Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

UWA expectations of academic writing at Australian universities: Work in progress

Anibeth Desierto
Graduate School of Education
The University of Western Australia
The poster will illustrate in graphical and tabular form with brief explanatory texts the results of research conducted on academic faculty expectations regarding nine major features of students' academic writing: Content, Argument, Style, Organisation, Use of Literature, Grammar, Communicative Ability, Vocabulary and Punctuation. These research data were collected in three different ways from faculties at UWA as part of a national survey being conducted by a network of teacher-researchers from six Australian universities. Results from Macquarie University, University of Wollongong, University of Canberra and Flinders University have been summarised by Denise Bush et al in a paper presented at the March 1996 First National Conference on Tertiary Literacy and this poster displaying results from UWA collected and analysed by A. Desierto will be integrated into the national results. There will be reference to the data from the other universities in the poster.

There is concern at present with what is perceived to be a decline in literacy levels in Western societies (Agger 1991). In Australia although some research suggests there has been no decrease in literacy standards among university level students (Bourke and Holbrook 1992), others point to evidence of such a crucial fall (Buckley 1993, Moens and de Lacey 1993, Connolly 1994 and Ljungdahl 1991).

Recognition by the Australian government that a decline in literacy levels is occurring has led to public-funded studies and the formation of agencies for the creation of a national literacy policy and implementation of strategies to arrest this decline (Baldauf Jr. 1996).

More significantly, a number of university faculties in Australia have begun to integrate remedial, academic skills and study skills programmes into mainstream degree courses as a means of teaching university students basic writing and reading strategies as well as discipline-specific discourses. (Such skills are also being taught in pre-tertiary language courses and bridging courses - see Felix and Lawson 1994). In undertaking such an integration, Australian universities are intervening in this process of literacy decline and attempting to empower their students for success in their university studies (see papers from the National Tertiary Literacy Conference 1996, Victoria University of Technology and Proceedings of the Conference held at La Trobe University, November 21-22, 1994 on Integrating the Teaching of Academic Discourse into Courses in the Disciplines).

The empowerment of students to enable them to function effectively with the necessary literacy skills has been argued for by many educa- tors (Freire 1990, Freebody and Luke 1990, Freebody and Welch 1990, Gee 1990, Lankshear and Lawler 1987).

There is however not enough information about the writing requirements of Australian academics in relation to specific disciplines. Teachers of literacy skills need to know what Australian academics expect of their students' written work in order to be able to train students in a way which would effectively equip them for writing tasks at university (Bush 1996, Johns 1993). Students also need to know what is expected of them in term of writing skills and discipline- specific discourse at university (Johns 1993).

Study of writing expectations at Australian universities

This study is part of a nationwide survey conducted since 1994 at seven universities in Australia. The aim of the study is to ascertain the expec- tations of tertiary academic faculty staff in Australia regarding the writing of their students. The study arose out of a paper given by Denise Bush at the 1994 ACTA-WATESOL Conference in Perth where she discussed the results of her investigation into what faculty at the University of Canberra expect of their students' writing and how expectations differed between faculties.

Since then, Denise had agreed to form a group with researchers (which includes the author of this paper) from six other Australian universities who, like her, were involved in designing and teaching EAP (English for Academic Purposes) programmes to overseas students and were interested in acquiring more accurate information as to what was required of students at Australian universities regarding their writing.

The results from four of the universities involved in the study have been collated and summarised in a paper presented by Denise Bush (1994) at the First National Tertiary Literacy Conference in March 1996. In addition to the results from the four universities, this paper presents the data acquired from the fifth university involved in this "work in progress". In 1994-1995, the author conducted a similar study at the University of Western Australia (UWA) to that conducted at the first four universities.

Data collection

The questionnaire used in the survey of UWA faculties was trialled in a pilot study and distributed to all academic staff at the UC; and then used in the survey of the six other Australian universities involved in this research.

The size of the sample as covered in Denise Bush's paper (1996) was:

Response rate
Macquarie University211 respondents29%
Univ. of Wollongong283 respondents48%
Univ. of Canberra260 respondents22%
Flinders University260 respondents41%
Total of867 respondents35%

The sample size from UWA was 123 respondents, 17%.

Through a Likert-type scale, the viewpoints of faculty on nine main features of academic writing were obtained. These features are: Content, Argument, Style, Organisation, Use of Literature, Grammar, Communicative Ability, Vocabulary and Punctuation.

