Student writing: what makes it work?
Type of snapshot
- Central services provision
- Learner-led provision
What was the context for this snapshot?
The context was a recognised need to improve standards of academic writing, critical thinking and reflection across the institution. Specific challenges at the University of Plymouth included the diversity of student intake and a strong widening participation agenda. Students struggle with expectations of academic writing in assignments, particularly in the first year, as is clear from those referring themselves to the learning development service for support. The Writing for Assignments e-Library (Wrasse) was devised by a National Teaching Fellow and originally funded by the ILT. Its most recent phase of development has been supported by the LearnHigher CETL.
Evidence that students particularly value examples of good writing in assignments came from original research at Plymouth:
- Hilsdon J. 1999: “Awareness of Language on a BA Undergraduate Programme” in Thompson P (ed.). “Academic Writing Development”, University of Reading
- Hilsdon, J. and Evans M. 2003: “Developing Student Writing: Example-based functional analysis” Paper delivered for the European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing conference, June 2003, Budapest
- Abbey, C., Hilsdon, J. and Newcombe, M. 2004: “Student Assignment Project: An Online Resource for the Development of Students‟ Academic Writing” paper presented to the ALT-C Conference, University of Exeter, September 2004.
- Hilsdon, J. 2007: “What are academics looking for in students‟ written work? The WrAssE Project” Paper presented at LearnHigher Research Symposium, Liverpool Hope University, June 2007, online at: http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/eventsandnews/learnhighereventsandnews/researchreports.htm
What kind of learners were involved in accessing this provision or support?
The WrAssE resources are ended for all undergraduates, and particularly first years as they encounter academic expectations about their written assignments early in their university career. WrAssE was always intended to be cross-disciplinary and is based on a generic ‘social-functional’ model of critical thinking, but in recognition of students’ preferences for examples close to their own subject area, it is populated with examples from as wide a range of disciplines as possible.
At present students can access WrAssE informally as an aid to study, and by recommendation from academics and the learning development team. Some twenty academic staff have contributed materials to WrAssE, several of whom have also embedded the resources into their teaching. In time it is hoped that use of WrAssE will be further integrated into programmes of study.
What skills or literacies were particularly being addressed?
Academic writing for assignments, critical thinking, reflection. The underlying model used was the social-functional or narrative model of critical thinking http://www.learnhigher.ac.uk/Download-document/276-Critical_Thinking_model_flyerJD.htm with adaptations that were made in the course of consultation with academic staff. Academics were asked to classify their feedback on student writing according to a framework of functions and qualities: http://www.learningdevelopment.plymouth.ac.uk/wrasse/help_key.html#describe
Who provided the support? How was support provided?
Support is provided via the WrAssE web site which gives students access to a searchable database of student texts and academic commentary. The texts are extracts from genuine student assignments: the commentary is far more detailed than the original feedback but has been produced by the original academics under guidance from the WrAssE team. Students can access these resources alone or with the guidance of the learning development team. In future it is hoped to add self-study resources to the examples, and to work with more of the original academics to embed WrAssE resources into programmes of study.
Benefits, outcomes, and lessons learned
WrAssE has yet to be fully evaluated but student users have been widely consulted in the development of the interface and commentaries.
The academic staff involved in submitting resources and writing the detailed guidance were extremely positive about the experience. They attended a workshop and were given personal follow-up support to express what was ‘good’ about the student writing they had selected. The project has worked to enhance academic staff skills in giving feedback on student writing and supporting the development of critical thinking.
We have learned that it is difficult to get academics to provide this kind of detailed feedback on students’ work, and to make more explicit their understanding of what makes for ‘good’ student writing.
We are very keen to make WrAssE a genuine repository where students and staff can comment on work, and upload new examples, but we have focused on collecting a critical mass of high quality, relevant examples in the first instance. We would be keen to learn from others who have taken a more web 2.0 oriented approach to sharing students’ written work and feedback on it.