Poster Presentation Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia 2015

What’s the use of academic writing? (#326)

Ursula McGowan 1
  1. The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA, Australia

‘Communication skills’ are listed among the graduate capabilities published by Australian universities. Academic writing, whether as short paragraphs or extended essays, is an accepted mode of assessing coursework students’ understanding of discipline content. However the assessment results of discipline knowledge are likely to be lower for students who struggle with understanding the formal language of academic texts or using academic language in their own written assignments. Yet, although the vocabulary and grammar of academic writing are not self-evident, attempts at explicitly integrating a focus on these into course curricula are rare.

This presentation reports on a curriculum-integrated academic language program that was designed and taught collaboratively between discipline lecturer and academic staff developer. Instead of information on  ‘how to’ write essays, a method of ‘genre analysis’ was applied to academic articles drawn from the literature on the specific content of the students’ course. The analysed articles served as models of formal writing which students could imitate in constructing an assignment whose assessment criteria included a substantial emphasis on appropriate structure, language choices and referencing conventions.

The action research reported here was aimed simultaneously at student and staff development. Students were expected to consolidate content learning while engaging with the formalities of academic writing. Their  progress was tracked through  practical tasks with formative feedback, following each of four interactive language sessions, and the results of an essay based on the summative assessment criteria. Written reflections by both staff developer and lecturer were kept, summarized in a recorded interview, and used to plan improvements.

The lecturer was satisfied that the formative feedback and essay grades indicated student engagement with language as well as course content. Further research will be to investigate the conditions under which an integrated language focus could become the norm, rather than the exception.