Universities should make it a priority to equip graduate students with academic writing skills or they run the risk of greater numbers failing to complete master’s courses and PhDs, according to the author of new research.
In her co-authored paper “Graduate students as academic writers: writing anxiety, self-efficacy and emotional intelligence”, Margarita Huerta, assistant professor of educational and clinical studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), found that lack of “self-efficacy” (belief in one’s capability to write in a given situation) was a significant reason for writing anxiety among students studying for a master’s or doctoral degree.
The researchers conclude that it is in universities’ “best interest” that students are given tools to allow them to “successfully communicate ideas and innovation in writing”. Professor Huerta told Times Higher Education that degree completion rates could fall if these issues were not addressed.
“Most graduate student writers come into academia without the knowledge and skills of how to handle large, complex academic writing projects; therefore, lowering their self-efficacy,” she said. “The consequences are potentially slower graduation rates, larger numbers of incomplete degrees and non-published theses/dissertations.”
The growing expectation for students to have “journal article publications prior to graduation” was increasing the pressure on graduate writers, she added.
The research, published in the Higher Education Research & Development journal, looked at 174 students participating in Promoting Outstanding Writing for Excellence in Research (POWER) programmes, originally created by Texas A&M University in 2007, to provide emotional and instrumental support for graduate students who wish to improve their academic writing.
While the researchers noted that the study was not “generalizable to all graduate students in higher education”, the findings “contribute to the limited research on graduate students and academic writing and can inform present practitioners and future researchers in varied settings”.
The paper also found that “females exhibited higher writing anxiety”, which Professor Huerta suggested could be linked to wider gender inequality in higher education. She added that it was "concerning that even in the presence of self-efficacy, writing anxiety was still present for female graduate students".
Elsewhere, the study found that students for whom English was not their first language had “statistically significant higher writing anxiety and lower self-efficacy compared to native English speakers”.
“International students also showed statistically significant lower self-efficacy than students who reported not to be international,” it states.
Professor Huerta said universities believe that they are supporting international students by providing “editing services” or English language courses, but warned that there was “a lot more” to mastering academic writing than a command of English.
“Writing 'correct' English is merely one piece of the bigger puzzle of supporting graduate students’ academic writing,” she said. “Schools/HE sectors should not assume all non-native English speakers’ writing skills are necessarily lower than native speakers’ writing skills.
“While some may struggle with writing skills, many may have very strong writing skills. Non-native English speakers may just have more writing anxiety because of lack of initial confidence and other external/cultural factors.”
Universities should therefore look to improve self-efficacy among all their graduate students by teaching “self-management skills related to piecing together academic writing projects”.
“This is why peer-led writing support services hold tremendous potential if implemented well within university structures,” she said.