A lot of students write badly but we don’t know why

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“A lot of students write badly but we don’t know why” – an investigation into the perceptions, beliefs and experience of academic teaching staff regarding student writing problems in one institutional context

  • Richard Bailey
  • University of Aberdeen
  • r.bailey@abdn.ac.uk

Context, conduct and focus of the research

  • Context - UK ‘new’/post-92 university
  • Research strategy – an institutional case study realised through a critical ethnographic-style inquiry involving semi-structured interviews; open and exploratory talk
  • Participants – cross section of academic teaching staff, 48 in total from diverse disciplinary backgrounds: traditional humanities, applied and hybrid disciplines in social and applied sciences and ‘emergent’ disciplines

Respondents were asked the following:

  • What is student writing in your discipline? / What particular features distinguish student writing in your discipline? / What expectations are there of student writers?
  • Is student academic writing changing?
  • What innovations in student writing practices and assessments have taken place in the school/department/in the modules you teach?

Presentation of the data

  • Excerpts from the data which illustrate:
  • Staff perceptions and beliefs about student writing at the transcriptional/basic skills level
  • Their expectations and beliefs about students’ academic writing capabilities generally
  • Students’ academic writing and heterogeneity in assessment practices
  • Staff experience of, and views on student writing and assessment in and across study areas
  • An extended excerpt illustrating the experience and perspective of an individual teacher

1. Staff perceptions about students’ writing at the transcriptional/basic skills level

  • Sometimes students try to be overcomplicated. Other times they simply don’t write well at all. We do not penalise directly for poor grammar. There is a limit to how much time as teachers we could and should spend on correcting poor English. I refer them to the study skills centre. (History)
  • [Students] take study skills in the first year but this doesn’t always filter through into their writing. Even in the core courses in the second year students are badly in need of assistance in basic writing skills (English)
  • The literacy issue is two-fold: home students have poor grammar and the overseas students can’t write (Business School)
  • My view is that it [poor student writing] is not to do with aptitude or rationality; it is to do with poor grammar. What makes a difference is what they read and their exposure to different writing styles… It is because students rarely have to write (Applied Sciences)
  • Sentence structure and grammar can be a real problem. They have difficulty structuring complex thought in a way that is comprehensible to the reader. When they get into argument there is often a morass of messy words. They borrow ideas and barely paraphrase them or do so badly. Many students can write well in certain circumstances but the assignment is not the right one. When they talk through the assignment with the teacher they generally do better because the teacher provides the structure (Education)

2. Expectations and beliefs about students’ academic writing capabilities in general

  • Essay writing is a test of ability to express yourself well in writing. The facility to write in the academy needs to be built up over time starting with building blocks (History)
  • I have run an essay lab for students in their third year because they are weak at writing essays. We are encouraged to devise innovative assessment and then the students are put through exams in which they write discursively. We haven’t given them the skills to write essays (Psychology)
  • We are required to keep nursing records. Students learn how to use the appropriate phraseology or turn of phrase to manage this. Student writing practices are driven by professional requirements. It usually takes students a good six months to get the hang of how to write in the academic style… The traditional essay is the common requirement across courses. Students misread questions or fail to use support from the literature. Students also have to write reflectively and produce reflective essays. This can be a source of confusion (Nursing)

3. Students’ academic writing and heterogeneity in assessment and practices

  • Student writing includes seminar logs, exam questions, portfolios and biographies, essays, reports and diaries (Sociology)
  • Normally students write reports. There is some discussion and referencing but it is not a ‘statement and discuss’ type assignment. However, there are exams in which students have to write discursively. There are differences between courses as they require different ways of writing (Business School)
  • We would never accept writing in the first person; the standard style that is required is the third person. There may be areas of the School where it is the case they write differently. I don’t know about that. (Computing, Engineering and Information Sciences)
  • In Geography some modules are applied but many are theoretically based. We don’t have many report based assignments. We still use traditional essays of two or three thousand words (Applied Sciences)
  • In the Environmental division there is great diversity in the way students are required to write: field-trip write-ups, essays, lab reports. We don’t define what our style is. Several years ago [students’ writing] skills were not considered good enough. What employers want is a more report style of writing. There was something of a transition from essays to reports. (Applied Sciences)

4. Student writing and assessment in and across areas of study

  • People are obsessed with referencing and plagiarism nowadays…A lot depends on the audience and the objective of the writing, of course. Students are confused by practices between modules. There are differences of opinion about what is acceptable and we [teachers] have different standards (Computing, Engineering and Information Sciences)
  • It is quite clear that they [students] confuse ‘assertion’ and ‘evidence’ and that they don’t quite understand what a consistent argument is nor what is required with structure…Using a quotation is not enough. That’s a particular bug-bear of mine. They do it in the social sciences. (History)
  • Staff have certain views on academic standards. For example how big words like ‘argument’ or ‘structure’ are used. We could sit down and discuss what these words mean but we wouldn’t necessarily agree. (Sociology)
  • Different interpretations of words do occur when staff talk; during moderation for example. The process can reveal big differences in the way people see things like ‘structure’. Practices vary among staff and across the branches [of Nursing]

5. Issues and concerns in student writing and assessment: a teacher’s perspective

  • We have many joint degrees with other departments. The system of writing or their structure [in other discipline areas] is not the same as ours. What we have is a pick n’ mix situation. Students have to switch from different modes of thinking and writing. There is too much marketing going on for joints that maybe aren’t really feasible. Before coming into academia I was out in the big wide world. I have a slightly different view of things and about how people learn. They have preferential learning styles…
  • We have to value essays because they are the best way of synthesising knowledge. They are absolutely essential for assessment. But in an interdisciplinary degree structure we are measuring different things. It is something we [the department] are going to have to talk about. They [students] need to understand why we ask them to write in certain ways and we need to show more understanding of the difficulties they face to retain students. Those on joints are particularly vulnerable (Social Sciences)

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