Pdf issues in academic writing in higher education

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C h a p t e r 1 Issues in academic writing in higher education 1
Issues in academic writing in
higher education
Teaching Academic Writing is an introductory book on the teaching of
academic writing in higher education. It is aimed at higher education
lecturers and writing tutors who wish to help undergraduates improve
their academic writing in both discipline-specific and writing/study skills
contexts. The book raises issues about the teaching of academic writing
and offers many practical suggestions about how academic writing can
be taught. Some suggestions are meant for lecturers to implement as
part of their subject teaching; other ideas will work better in collaboration
with writing or language specialists who work alongside subject specialists
to help students with their writing. The book will also be useful for people
who work in contexts where writing support is offered as a separate
provision, for example within study skills and EAP courses (English for
academic purposes). Whilst the book is aimed principally at lecturers
and tutors working with undergraduate students, it raises many issues
which are relevant to those who teach postgraduate students, particularly
those students who are returning to higher education after a break from
academic study.1 The aims of the book are:
? to identify and demystify the conventions and practices associated
with academic writing so that both subject specialists and writing
support staff can better advise and help students to construct their
written work
? to discuss ways that lecturers can address the needs of a variety of
students, including those with little experience in academic writing
and those whose primary language is not English
2 Teaching Academic Writing
? to enable lecturers in a range of contexts to adopt and adapt various
teaching strategies to the teaching of academic writing for different
? to combine a practical orientation to teaching writing with a
grounding in current theories of writing instruction.
Student writing is at the centre of teaching and learning in higher
education, fulfilling a range of purposes according to the various contexts
in which it occurs. These purposes include:
? assessment, which is often a major purpose for student writing (see
National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, 1997).
Students may be required to produce essays, written examinations,
or laboratory reports whose main purpose is to demonstrate their
mastery of disciplinary course content. In assessing such writing,
lecturers focus on both the content and the form of the writing, that
is the language used, the text structure, the construction of argument,
grammar and punctuation.
? learning, which can help students grapple with disciplinary knowledge
as well as develop more general abilities to reason and critique
(Hilgers et al., 1999). Separately from or simultaneously with writing
for assessment, students may also be asked to write texts that trace
their reflections on the learning process itself, as with journals where
they record thoughts, questions, problems, and ideas about readings,
lectures, and applied practice.
? entering particular disciplinary communities, whose communication norms
are the primary means by which academics transmit and evaluate
ideas (Prior, 1998). As they progress through the university, students
are often expected to produce texts that increasingly approximate
the norms and conventions of their chosen disciplines, with this
expectation peaking at the level of postgraduate study.
Students and lecturers alike recognise the necessity for good communi-
cation skills both within the university and in the larger world. Whilst
some research signals that an ever-increasing range of writing demands
are being made of students (Ganobcsik-Williams, 2001), evidence also
Issues in academic writing in higher education 3
indicates that the most traditional of practices - that of essay writing -
continues to hold sway across many disciplines (see National Committee
of Inquiry into Higher Education, 1997). Whether the essay should
continue to be the main type of writing that students produce and
whether students know how to successfully engage in this and other
writing practices are questions being voiced more and more frequently.2
In this book, whilst our main focus is on essay writing, we also deal with
other kinds of writing such as laboratory reports, project reports, case
studies, and reflective journals.
Student academic writing continues to be at the centre of teaching
and learning in higher education, but is often an invisible dimension of
the curriculum; that is, the rules or conventions governing what counts
as academic writing are often assumed to be part of the `common sense'
knowledge students have, and are thus not explicitly taught within
disciplinary courses. If students lack familiarity with these conventions,
the assumption is often held that they will `pick it up' as part of learning
their subject knowledge. Although this position might have been
understandable within the context of a small and predominantly
homogenous higher education system, it is no longer justified within
current contexts where significant changes are affecting all aspects of
teaching and learning, including student academic writing. These
changes include:
Increasing student numbers. The growth of student participation in higher
education signals a shift away from a small, highly elitist provision of
higher education toward policies and practices aimed at widening access
to more of the population. In the UK at the end of the 1930s only some
2 per cent of the population took part in higher education, compared
with some 10 per cent in the 1960s and some 30 per cent by the late
1990s. The UK government plans to increase this proportion to up to
50 per cent of the 18- to 30-year-old population by the year 2005
(HEFCE, 2001). Policies of widening participation have been a driving
force behind a heightened interest in teaching and learning, including
student writing, in many parts of the world. The growing UK interest
in teaching writing thus mirrors trends in South Africa, Australia, and
the United States.
Increasing diversity of the student population. The student population is not
only larger and still growing but significantly more diverse than previous
generations of students. Increasing numbers of `non-traditional' students,
4 Teaching Academic Writing
that is, students from social groups historically excluded from higher
education, are now present. These include students from working-class
backgrounds, those who are older than 18 when they start university,
and students from a wide range of cultural and linguistic backgrounds
(HEFCE, 2001). There are also large numbers of international students
who have been mainly educated in countries other than the UK.
