Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Developing a practical resource to enhance students' academic writing skills

Barbara de la Harpe, Alex Radloff, Jenny Giddy
Centre for Educational Advancement
Marjan Zadnik
Department of Applied Physics
Joy Yukich
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
    In order for students to develop their writing skills they need opportunities to practise writing. Opportunities should be in the context of the discipline and be provided by the discipline instructor. In this paper, we describe a project (funded by a Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development Grant) aimed at developing a booklet to help instructors enhance their undergraduate students' academic writing and which responds to the many calls to teach writing as an integral part of all undergraduate disciplines. We describe the booklet which includes simple and practical strategies which lecturers in any discipline can use to support student writing as part of their regular teaching. The strategies are based on the Five-by-Three Steps in Writing Model (Samson & Radloff, 1992), which has been successfully used by students across a number of disciplines. Finally, based on the experiences of staff who trialled the resource during Second Semester 1999, we present reflections from them about their experiences in being involved in the project.
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The importance of writing

University students need well developed writing skills (Spear, 1997) because writing is integral to learning and understanding of new subject matter. Writing is also widely used to demonstrate the outcomes of learning through, for example, essays, reports and examination questions, and is valued and demanded in graduates by professional and employer groups who recognise effective writing as essential for success in the workplace (Australian Association of Graduate Employers, 1993; Harvey, 1993). Much previous work shows that while writing is important for learning, many students lack writing skills and thus need explicit instruction to develop them and that such instruction is most effective when provided by the discipline teacher in the context of regular subject teaching.

Students need help to develop their writing skills for a number of reasons. Firstly, many students, both school leavers, and mature age, may come to university with inadequate previous educational experiences in relation to literacy. Secondly, the writing demands and writing tasks at university may differ markedly from students' previous writing experiences at school or at work. Thirdly, the context in which university writing takes place often provides little guidance for students who are expected to be autonomous, independent and able to manage their time and learning tasks. Fourthly, effective writing requires well developed skills in planning, reading, summarising, critical thinking, and abstract reasoning which students may need help to develop.

One way to help students to develop their writing skills and become discipline literate, is to provide "user friendly" instructional activities and strategies which can be readily accessed and adapted by the discipline teacher for use as part of regular subject teaching. Although there are many books available on writing, most offer only tips and suggestions to student writers, focus on grammar and syntax rather than on managing the process of writing, and rely on students to improve their writing through self-instruction. Unfortunately, merely offering advice to students is not enough, because most students, in order to become better writers, need discipline specific encouragement, feedback and explicit instruction. Furthermore, there is a large gap between knowing what to do to produce a good piece of writing and knowing how to actually write such a piece (Mahalski, 1992; Radloff & Radloff, 1995). Therefore, students need to be taught how to write better in the context of their discipline and by the discipline teacher. Thus, as pointed out by the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998).

...an essential component of all faculty members' responsibility is making sure that their students have ample practice in both writing and speaking... communication skills should be integrated with subject matter... Instructors throughout the curriculum need to build opportunities for written and oral presentations into their course outlines, so that experience and confidence can grow continuously.
In this paper we describe a project aimed at supporting student writing, outline the phases of the project and present feedback from staff who were involved in the project.

The CUTSD project

The aim of the project was to develop a booklet to support the enhancement of undergraduate students' academic writing skills in their discipline by identifying, developing, trialling and refining a set of instructional activities and strategies based on the Five-by-Three Steps in Writing Model (Samson & Radloff, 1992). The Model is based on a problem-solving heuristic and provides students with a well-tried series of steps to follow when completing a writing task (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1: The Five-by-Three Writing Model steps

The project team comprised Alex Radloff and Barbara de la Harpe who identified, reviewed and selected instructional activities and strategies, worked with colleagues to trial materials, reviewed materials in response to feedback, and wrote the booklet, Marjan Zadnik and Joy Yukich who implemented, evaluated and reflected on using the instructional activities and strategies in their units, and Jenny Giddy, the Research Associate with postgraduate qualifications in Education and experience in project management, who co-ordinated the project, did the necessary literature searches, liased with the Project Reference Group, and assisted with obtaining and analysing feedback from staff and students. Darren Richmond, a graphic design student was commissioned to create the illustrations for the booklet.

Establishing a web site and Reference Group

In the first stages of the project a web site was set up with the help of Leanda Wright [see http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/esaw/]. The web site was seen as a way to inform people about the project's progress, invite comments and contributions, and to disseminate information. For example, feedback from the questionnaires administered during the trial phase (see later) of the project, and a list of some of the discipline-specific resources that were identified were put onto the web page. It was also an opportunity to introduce the project team and booklet characters (see Figure 2). In addition to the web site, the project was also publicised in a number of newsletters inviting colleagues for their input.

An important aspect of the project was the Project Reference Group comprising academics from a number of disciplines and two students. The Reference Group provided valuable input and suggestions to the team and feedback on the draft booklet.

