Developing academic writing skills to boost student confidence and resilience

Academic writing skills are fundamental to most university courses. Andrew Struan explains how Glasgow has taken a whole-university approach to ensure all students are well equipped to succeed

Andrew Struan's avatar
17 February 2021
Developing students academic writing skills
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“Academic language is…no one’s mother tongue,” wrote Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron; for our students, developing successful academic writing habits can be a source of significant difficulty and stress. 

Supporting students to develop academic writing abilities is key to building their confidence and resilience in the face of assessment and feedback. For students, good writing skills will be fundamental to successful progress through their courses. 

This is particularly important following the move to online learning, with the associated upheaval and uncertainty that have left a lot of students feeling anxious and isolated. 

Therefore, the earlier universities intervene to develop and enhance these writing abilities, the better. 

How we do this? 

At the University of Glasgow, we take a whole-institution approach to developing students’ academic writing. 

All 11,000 incoming undergraduate and postgraduate taught students complete a compulsory writing course, receiving feedback and guidance on their writing within the first four weeks of enrolment at the university.  

The course – the Academic Writing Skills Programme (AWSP) – involves submission of an essay within the first two weeks of semester. Students have a choice of essay questions, covering the broad range of subjects taught, and have freedom in how they answer.  

They are provided with pre-submission guidance on the core elements of academic writing within their subject areas alongside resources on grammar, marking criteria, academic integrity and so on. 

All students receive feedback within 10 days. A team of learning developers and graduate teaching assistants mark non-stop to provide meaningful, actionable, tailored feedback.  

Students have three routes to completion. Most are judged as having completed the programme and offered optional further study. Some students are referred to compulsory asynchronous courses, which are subject specific and allow them to work at their own pace through interactive resources. Finally, other students are referred for two weeks of compulsory synchronous online classes; these are taught by graduate teaching assistants and cover core elements of academic writing. On completion, students submit another essay for further feedback.  

Why this works  

This system provides targeted, meaningful early intervention to develop students’ abilities in academic writing. For most students, the course is their first experience of assessment and coursework at the institution. It is designed to be a light-touch, developmental opportunity.

The course highlights students’ needs from the start. We can track individual students who are at a higher risk of dropping out by tracking their engagement with, and results on, the course.

We can also use the data gathered from large-scale assessment to understand overall student demographics. As a result, we are able to highlight and target at-risk cohorts to provide more academic development opportunities.

More importantly, this supportive feedback from the learner development department, as one of the students’ first interactions with the university, helps build feelings of support, confidence and resilience. It provides students with the techniques, materials and contacts required to succeed in their assessments.

Key lessons in creating an academic writing course online

Having moved the programme online, we were worried that students wouldn’t engage with the content or build the early friendships we encourage through the classes.

But we were proved wrong: students relished the opportunity to work on their writing in a more asynchronous fashion, then used the live classes for discussion and interrogation.

The overwhelmingly positive student feedback, alongside a near-universal student course completion rate, points to the success of the online delivery. 

Developing academic writing is like learning to play an instrument: with ongoing practice, reflection and feedback, we make steady improvement. The AWSP allows us to provide every student with a chance to reflect on, and develop, their academic writing.

For institutions looking to adopt any kind of large-scale online academic writing courses, here are some key takeaways:

Make it relevant: Students will engage with such early intervention if, and only if, it is tailored for and relevant to their studies. Generalised, non-specific work will not be well received.

Flip the classroom: A flipped-classroom approach to delivering and teaching content has been so successful that we will continue to use it in years to come, whether online or in person. 

Prep an army of markers: Providing timely, personalised feedback for 11,000 students is a challenge. But with a large group of markers, a bank of pre-formatted, but individualised, feedback statements and efficient online systems, it is possible. 

Trust your staff: The dedication of the graduate teaching assistants, and their ability to maintain good humour, is vital to the success of the programme. Without such a dedicated team, it would not work. 

Early intervention: Early signposting of sources and resources to students is essential to building confidence. Providing students with information on key elements of their assessments, in a targeted rather than blanket way, encourages student awareness and engagement. 

Clear communications: We engage with students in a range of ways: email, YouTube videos, our virtual learning environment, social media, (usually face-to-face) discussion. This range of communications means students are aware of the programme requirements and know who to contact if they have any questions. 

Keep it flexible: We allow students flexibility in the questions they choose, the approaches they take, and the ways they submit the work. Students can answer questions in advance, then upload the work, or they can treat it as a timed assessment and write within a time period. Flexibility means we can cater for varied student needs and preferences. 

Good design: A well-designed and smooth online process is key to student participation. Failures in technology or difficulties in finding ways around systems will instantly put a block between students and their work. 

To quote lecturer and graduate teaching assistant Kate Mathis: “Witnessing students’ realisation that formerly unclear and annoying aspects of grammar improve dramatically when these are clearly explained and understood is the most rewarding part of teaching for AWSP, which provides a rare and valuable opportunity to devote specific attention to improving students’ academic writing in the earliest weeks of their time in Glasgow.” 

Andrew Struan is writing and study skills co-ordinator at the University of Glasgow

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