Are students using the language of social media in their papers? Tough question

Photo: 123rf, DUB

Students’ academic language skills are deteriorating quickly, UCU lecturer Guus de Krom said in an interview with DUB last month.

According to him, when writing essays or exam answers, students tend to ramble on in long, vague formulations in the hope that their "shot in the dark" accidentally hits the mark. Moreover, many students struggle with the academic jargon teachers expect them to utilise and they indiscriminately include their own opinions in their work. 

De Krom says in the interview: “It is my impression that students have more and more difficulty to formulate adequately. That might be due to social media language...”

This inspired us to ask the DUB panel whether they have noticed the same phenomenon. Do they think students’ academic work is being influenced by the widespread use of social media?

However, it looks like the question is harder than it seems. Not only was the number of members who responded to our query limited, those who did often declared that they did not see a direct link between their observations and social media language. But that there are often things wrong with students’ formulations… That is recognised alright.

Educational scientist Casper Hulshof:
“I don’t have any instances that come to mind. I have not come across any emojis in a thesis, for example. I've noticed that the phrasing used in e-mails has become a bit more informal, but I don’t mind.

“When it comes to papers, students sometimes confuse academic jargon with (what I call) officialese. In papers written in Dutch, I sometimes see obscure formulations such as daar (a rather old-fashioned term to express causation, Ed.) instead of omdat (which means "because", Ed.) and welke (old-fashioned term to refer to an aforementioned element, Ed.) because students think that looks more academic.”

Innovation scientist Frank van Rijnsoever:
“I’ve never noticed it, but I’m not on any social media. I do see administrative, formal and stiff formulations, though. Additionally, students often use unnecessarily difficult words, which doesn’t help readability.”

Cultural anthropologist Bouke van Gorp:
“The knowledge of basic grammar rules, such as sentence analysis and verb conjugation (knowing when to add a D, T or DT at the end of Dutch verbs) has not been great for some years. But I don’t know whether that is being caused by social media.

“What I’ve noticed is that students (probably because they start writing too late) do not have the time to transform the English words from the literature into their own words in Dutch in a decent manner. That results in ugly sentences, which I can only decipher when I think about what the English version could have been.

“I think it’s a matter of assessing a task properly. Students should know that good writing takes time. They should be able to put their paper away for a day so they can look at it critically later.

“And yes, some students do use complex formulations and unnecessary fluff. That’s not nice to read either.”

Master’s student of Cancer Stem Cells & Development Biology Sterre van Wierst:
“Maybe it differs per study programme? In the programme I follow (Biomedical Sciences), ‘quality over quantity’ and ‘concise writing pleases both yourself and your reader’ are usually the rules that apply. In the hard sciences, there is not as much room for your own opinions or interpretations, we learn about the structure of specific written academic products from the beginning.

“I do have to say that we sometimes spout nonsense when answering an unclear exam question or assignment. Is social media to blame for that? No, it is rather the pressure to perform. Admitting that you do not understand something usually doesn’t get you any points and something is better than nothing.

“Is the English language perhaps ruining our Dutch language skills? That's not much of an issue for us either, really. Most of our assignments are in English. Moreover, you can look at your literature references to obtain examples of academic jargon.”

Career orientation coordinator Bart Mijland:
“As a career orientation coordinator, I encounter it often. It’s clear that social media language makes its way to e-mails, CVs and cover letters every now and then. I’m talking about simple d/t mistakes in Dutch, sentence structure, and English expressions that are translated a bit too literally.

“I try to have the student see things from the perspective of the preferred internship organisation, customer or employer. If you want to get an interview at a hip startup, then using informal language is fine. But if you're applying for a position at a ministry, doing that is bound to lead to undesired results.

“At UU's Career Services, students can ask for advice for free. Language is continuously developing and I have no doubt that our norms will have changed in fifty years. That doesn’t matter, as long as we keep trying to communicate clearly. Then it’s never a one-way street.”

Law student Stephan Verhulst:
“I think it’s difficult to say whether social media have influenced academic work. To me, it seems that this subject should be researched academically. I don’t really concern myself with social media.

“De Krom’s article does make a connection between the answers students give and the answers they hope will score them points. I sometimes still use the ‘shot in the dark’ strategy. Those ‘strategies’ are actually really damaging to the quality of education. Students shouldn’t concern themselves with the answers they think lecturers want to hear, but rather with conveying the knowledge they possess at that time.

“The best solution I know is programmatic assessment. If the focus shifted from exams to personal development, students would really deliver academically.”

Chemist Stefan Rudiger:
“On social media, going straight to the point is an important skill. But, apart from that, I don’t see any social media terminology in my exams. I think it’s good when teachers formulate their exam questions along with a clarification of what they expect from the answer, like saying “answer in two or three sentences”. I have noticed that students are using the books less, which makes it harder for them to understand the context. I've also observed that reading comprehension has declined. It’s a challenge to do something in that regard.”