Educational background, ethnicity, cultural expectations and gender all
influence how students read academic texts and respond in writing (Lillis,
2001). Students new to higher education may not feel at ease with
academic writing conventions or with staking claims for knowledge about
which their lecturers have greater expertise, necessitating more explicit
instruction about writing.
Complex patterns of participation in higher education. There are complex
patterns of participation including greater numbers of part-time students
in higher education, in contrast to the traditional, full-time model. In
the UK, part-time participation has been steadily on the increase and
has been taken up particularly by women (see Blackburn and Jarman,
1993; HEFCE, 2001; Ramsden, 2001).
Curriculum changes. There have been significant curriculum changes,
not least in shifts towards modularisation and interdisciplinarity.
Modularisation, whereby teaching and learning are structured around
short courses rather than over a whole academic year, has grown
substantially in the past ten years. By 1994 it was estimated that more
than half of UK universities had moved to semester provision, which
was linked in many cases to modularisation of the curriculum and
delivery (Schuller, 1995). Interdisciplinarity, whereby a growing number
of courses offer modules in a wide range of subject areas, happens within
particular interdisciplinary degrees such as communication studies and
women's studies, but also in routes through more traditionally
demarcated subject areas. There has also been growth in vocationally
and professionally oriented higher education courses that cross academic
boundaries, for example, nursing and social work studies.
Diverse modes of curriculum delivery. The introduction of a range of modes
of curriculum `delivery' has been profoundly shaped by developments
in information technology. The most notable shift has been away from
conventional face-to-face teaching and learning modes and toward the
use of computer conferencing systems and web-based materials, both
as part of campus-based provision and increasingly in distance courses.
Issues in academic writing in higher education 5
The impact of such changes on traditional practices of teaching, learning
and assessment is only just beginning to be explored (see e.g. Richardson,
Contexts for teaching and learning. The increase in student numbers has
not been matched by an equivalent increase in funding. Many institutions
have larger class sizes, fewer opportunities for small group teaching (such
as seminars and tutorials) and - of specific relevance to student writing
- little time for lecturers to comment on students' written work. Whilst
the nature of the material conditions for teaching and learning varies
immensely across institutions, a notable difference frequently emerges
between the `old' and `new' universities.3 The `new' universities often
have larger classes compared with `old' universities such as the prestigious
institutions of Oxford and Cambridge, where a highly personalised
teaching and learning context prevails in the form of the tutorial system.
Nonetheless, many innovations in pedagogy are taking place at new
universities in response to these changing contexts and at national levels
in many parts of the world there is unprecedented interest in teaching
and learning in higher education. In the UK the recent establishment
of the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) placed teaching in
higher education firmly on the political agenda, thus mirroring current
and historical developments in similar contexts elsewhere. (For a current
parallel, see the white paper on higher education in South Africa at
; for historic-
ally similar developments in the United States, see Crowley, 1999; Horner
and Lu, 1999.)
This book's focus on the teaching of academic writing is therefore
part of a current interest in teaching and learning in higher education
more generally. Questions, and possible answers, about how best to
support students' academic writing are relevant to all those committed
to enhancing successful teaching and learning in higher education.
A range of approaches to teaching writing has developed in different
geographical contexts and for different historical and socio-political
reasons. In Australia, pedagogical models designed to foster students'
awareness of academic conventions and practices have emerged from
the study of disciplinary genres and the field of systemic functional
6 Teaching Academic Writing
linguistics (see e.g. Martin and Veel, 1998). In the United States, for
decades courses in `freshman composition' have taught the presumed
generic skills of academic writing to first-year students as well as non-
native speakers of English (Leki, 2001; Zamel and Spack, 1998). Recently
interest has grown in teaching writing in the disciplines or across the
curriculum, in recognition of the discipline-specific nature of much of
academic writing and the usefulness of writing to the learning process.
In South Africa, where fundamental changes in higher education are
taking place, teachers and researchers are critically reconceptualising
the purpose and nature of student writing in the academy (see e.g. Angelil-
Carter, 1998; Thesen, 2001).
Institutional structures around the world tend to include any of four
main locations for the teaching of writing: dedicated writing courses,
disciplinary subject courses, English for academic purposes/English for
speakers of other languages departments, and study skills or writing
centres. In addition to these face-to-face venues, on-line writing instruc-
tion has recently added another dimension - or at least the possibility
for it - to all of these domains.
Dedicated writing courses
First-year writing, or `freshman composition', is usually a required course
at the beginning of university study in the United States. Depending on
university policy, first-year students may take remedial/basic writing
courses, freshman composition, or more advanced writing courses. As
the provision of writing instruction has increased, higher level courses in
academic writing have been developed. In some cases these courses link
disciplinary lecturers with writing specialists to focus on disciplinary forms
of writing, as in `learning communities' (Grubb, 1999). The development
of the academic field of composition studies in the United States in the
past 35 years came about partly as a response to increased numbers of
non-traditional students entering the academy. Veterans of the Second
World War, greater numbers of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and
disabled students all changed the face of the student population in higher
education. The needs of these students to acquire academic literacy
functioned to expose some of the hidden assumptions and practices of
the academy. The growth of composition studies also came from increased

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