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Teaching academic writing skills | THE Campus Learn, Share, Connect


When students arrive at university, few have had experience of academic writing at an advanced level. Creating bridges to academic writing is therefore essential for all lecturers teaching first-year students. It is necessary to talk through the nature and expectations of assignments; how to present extended research from sources, and how to write and support advanced critical thinking. Scaffolded guidance on assignments will help students achieve the outcomes required.

Advanced level and International Baccalaureate courses develop writing skills, so an essay is tightly structured and flows well. While some A-level and IB courses require students to read sources, they do not emphasise integration in writing. For international students, becoming acquainted with academic writing expectations can take time as these vary across cultures.

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Assignment types differ between schools and countries, so becoming accustomed to assignment requirements can take time. While it is commonplace in the US to write a summary of a book, in the UK this is not standard. In the UK, a fully integrated essay means to evidence theories, models, concepts and key authors introduced in the module, interlaced with one’s “own critical voice”. While some students may discover this naturally, others may need to be drawn in.

All students may find it challenging to demonstrate critical reasoning in their writing unless they have done so previously. The concept of critical thinking is complex. Students may not share an understanding of what is meant by a critical approach, and for some cultures, there are sensitivities involved in being critical. For example, a more Confucian style of evaluation may be traditional in Eastern cultures, accompanied by a “kaizen approach that is about consensus and continuous improvement – often within defined parameters – as opposed to a full-blown, independent critical analysis. Discussion as to what is meant by critical thinking and hence, academic rigour, is important. 

Here are suggestions to create bridges for academic writing during the first year so students can build firm foundations on which to develop throughout their degree:

Reading and writing skills:

  • Demonstrate library search techniques using search strings and encourage students to consistently develop a reference list, during reading and note-taking, that follows the appropriate subject style guide.
  • Encourage the practice of searches with librarians and the study of texts that offer referencing guidance.
  • Communicate the need to engage with the module reading list. Introduce journals, organisations, and media where theory, research and professional practice are published.
  • Open opportunities to engage in academic writing through short bursts of tailored input with feedback.
  • Discuss the structure of an essay, its components and how to form a cohesive whole.
  • Discuss, through examples, differences in style and tone in writing academically compared with writing informally for a blog or social networking channels.   

Managing time:

  • Talk through how to read and understand assignment requirements by breaking the question down into constituent parts, highlighting and discussing the links between them.
  • Discuss how to approach an assignment by breaking it down into manageable chunks.
  • Discuss how to draw up a timeline and encourage self-pacing toward clearly staged and definable goals.
  • Encourage peer support to motivate, share and give feedback during the writing process.
  • Discuss how to review and proofread an assignment against a checklist and deconstruct examples of short drafts with discussion on how to improve them.

Critical reasoning:

  • Promote the ability to think critically by modelling a critique of the research literature, epistemologies and methodologies, and discuss limitations to research studies.
  • Share examples of critical reasoning and discuss examples of how this successfully translates into writing.

Researching and writing authentically:

  • Provide outlets and encouragement to students in becoming an undergraduate researcher involved in authentic academic writing.

Applying feedback:

  • Provide clear expectations through examples, and a shared rubric on which an assignment will be evaluated.
  • Stage and scaffold an assignment by providing a formative assessment with tailored feedback for improvement.
  • Communicate clear expectations for the application of feedback to summative assignments and introduce services in the university that can offer continued guidance.

Effectively referencing:

  • Read and deconstruct articles to identify referencing style within the text and talk through examples of how references are selected, synthesised and blended.
  • Provide opportunities to develop the skills to paraphrase, summarise and quote, through clear examples.
  • Highlight the importance of referencing the key texts and sources discussed in the modules from literature that is international and country- or context-specific. Discuss, with marked-up examples, the requirement of citing from sources to attribute the work of others.
  • Encourage active reading, noticing and engaging with academic-style writing and referencing in context, as authentic guided writing experience.
  • Examine and critically analyse a published end-of-text reference list for accuracy.

Writing ethically:

  • Communicate when, and the extent to which, it is acceptable to seek outside guidance in academic writing.
  • Discuss the meaning of academic integrity, as the concept can vary across cultures.  

Fiona S. Baker is a teaching fellow at in the School of Education, Durham University.

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