Pearson How do universities solve the written English challenge?

How do universities solve the written English challenge?

In October 2021, The Office for Students (OfS) sent a strong message to UK universities that written English standards should be fundamental to assessment marking criteria. 


Its report, Assessment Practices in English Higher Education Providers, highlighted the practices of some UK universities, which they found to be excluding written English proficiency from their assessment marking criteria – something the OfS says is a fundamental skill.

Susan Lapworth, Director of Regulation at the Office for Students commented: “Students should be able to communicate their ideas effectively. This means their written work must be of a high standard, with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. It is not possible to analyse and explore complex theories and arguments without being able to write well, and universities should recognise this as they assess their students.” 

Universities not including English standards in their marking criteria often cite inclusivity as the reason – but this approach, says the OfS, can be counter-intuitive; placing graduates at a disadvantage when they enter the job market, and leaving employers bearing the cost of training graduates in written English. 

“The idea that they should expect less from certain groups of students is patronising,” Susan Lapworth commented. “Universities and colleges can – and should – ensure that they are supporting students with additional needs, including making reasonable adjustments for disabled students, while also maintaining academic rigour.” 

The English challenge is certainly nothing new. As far back as 2006, the Royal Literary Fund report, Writing Matters, labelled the writing skills of students as ‘shocking’ and ‘inadequate’ with 90% of lecturers at the time reporting having to spend valuable teaching time training students in basic written English. 

So how can universities support students with their writing skills, when time and resources are already stretched? 

Providing style guidelines, setting diagnostic writing tests and establishing clear scoring guidelines can help, as too can mid-assignment feedback, though for many educators (particularly those with large student cohorts), this isn’t always possible. 

This is where academic writing support, such as Smarthinking from Pearson, which is designed to complement existing in-house provision, can step in. 

With Smarthinking, students can book a live, one-on-one writing advice session with an experienced tutor, or submit their work for feedback at any time. 

Aside from being checked for the strength of arguments and relevance to the assignment criteria, tutors provide advice on vocabulary and grammar, to ensure students learn how to produce coherent written English. 

Importantly, Smarthinking tutors DO NOT provide answers. The emphasis is on helping students to learn, gain confidence and improve their own writing – and it’s entirely transparent. Universities can see every interaction students have with Smarthinking’s tutors. At an aggregate level, it can help educators identify common mistakes. For individual students, it provides a valuable mid-assignment checkpoint and the opportunity to assess and improve their work before submission. 

For more insight and information on the broader academic writing challenges, including the reasons why some students turn to cheating to complete their assignments, download a copy of Pearson’s new report.

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