructors at the high school and college levels
appear to pay little attention to grammar when grading assignments (p. 75).
Bissell and Collins suggest the relatively low (albeit significant)
correlation between language self-efficacy and writing performance is
evidence that students, who have written for years before arriving to
college, aren't very good judges of their own writing skills.
The next year Collins and Bissell (2002) surveyed students in an
introductory media writing course at the beginning and end of the semester,
looking for relationships between students' self-efficacy and several
performance and expectancy variables. At the beginning of the semester,
nearly four of five students (79 percent) rated themselves as confident in
their overall ability as students, but slightly less than half of the
students (48 percent) considered themselves strong writers. By the end of
the semester, the percentage considering themselves strong writers
increased to 66 percent. However, the trend was reversed when students were
asked to rate their language and grammar skills. The beginning of the
semester found "about three out of four" students (the authors do not
report a specific percentage) saying they had strong command of the English
language, but this figure dropped to 64 percent at the end of the term.
Similarly, 57 percent said they were confident in their grammar skills at
the beginning of the semester, but that number dropped to 48 percent at the
end of the course. The authors concluded "it seems telling that while
students generally consider themselves better overall writers at the end of
the semester, they express less confidence of their understanding of the
intricacies of language" (p. 29). The authors suggest this conclusion is
reinforced by an additional finding that even though students expressed
confidence that their writing skills improved over the course of the
semester, 35 percent reported a decrease in self-efficacy at the end of the
Language and grammar diagnostic exams as entrance requirements for JMC
programs. Oukrop and Brown (1977), in a survey the Association for
Education in Journalism President's Committee on Journalism Language
Skills, found that 27 percent of the programs surveyed required students to
take a language skills exam or similar test. The authors also reported that
another 28 percent of the programs responded that they would soon be adding
a required language skills exam. However, in a more recent study, Oukrup,
Brown and Parsons (1998) reported that most JMC schools apparently did not
make a language test a requirement, as 31 percent of those schools surveyed
reported having required language exams, and 60 percent reported they have
never had a required language exam. Interestingly, 7 percent of the schools
reported having a required exam in the past, but no longer. These schools
said they discontinued their exams because they were drains on the unit
resources or that faculty believed the exam was not a good predictor of
student success in the program.
John, Ruminski and Hanks (1991), in a survey of 380 AEJMC schools found
that 36.4 percent of the responding schools required an exam of English
writing skills. Of these schools, about half said they use the tests to
screen students, 27 percent said they use the exams to diagnose student
language problems, and 12 percent said they use the scores to predict
outcomes over time. Of those schools that require an exam, nearly 50
percent said the tests were written by their departments or programs; only
10.5 percent of the programs were using commercial exams. In the most
recently published study on the use of language skills exams in JMC
programs, Seamon (2001) found that 39 percent of the schools responding
indicated they tested the grammar competencies of incoming students, and 26
percent of the schools required students to pass the test before admitting
them to the JMC program. Seamon concludes that "the failure of J-schools to
adopt practices such as language competency exams on a large scale would
seem to suggest that grammar curricula reforms are a tough sell" (p. 62).
Oukrup, Brown & Parsons (1998) report that JMC schools have apparently
turned to other indicators for predicting student achievement and success,
with the three most common requirements being a minimum grade-point
average, completion of English composition course(s), and/or completion of
an introductory JMC course. The trend that has drawn the most support is
the creation of a minimum GPA; in 1977 only 4 percent of JMC schools had
such a requirement, in 1997, 39 percent had minimum GPA requirements for
admission in the JMC program.
In sum, the literature indicates a broad-based concern among educators that
language skills are not strong among students entering colleges and
universities, and this concern is especially relevant to JMC programs. A
substantial amount of research suggests that students are not getting
sufficient language and grammar instruction in their college English
composition courses, and this seems to be related to student perceptions
that they are good writers when they enter JMC programs, despite clear
language and grammar skill deficiencies. High school journalism experience
has been shown in several studies to be linked to stronger language skills
and higher self-efficacy for students entering JMC programs. Students also
perceive journalism courses are more focused on language and grammar skills
than English courses. Beyond this, studies show that students who have had
significant amounts of language skill and grammar instruction late in their
high school careers perform better on JMC-administered language and writing
skills entrance exams. During the past quarter century, the number of JMC
programs that require language and writing skills exams as a condition of
admission has remained relatively steady at about 25 to 30 percent. JMC
programs are increasingly relying on other measures (GPA, English
composition courses, and introductory JMC classes) to be predictors of
students' capability of succeeding in their programs. Finally, many
cross-disciplinary studies have shown self-efficacy to be an important
concept in predicting student performance; however, a recent study of
students in an introductory media writing course found that as students
became exposed to their language and grammar deficiencies in the course, 35
percent of them found their self-efficacy decreased during the semester.