Identifying and developing instructional activities and strategies

Instructional activities and strategies, applicable to a variety of teaching areas, were linked to each of the steps of the Five-by-Three Steps in Writing Model, namely, Preplanning, Planning, Composing, Reviewing and Editing. Instructional activities and strategies consisted of those based on current theory and research in the self-regulation of student writing (Graham & Harris, 1997a, 1997b; Zimmerman & Bandura, 1994; Zimmerman & Risemberg, 1997) and those already developed and used by Radloff and de la Harpe.

In addition, the Research Associate collated the literature gathered by the first two authors over the years into a bibliographic database and undertook web and library searches to identify additional strategies from across the disciplines. Valuable ideas and resources were obtained from a number of members on the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) electronic mailing list in response to a request for input into the project.

Trialling activities and strategies

Zadnik and Yukich trialled the activities and strategies in their Physics and Education classes respectively. They were provided with draft copies of chapters which outlined various activities and strategies from which they could choose. The Research Associate informed their students about the project and explained the purpose of the trials. After each strategy had been trialled, Zadnik and Yukich completed a questionnaire about their experiences and reactions. Students also completed feedback forms providing their views about whether and how the activity had helped their writing and whether it had improved their confidence in writing assignments. Students also listed three things they liked about the activity and three ways they felt the activity could be improved. Feedback was used to identify which activities and strategies were the most valuable and how others could be adapted.

Designing the booklet

The booklet was designed to help lecturers who do not have experience in teaching English or literacy to teach and reinforce writing skills as part of their students' normal discipline-based writing tasks and activities. Activities and strategies were, therefore, designed and presented using a simple and accessible format so that they could be easily incorporated into units by discipline teachers without the need for extensive rewriting of existing materials or major changes to assessment practices. In addition, characters (see Figure 2) were included to represent a variety of disciplines in order to encourage readers to identify with them and their students' struggles with writing.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The four booklet characters

The guiding principles underpinning the design of the booklet were that it had to:


Below, Zadnik and then Yukich, in their own words, reflect on their participation in the project.
Participation in this project gave me the opportunity to examine in detail the "In Writing" book and to adopt and adapt it and aspects of the Enhancing Writing booklet into my teaching. Incorporating the "In Writing" book as part of my Scientific Communications unit provided an excellent framework for my students' writing of their "scientific papers". I asked students to read and hand in summaries of each of the 5 topics in the 5X3 method over a 5-week period as they were engaged in writing their papers. I found that these activities and my modifications of them for the context of the unit, had a very positive effect on the quality of the students' papers. The students began to understand and appreciate the complexity and the logical steps which need be taken to complete the difficult task of writing the papers. My major modification of the material was to ask students to bring 4 drafts of their paper to class for anonymous peer review. Each student had 3 other students (and me) read and critically review their drafts according to negotiated guidelines. The 3 students who reviewed the same paper met and discussed the paper and then wrote their group comments. This process allowed students to reflect on their peers' writing as well as their own. Student feedback indicated this was a particularly valuable, difficult but rewarding process.

I have been teaching the Scientific Communications unit for 4 years before this project. I now look back and wonder how previous students learnt much from my teaching of how to write a scientific paper. This project and the "In Writing" book have provided a valuable framework for teaching writing skills for the students and for myself. It also fits well within the contsructivist paradigm of student-centred learning. [Marjan Zadnik]

The two classes in which I introduced the 5-by-3 writing model were a Mathematics class and a Communications class in the Education Faculty. The students in the Communications class did not have sound literacy skills, were rather insecure and felt intimidated by the thought of being involved in the project. The Mathematics students were not particularly receptive, because, "It wasn't Maths." Not one to be daunted, I introduced the first section, Pre-planning. Planning was a term with which the students were familiar, but pre-planning was a new concept. The students worked in groups and we did a brainstorming activity for defining the task, with my introducing them to the numerous terms that they come across when faced with an assignment. The rest of the session was in a similar vein.

The other sections were done with the students working co-operatively, in groups, with my guidance. As we went through the sections, each class worked on its essay, which was a major assessment item for the unit. Needless to say, the essay topics were different. I believe that the last session was one of the most successful ones I have done. The students brought in their essays and swapped them with other students, to complete the Review section. They had never been engaged in the task of reading and writing constructive comments on other people's essays. It was an eye-opener for them and it also gave them an insight on how others approached a task.

The final comments from the students were positive. They all felt more confident about tackling writing tasks and were so encouraged by the model, that they advocated its inclusion in all university courses, to strengthen the writing skills of students. [Joy Yukich]


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Please cite as: De la Harpe, B., Radloff, A., Giddy, J., Zadnik, M. and Yukich, J. (2000). Developing a practical resource to enhance students' academic writing skills. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/delaharpe.html

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