Faculty were asked to indicate L (for little or no agreement), M (for moderate agreement), S (for strong agreement) or NA (not applicable) to statements about these nine main features of academic writing. Responses have been collated and shown as percentages.

The analysis below does the following: summarises how much much agreement there was to statements in the questionnaire about the nine main features of academic writing; compares and contrasts the results of this survey of faculty at UWA to that of the results from the other four Australian universities as discussed in Denise Bush's paper (1996). The survey at UWA covers the following faculties: the Arts Faculty, the Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, the Faculty of Commerce, Education and Law.

Results

As with faculty in the four universities previously surveyed, there was strong agreement among faculty at UWA on the importance of content, particularly with regard to the following aspects:
  1. the writer should be able to understand the main concepts of the area under consideration;
  2. content produced should be relevant to the topic;
  3. the essay should fulfill the requirements of the assignment topic;
  4. the writer needs to show an ability to think for him or herself and therefore not merely synthesise the views of others in their essays but instead present their own views after a critical analysis of other view- points provided on the issue at hand.
Faculty in the other four universities involved in this study likewise registered strong agreement with points (a), (b) and (c) above.

Except for the Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences (only 57.7% strong agreement), all the other three faculties strongly agreed (72% to 88%) that the writer should provide evidence and examples to support ideas in an essay or assignment.

Faculty both at UWA and at the other four universities also stressed the importance of: a) the writer revealing his or her line of argument as clearly as possible (94-100% at UWA and all totals over 90% at the other four universities). This means that faculty expect student writers to write with the reader in mind and that the reader has to make sense of what the writer is trying to say. Thus writing with coherence and cohesion within, between paragraphs and within the essay as a whole would be writing skills which are highly regarded at universities in Australia.

The other aspects of argumentation in writing which faculty at UWA regard highly are: b) the ability of the writer to show connections between one idea and the next (69% to 89% strong agreement) and c) the ability to write without padding or unnecessary material.

Faculty at the other four universities strongly agree that (b) is a very important feature of student writing at university.

Likewise, faculty at these four universities as with the faculty at UWA seem to consider that going off into tangents instead of pursuing one clear logical line of argument could be acceptable. Writing at a tangent might be tolerated because faculty possibly wish to encourage their students to explore different avenues of thought and different ways of interpreting facts and issues. On the other hand, writing using padding and unnecessary material could be seen as the use of material and evidence which has no direct bearing on the arguments being dis-lack of concrete information in a piece of written text (hence, the writer might not have read enough on the topic). The development of a student's own critical stance and viewpoint by going of on a tangent exploring other lines of argumentation related to the essay topic at hand could however be seen as encouraging.

The most notable divergences in opinions and attitudes among faculty at UWA have to do with style in writing. This pattern of divergences was also evident among faculty at the four universities discussed in Denise Bush's paper (1994). Similar to the results from these universities, faculty at UWA vary markedly in how much importance they place on different elements of style such as sophistication, objectivity, sentence length and repetition of words and phrases in writing. There was strong agreement all round however that an appropriate style should be chosen for the topic or task (over 75% among UWA faculty and over 60% for the other four universities).

As to what this appropriate style would be is a crucial aspect of writing at university which students would do well to work out from their lecturers before commencing their studies.

It seems clear from the survey that there is not necessarily one framework or one clear set of criteria among university lecturers from different faculties as to what constitutes a "good" style in writing.

On the whole, faculty at UWA strongly agree that the accurate use of grammar is important in writing and poor grammar distracts them from understanding what the writer is trying to say (64%-86% agreement for the first point and 64%-89% for the second). On the contrary, though, faculty at UWA do not mind if students use simple and basic grammatical patterns instead of complex structures.

These findings above tally with the attitudes of faculty at the other four universities regarding the importance of grammar in writing.

With regard to students' ability to communicate their ideas, faculty at UWA strongly agreed that students' writing should be easy to understand. There is less of an expectation from faculty that students interest faculty with their ideas. While consistent referencing is considered the most important element of organisation in essays, introductions and conclusions in comparison are second in importance and correct paragraphing third. Faculty at UWA do not place as much importance on whether or not assignments are divided into chapters and sections.