Based on the literature and the researcher's interest in better
understanding the language skills pre-JMC students perceive they have as
they enter an AEJMC-accredited program, the following research questions
were posed and hypotheses tested:
RQ1: How much language skill instruction do students seeking entrance to
the JMC college perceive they have had? Do students think they have had an
adequate amount of language skill instruction to successfully gain entrance
in the JMC program?
RQ2: What is the level of the students' perceived language skill self-efficacy?
RQ3: Is there a significant relationship between amount of language skill
instruction and perceived language skill self-efficacy?
H1: Students who report greater amounts of language skill instruction will
have higher perceived language skill self-efficacy.
RQ4: Is there a significant relationship between amount of language skill
instruction and grades on the JMC school's required Language Skills Test?
RQ5: What variables are the strongest predictors of success on the JMC
school's required Language Skills Test?
H2: Amounts of language skill instruction will be a significant predictor
of the score on the JMC school's required Language Skills Test.
H3: Language skill self-efficacy will be a significant predictor of the
score on the JMC school's required Language Skills Test.
Pre-JMC students at a major southwestern university were asked to complete
a 23-statement survey following their completion of the JMC college's
Language Skills Test, a requirement for admission into the college's
introductory level media writing course. Prior to taking the test, students
are required to have completed two English composition courses at the
college or university level, or show evidence that they possess the skills
taught in those classes. Most students taking the LST are second-semester
freshman or sophomores.
The surveys were administered by the JMC college's academic adviser
between October 2002 and May 2003. The adviser asked students upon their
completion of the LST if they would complete the survey. Participation was
voluntary. The students were guaranteed confidentiality. Informed consent
was obtained from all participants. The study's protocol was approved by
the university's Institutional Review Board.
Variable measures. The survey was designed to measure variables the
literature suggested are important to language and writing skill ability,
including: amount of language skill and grammar instruction prior to taking
the LST, the grade students reported earning on their most recent
college-level English composition, the extent to which they like to write,
their language and writing self-efficacy, and their grade on the LST. Most
of the measures are based on 5-point, Likert-like intensity scales with
responses ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For all
measures, responses were coded so that the higher the measure, the more
positive the response to the concept (e.g., higher measures reflect more
language instruction). Demographic measures of gender and ethnicity were
also included as control variables.
The amount of language skills instruction was measured by two statements (r
= .317, p < .001): "Overall, I received enough language skills instruction
in high school and college to be prepared to pass the LST," and "Identify
the last the last year in high school you studied English grammar"
(response options were: I didn't' study grammar in high school, 9th, 10th,
11th, 12th grades).
Students were asked to self-report their grades on the most recent English
composition course they took at the college or university. One statement –
"I like to write" -- measured their attitudes toward writing.
The self-efficacy construct was measured by three statements (Cronbach's
alpha = .63): "I find the rules of grammar and usage confusing" (responses
to this statement were recoded so that agreement reflected higher
self-efficacy), "I consider my English language skills to be:", and "I
consider my writing skills to be:". On these last two statements students
were provided five options ranging from poor to excellent. This measure of
self-efficacy borrows one statement (I find the rules of grammar and usage
confusing) from Bissell and Collins (2001) and Collins and Bissell (2002).
These authors used different measures of self-efficacy in their two
studies; the first study used seven statements, the second used five. In
both cases, the self-efficacy measure used by these researchers was created
to reflect skills beyond language and writing (for example, in one study
they asked students whether they perceived themselves to be good students,
and in the other study asked students about their abilities to remember
details and thrive under pressure). This researcher thought these types of
statements measured issues broader than language and writing self-efficacy,
so they were discarded for the current study.
The students' grades on the LST were recorded on the survey by the JMC
college adviser after the tests results were calculated. The LST is an
80-question exam with sections on word usage, spelling, identifying parts
of speech and parts of a sentence, punctuation and grammar. A score of 70
percent (56 correct answers) is required to pass the exam. Students receive
three opportunities to take the exam. If they don't pass on their second
effort, students are advised to take the JMC college's remedial course in
language skills prior to taking the exam the third time.
