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Students’ writing skills far below par

Researchers from Groningen develop new measurement method
28 April 2014

A sample of first-year students (20 in Higher Professional Education [HBO] and 10 at university) made dozens of mistakes in each 500-word page they wrote. The HBO students made 81 mistakes on average, their peers at university 42. The study showing this is part of a larger research project aimed at developing techniques to measure writing skills. In addition to their measurement method, researchers Anouk van Eerden (Hanze University Groningen) and Mik van Es (University of Groningen) have also created an online language skills course that quickly reduces the number of writing mistakes by twenty percent. Van Eerden and Van Es will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 8 May.

Although the complaint that first-year students have poor writing skills is timeless, there has never before been a method to objectively measure the number of mistakes they make when writing. These mistakes mainly concern misused and redundant words, poor sentence construction, illogical paragraphs and punctuation errors. Perhaps surprisingly, ‘d/t’ mistakes (in Dutch verb endings) are relatively rare. Van Es and Van Eerden only regard an error as a real mistake if at least two out of four independent assessors mark it as such. Their study also shows that inter-assessor reliability is so high that the assessment of just one assessor usually suffices.

Impact on intelligibility

Anouk van Eerden: ‘The number of mistakes boggles the mind. Apparently, students have never learned to write flawlessly. But it’s not just about these mistakes – content is supported by the form of the text. If the formal aspects are poor, the content becomes very ambiguous. We asked students to assess each others’ texts and it appears that the number of mistakes greatly affects the assessments of the students too.’

Double PhD

Van Eerden carried out the research project in collaboration with her husband Mik van Es. As a language skills instructor, she was amazed at the number of mistakes made by first-year students, which is why she initiated the study. She initially asked her husband – an educational psychologist and statistics lecturer – to solve various methodological problems and he became increasingly involved in the project. Van Es: ‘Although these samples are small, they are random and sufficiently accurate for our purpose. No matter how you spin this, it is clear that students are no longer able to write flawlessly and that secondary schools fail in this respect.’


The researchers have developed an online language programme called TAVAN (TAalVAardigheid Nieuw: New Language Skills) to help students improve their language skills. Unlike traditional teaching methods, this programme proves highly effective. In a relatively short time, the number of mistakes drops by twenty percent. Van Eerden: ‘The bad news is that first-year students make a lot of mistakes when writing. This has been pointed out many times but we can now substantiate this with concrete data. The good news is that, in principle, we can remedy this situation.’

The title of their PhD thesis is Meten en maximaliseren van basale schrijfvaardigheid bij eerstejaarsstudenten in het hoger beroepsonderwijs (Measuring and optimizing basic writing skills of first-year students in higher professional education). Their PhD supervisor is Prof. C.L.J. de Bot.

More information

For more information about this study and this double PhD, contact Anouk van Eerden, a.van.eerden[at], and/or Mik van Es, mikvanes[at]

Last modified:13 March 2020 02.19 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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