There is, as you report, concern on the part of a number of contributors to Jiscmail’s plagiarism discussion list about the standard of English expected of new international students on arrival and the level of support offered subsequently (“Does it cross the line to get help dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s?”, News, 15 August). But you fail to capture the full flavour of the debate on the list, which has the merit of any good discussion of helping to develop one’s ideas.
For example, you correctly report my comment about not allowing “proofreading” of work for taught courses (although as I pointed out at the time, it is really copy-editing that is being discussed). However, you fail to note that this was countered by Diane Schmitt, senior lecturer at the Nottingham Language Centre, who rightly pointed out that “very often students do fully understand key concepts in their discipline, but do not have the necessary repertoire of English to convey that”.
As I said in response, to that extent my original comment was ill-founded – but, as I went on to say, students need to show that they have moved beyond understanding key concepts to the point where they can apply them independently to new situations and problems.
Thus there is no problem with students getting assistance in formulating their ideas in English; learning to write clearly is learning to think clearly.
This matters because many international students will be looking to their experience to certify their ability to operate professionally in an anglophone context, and thus will need to be able to think in English as well as to speak and write the language.
It is not just international students who seek the assistance of proofreaders: increasingly, domestic students with English as their first language expect support in the production of their written work.
The approach advocated by learning development tutors is neither to forbid proofreading nor to carry it out routinely. We use it as an opportunity to engage with students, to show examples of where they are making errors based on a sample of their writing, and to explain how to identify and correct similar mistakes in the rest of their work. By modelling good practice, we aim to improve their self-efficacy for the future.
We find that students often ask for their work to be “proofread” when they actually mean they would like more general advice on their written style and academic voice. Those who immediately jump in “to earn extra money” by carrying out laborious line-by-line corrections of every aspect of grammar, spelling and syntax do such students a disservice.
Finally, we should always remind ourselves that in the vast majority of cases, students are not producing “incomprehensible” work simply to annoy us. A broad and accessible provision of embedded learning development support is increasingly essential across the academy to ensure that language and academic writing do not become barriers to specialist learning.
Head of learning development
University Campus Suffolk