During the period the survey was administered, a total of 313 students took
the LST. Of these, 225 completed the survey, a response rate of 71.9
percent. More than a third (34.6 percent) reported having "clepped" out of
one English composition course (placed out based on high school advanced
placement courses or a diagnostic exam given through the English
department), and 18.6 percent said they clepped out of both English
composition courses required by the university. Of those who took English
composition in college, 64.4 percent said they made "A" on their most
recent composition course, and 26.8 percent reported making "B"; together,
this means that more than 9 of 10 students (91.2 percent) taking the LST
reported earning at least a "B" in their most recent English composition
course. The mean score on the exam for all respondents was 57.59 (56 is
the minimum passing score); there were no significant differences based on
attempts at the exam (first attempt mean = 57.14; second attempt mean =
56.48; third attempt mean = 56.58). Of all students taking the exam
(regardless of attempt), 60.3 percent passed the exam, and 39.7 percent
By gender, 70.3 percent of respondents are women, and 29. 7 percent are
men. Ethnicity data show that 2.8 percent of the respondents are African
American, 1.4 percent are Asian American, 5.5 percent are Hispanic, 8.3
percent are Native American, 79.4 percent are white, and 2.8 percent
indicated international student or other. Because the number of responding
students of many ethnicities is small, the ethnicity variable was recoded
for statistical analysis into minority and white. Differences by gender and
ethnicity are discussed below.
The first research question asked the amount of language skill instruction
students had prior to seeking entrance to the JMC college, and whether they
perceived this amount of instruction was adequate to prepare them to pass
the LST. As a partial answer to this question, students were asked to
indicate the last year in high school that they studied English grammar.
Approximately two of five students reported they studied grammar as
seniors; however approximately one of eight said they didn't study any
grammar in high school (See Table 1).
Table 1: Last year in high school that students studied English grammar
Never studied grammar 28 12.4
Ninth grade 27 12.0
Tenth grade 33 14.7
Eleventh grade 41 18.2
Twelfth grade 96 42.7
Totals 225 100.0
Students were also asked if they thought they had received sufficient
language instruction in high school and college to pass the LST. Their mean
response (on a five-point scale where 1 = strongly agree, 2 = somewhat
agree, 3 = neutral, 4 = somewhat agree, and 5 = strongly agree) was 3.44
(SD = 1.19). This response falls almost squarely between neutral and
somewhat agree. In other words, this response suggests that students show
tentative agreement that the totality of their language skill instruction
(in both high school and college) was sufficient for them to pass the test.
Those students who said they took college English composition courses were
asked one additional question about how much grammar instruction was in
these courses. Their response options ranged from 1 = none, 2 = very
little, 3 = some, 4 = quite a lot, and 5 = a great deal. The mean response
to this statement was 2.27 (SD = .90), which means that students who took
composition in college remember receiving slightly more than "very little"
These findings support much of the previous research that suggests many
high school students do not receive grammar instruction in their later high
school years, and at the college level there is very little emphasis on
grammar in English composition courses. Perhaps most interesting, though,
is that despite this relative dearth of instruction, students show slight
agreement that they've received enough language skill and grammar
instruction to prepare them to pass the college's required language skills
The second research question asked what is the level of the students'
perceived language skill self-efficacy? To answer this question, the
responses to the three statements used to create the self-efficacy
construct were averaged to create a self-efficacy quotient (responses were
coded so that the higher the measure, the higher the self-efficacy). This
self-efficacy quotient is 3.50 (See Table 2). This result suggests that
students see their overall language and writing skills as between "average"
and "above average." However, a look at the individual statements in the
construct provides additional insights. Students are much less confident in
their grammar and usage than in their language and writing skills. This
suggests a couple things. First, students tend to see language skills as
something other than grammar and usage, as they clearly rate themselves as
more confident on "language skills" than grammar and usage. Second, despite
their uncertainty about grammar and usage, students rate their writing
skills as close to "above average," the highest of the three statements
measures. This, too, suggests that students distinguish their perceptions
of their writing skills from their grammar and usage skills. The data
suggest that students perceive they are above average writers, even when
they aren't so sure of their grammar and usage skills.