Accurate use of vocabulary appeared to be highly valued by faculty (85.4% strong agreement) while second in importance was the appropriate use of vocabulary. The use of discipline-specific specialised vocabulary was considered not as important as these first two concerns above. It could be that faculty is more interested in students expressing their ideas clearly, and less interested in writing which uses too much jargon or writing which seeks to impress the with the use of difficult vocabulary.

When students use other literature for their writing, faculty strongly stress that students should not plagiarise other writers' work (over 80% strong agreement). Faculty also consider the following aspects important: referencing must be done accurately which means students should endeavour to quote and paraphrase accurately; students should be able to grasp the main points of other writers; students should be able to analyse what other writers say as well as synthesize the views of different writers. Faculty however seem to consider wide reading of less importance and this is possibly because faculty prefer students to read selectively rather than read material which is of little relevance

Faculty did not place as much emphasis on correct punctuation and using these correctly as much as they placed emphasis on other features from punctuation to communication of ideas are similar to ones made by Bush (1996) regarding the other four universities in this study.

In ranking the 9 main features of academic writing, faculties at UWA gave very similar responses to each other and to faculties in the other universities involved in this national survey. The following content features were considered the most important: Content (ranked mostly as 1), Argument (ranked mostly as 2), Communicative Ability (ranked as either 3d or 4th in importance), Organisation (ranked as either 3rd or 4th). Ranked by faculty below these content features were the form features: Grammar (5, 6 or 7), Style (6, 7 or 8), Vocabulary (8 or 9) and Punctuation (9th in importance). Use of Literature - which is both a content and form feature - was ranked as either 5 or 6.

Implications

The results of the survey above indicate that we need to have more detailed information at university and what students who are entering university in general expect to be asked to do in their written tasks as well as what knowledge they have of the particular writing skills and strategies they would need for their university studies.

Data on this latter aspect has been collected by and author and is presently being analysed.

There also needs to be continuous communication between high school, literacy teachers and university lecturers regarding what lecturers expect from their students' written work and the most effective and direct ways by which to impart to students crucial literacy skills they need for university such as those skills for successful writing in an academic mode.

Bibliography

Agger, B. (1991). A Critical Theory of Public Life: Knowledge, Discourse and Politics in an Age of Decline. London: Falmer.

Baldauf Jr., R. (1996). Tertiary Literacy Policies: Needs and Practice. First National Conference on Tertiary Literacy Papers. March 14-16, 1996. Melbourne: Victoria University of Technology.

Buckley, R. (1993). Putting the Three First Rs to Overcome Student Illiteracy. Campus Review, November 4-10.

Bourke, S. and A. Holbrook (1992). University Students' Writing:Types of Errors and Some Comparisons Across Disciplines. Higher Education Research and Development, 11(2), 119-133.

Bush, D. (1994). Academic Writing: Faculty Expectations and Overseas Students Performance. ACTA-WATESOL Conference Papers. UWA. 1994. ACTA-WATESOL: Perth.

Bush, D. et al (1996). Expectations of Academic Writing at Australian Universities: Work in Progress. Paper delivered at the First National Conference on Tertiary Literacy: Research and Practice. Victoria. March 15-16, 1996.

Connolly, A. (1994). Academics Decry Rise in Plagiarism. The Australian, Wednesday, June 22: 23.

Freebody, P. and A. Luke (1990). Literacies' Programs: Debates and Demands in Cultural Context. Prospect: Australian Journal of ESL, 5, 3 May.

Freebody, P. and A. Welch (1990). Knowledge, Culture and Power. London: Falmer.

Freire, P. (1990). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books.

Gee, J. (1990). Social Linguistics and Literacies. London: Falmer.

Johns, A. M. (1990). L1 Composition Theories: Implications for Developing Theories of L2 Composition. In B. Kroll (ed), Second, 24-36. [ref. incomplete]

Johns, A. (1993). Written Argumentation for Real Audiences: Suggestions for Teacher Research and Classroom Practice. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 75-90.

Lankshear, C. and M. Lawler (1989). Literacy, Schooling and Revolution. London: Falmer.

Ljungdahl, L. (1991). Galloping Illiteracy and Student Writing. In B. Ross (ed), Teaching for Effective Learning in Higher Education. Campbelltown: HERDSA.

Moens, G. and P. de Lacey (1993). Symptom of a Modern Malady: The Decline of English in School and University. Educational Research and Perspectives, 20(2), 94-101.

Please cite as: Desierto, A. (1998). UWA expectations of academic writing at Australian universities: Work in progress. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 91-95. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/desierto.html


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