Table 2: Student perceptions of their language and writing skill self-efficacy
N Mean SD
Self-efficacy quotient 224 3.50 .66
I find the rules of grammar 225 3.04 1.10
and usage confusing
*I consider my English language 224 3.69 .74
skills to be:
*I consider my writing skills 225 3.85 .70
*(these statements used the following scale: 1 = poor, 2 = below average, 3
4 = above average, 5 = excellent)
Research question three asked whether there is a significant relationship
between the amount of language skill instruction and perceived language and
writing skill self-efficacy. Because there is a substantial body of
research suggesting that the more instruction one receives on a subject,
the more confident one should be in that subject area, a hypothesis was
posed that predicted students who report greater amounts of language and
writing skill instruction will have higher perceived self-efficacy. This
hypothesis was tested by a correlation between amount of instruction and
self-efficacy. The correlation between the constructs is positive and
significant (r = .339, p < .001). The hypothesis is supported. The data
reveal that as language and writing instruction increases, levels of
self-efficacy increase as well, and those students who report lower amounts
of instruction also have lower language and writing skill self-efficacy.
The fourth research question asked whether there is a significant
relationship between amount of language skill instruction and grades on the
JMC school's required Language Skills Test. The correlation of the two
constructs is .132 (p = .048), which is significant, but not strong, as it
explains less than 2 percent of the variance between the variables (r2 =
1.742). The data indicate that as the amount of language skill instruction
increases, LST grades increase, and less instruction is related to lower
LST grades. However, given the relatively low correlation, there are other
variables that need to be considered.
Toward this end, research question five asked what variables are the
strongest predictors of success on the JMC school's required Language
Skills Test. To answer this question, a regression model was built, with
the independent variables ethnicity, gender, self-efficacy, liking to
write, amount of instruction, and grade on most recent college-level
English composition course. The dependent variable is LST score. The
research suggests these hypotheses: The amount of language skill
instruction will be a significant predictor of the score on the JMC
school's required Language Skills Test, and language and writing skill
self-efficacy will be a significant predictor of the score on the JMC
school's required Language Skills Test.
In constructing the regression model, the researcher used the enter method,
controlling first for ethnicity and gender. As the data indicate, when all
the independent variables are considered, the significant predictors of
passing the LST are self-efficacy and liking to write (See Table 3).
Hypothesis two predicted amount of instruction would be a significant
predictor of the LST score. This hypothesis was not supported (standardized
beta = .056, sig. = .417). Hypothesis three predicted that self-efficacy
would significantly predict the LST score. This hypothesis was supported
(standardized beta = .290, sig. = .000), as self-efficacy was the strongest
predictor of score on the LST of all the independent variables, explaining
13.2 percent of the variance.
Table 3: Regression Model , standarized beta weights and adjusted R2 on LST
Block 1 Block 2 Block 3 Block 4 Block 5
Stand. Stand. Stand. Stand.
Beta Beta Beta Beta
Ethnicity -.135* -.078 -.087 -.090
Gender -.086 -.084 -.085 -.092
Self-efficacy .371** .319** .303** .290**
Liking to write .140* .143* .153*
Amount of .043 .056
Eng Comp grade .095
Cumulative .015 .147 .157 .160 .162
adjusted r square
This study finds, much like previous studies, that students perceive their
writing skills to be relatively strong, but they aren't so sure about their
grammar and usage skills. Despite these reservations about grammar and
usage skills, students indicate mild agreement that they had sufficient
preparation (in high and college) to pass the language skills test that is
required for entrance into the first media writing course. In terms of high
school instruction, approximately 60 percent of the pre-JMC students did
not study grammar in their senior year of high school, and one in eight
students say they did not study any grammar in high school. This study also
supports previous studies that found students do not think they are getting
much grammar and usage (basic language skills) in college English
composition. This means for a clear majority of pre-JMC students that by
the time they have fulfilled the JMC college's general education
requirements and are ready to take the LST (usually their sophomore year),
it has been at least two years, and in most cases three, since students
have had substantial instruction in grammar. Perhaps these findings begin
to explain why students don't feel as confident in their grammar and usage
skills as their writing skills. The data also indicate that if pre-JMC
students don't get sufficient language skills instruction in high school,
they aren't going to get it in college before they begin JMC classes. This
finding suggests that high school English and journalism teachers serve
their students well when they make language skills and grammar an important
part of the high school curricula.
Several studies have found that students entering JMC programs have
unrealistic evaluations of their language and writing ability. This study
produces data that both support and refute this notion. In perceptions of
their ability, students clearly distinguish their grammar and usage skills
from their language skills and writing ability. In general, respondents in
this study say they like to write (mean = 4.25 on a scale of 1 to 5, where
5 = strongly agree), have above average language skills and above average
writing ability. However, they aren't so sure of their grammar and usage
skills. In other words, the pre-JMC students in this study don't think
their lack of grammar and usage skills holds them back as writers or is
likely to prevent them from being successful on the LST. This seems to
support those studies that have found students might not be very good
judges of their writing. Considered another way, 64.4 percent of the
students in this study reported making "A" on their most recent English
composition course (91.2 percent said they made at least "B"), and these
same students reported receiving "very little" grammar instruction in
English composition. The lesson students seem to take from their
composition experience is that they are good to excellent writers, even if
they find the rules of grammar and language confusing.
However, self-efficacy was the strongest predictor of scores on the LST,
which seems to suggest that students' perceptions of their language and
writing skills might be more accurate than many JMC faculty and researchers
think. This finding seems to illustrate a core assumption of Bandura's work
in self-efficacy. Bandura (1986) asserts that self-efficacy in a subject or
skill area mediates the effects of actual skills because self-efficacy
increases effort, persistence and perseverance. Students with higher
self-efficacy have more confidence they can succeed at a task, so they work
harder at it, which generally leads to stronger performance, which in turn
increases levels of self-efficacy. This type of self-fulfilling prophecy is
supported by the data in this study, which finds self-efficacy a stronger
predictor of LST performance than the amount of language instruction
students report having or their grade on their most recent English
This finding might also begin to explain why Hypothesis 2 -- The amount of
language skill instruction would be a significant predictor of LST score --
was not supported. The data show a significant correlation between amount
of instruction and self-efficacy (r = .339,
p < .001), and the amount of instruction and score on the LST (r = .132, p
= .048). Yet, when the more robust regression test looked at the relative
impact of all the independent variables on LST score, it was self-efficacy
-- not the amount of instruction -- that predicts LST score. These are
interesting results. Students are getting their self-efficacy from
somewhere, and although one can not claim causation based on tests of
correlation, there is a moderately strong relationship between the amount
of instruction they receive and their self-efficacy. Attribution theory
would suggest that students attribute their success and skill to their
internal capabilities (their skill) more than external causes (the
instruction they have received). Although this study did not attempt to
test attribution theory per se, the findings suggest that self-efficacy is
a complex process, and its sources or causes might not be easily -- or
uniformly -- identified.
There are several shortcomings that should be discussed. First, this study
-- based on a sample of students from one university -- can not be
generalized. Although, anecdotally, it appears the demographic variables of
ethnicity (approximately 80 percent white, 20 percent minority) and gender
(approximately 70 percent female, 30 percent male) are quite close to those
of students entering JMC programs. Second, the timing of administering the
survey might have impacted some responses. Students were asked to complete
the survey immediately after completing the LST. Their perceptions on how
they fared on the exam might have impacted their responses to statements on
the survey that asked them to assess their skill levels. However, it
appears the most important issue is a lack of tested measures. The
self-efficacy measure in this study was different from that used in earlier
studies, but the two most recent JMC-based studies that considered
self-efficacy used two different measures of self-efficacy in them.
Self-efficacy appears to be an important variable in language skill
competency and fertile ground for future studies, but there needs to be
more agreement on how to measure it. In this study, the focus was on
language skills (grammar, usage and writing), but in the Collins and
Bissell studies, they are studying broader concepts of self-efficacy
(including ability to thrive under pressure and make deadlines). Future
research should consider refining a self-efficacy measure as it relates to
language and writing skills.
This study adds a modest amount to the work on self-efficacy as a predictor
of language and writing skills. In this way, it contributes to a small, but
growing, body of research on the impact of self-perceptions on writing
skills and outcomes on standardized language tests. More important to
scholastic educators is that the findings in this study suggest that they
do their students a service if they make a considerable effort to teach the
basics of the English language. This study finds that students are not
getting much grammar and basic language instruction in their college
composition courses. This study also finds that students enter their JMC
programs saying they like to write, and their moderately high level of
self-efficacy suggests they are motivated and willing to work at improving
their language and writing skills. This suggests that a challenge for high
school instructors is to strike a balance -- one that provides a stronger
foundation in grammar and language while maintaining students' enthusiasm
and affinity for writing.
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