Challenges in Academic Writing

DiSA Briefing Paper 3
Challenges in Academic Writing
Christina Howell-Richardson, Coventry University
This study seeks to explore the perspectives, practices and conceptualisations which
lecturers bring to the task of developing and writing assignment briefs and to explore
the conceptualisations, academic literacy and wider literacy practices undergraduate
students bring to the task of interpreting and acting on the assignment briefs. The
project draws also on the perspectives of specialist Academic Writing tutors who
provide support and tuition in academic writing to students across Coventry
University. The aim of the study is to explore the degree to which there is
congruence between the conceptualisation and practices of students and academic
staff and to discuss the implications of the findings for pedagogical practice and
formative dialogue.
The retention and attainment gap for certain groups of home-domiciled Black and
Minority Ethnic students in UK Higher Education is increasingly well documented
(Broeke and Nicholls, 2007 and Equality Challenge Unit 2009, 2010). A particular
challenge for a large number of previously under-represented, home domiciled
students is the transition to acquiring the social practices of tertiary-level academic
writing and in learning discipline-specific language usage and literacy practices
(Andrews, 2009; Lillis and Scott, 2008; Lea and Street 1998), academic literacy and
the different genres of academic writing in particular are cultural and social practices
embedded within the disciplines (Nesi and Gardner 2012). These discourse practices
are typically embedded as tacit or implicit knowledge within the community of
practitioners and thus likely to be most accessible and most rapidly acquired by
students whose cultural and social capital is complementary to the practices of the
academic discipline. Furthermore, perceptions of a mismatch in communication
practices is not only potentially anxiety inducing among students whose own sets of
linguistic repertories differ from what is required by lecturers, but also likely to
increase dependency and the possibility of disengagement.
One pivotal point at which disparities in student attainment and the challenges of
acquiring academic and discipline-specific literacy practices come into contact is in
students’ conceptualisations and practices in interpreting and writing to assignment
briefs for assessment purposes (Bloxham and Boyd, 2007; Singh, 2009).
Generation of Evidence:
Method/Data Collection
a) Individual, audio-recorded 30 minute, semi-structured interviews or a
focus group with lecturers and students in each of the three discipline
Bio-Medical Sciences: interviews with 2 lecturers. Focus group -9
Social Work : interviews with 2 lecturers and 6 students
English Language/Creative Writing: interviews with 2 lecturers and
2 students
b) Focus group- Academic Writing Tutors (9 tutors)
c) Electronic survey across all discipline areas – based on GanobcsikWilliams (2004)-[ongoing- target= 20 academic staff + 50 students]
With each group of respondents 4 specific sub- themes are addressed:
1. What kinds of discipline specific academic literacy practices are
students expected to develop over their undergraduate years? How
and when is this literacy developed?
2. What are the (implicit) criteria of a “good*” assignment for a level 2
undergraduate within the specific discipline field? [*60+ ]
3. What are students’ practices in preparing for and writing to an
assignment brief?
4. What makes a good assignment brief?
The following demographic data has been collected for all participants in the study (table1):
Academic Staff
Discipline area/subject
Year of Study
Part-time or Full-time
Entry/access route to university
Highest previous academic qualification
Previous job/career (2 years+)
English as L1/ Bi-lingual/ English as a
Foreign Language
Discipline area/subject
Length of Service
Academic title/seniority
Range and breadth of teaching experience
Previous career
Typical demographic characteristics of student population
Table 1: Demographic Data- DISA: CAW project 2012
Existing Evidence
The project draws on a variety of resources in assessment in higher education. The
following sources have been of particular influence:
Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment (TESTA project
Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange (ASKE) Oxford Brookes
Professor Sue Bloxham’s work on assessment in higher education
Professor Liz McDowell’s work on Assessment for Learning in Higher
Assessment for Learning - Black P, William D, Harrison C
Research findings/ New Evidence:
The analysis is in progress. The analysis will seek to explore (a) the degree of
common understanding between lecturers and students conceptualisations of briefs
and (b) any emergent patterns within and across the 4 core themes, attaining to
specific attributes, behaviours, literacy practices or perspectives, which are/might be
related to differentiation in student learning and attainment in Higher Education.
Target for completion and reporting December 2012.
Outcomes/implications for policy and practice:
Outcome 1 - A toolkit for lecturers on the role of assignment brief design and
formative dialogue in developing student academic writing. In progress- 36-38 pages:
6 sections. To be piloted and evaluated in November/December 2012. On
completion a copy of the toolkit will be given to all lecturers at Coventry University.
Outcome 2 - An article reporting on the study and the findings to be submitted to a
refereed journal e.g. Teaching in Higher Education.
Andrews R (2009) Argumentation in Higher Education: Improving Practice through
Theory and Research. London. Routledge
Black P and William D (1998) Inside the black box: Raising standards through
classroom assessment Department of Education and Professional Studies, King’s
College, London
Bloxham S and Boyd (2007) Developing Assessment in Higher Education: A practical
guide. Maidenhead. OU Press/ McGraw-Hill
Broeke and Nicholls (2007) Ethnicity and Degree Attainment. Department for
Education and Skills Research Report RW92. Availablefrom:
Curry, M J and Lillis,T (2010). Making professional academic writing practices visible:
Designing research-based heuristics to support English-medium text production. In:
Harwood, Nigel ed. English Language Teaching Materials: Theory and Practice.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 321–345.
Equality Challenge Unit (2009) Equality in higher education: statistical report 2009.
London: ECU.
Equality Challenge Unit (2010) Equality in higher education: statistical report 2010.
London: ECU.
Ganobcsik-Williams L (2004) A Report on the Teaching of Academic Writing in UK
Higher Education. Royal Literary Fund
Lea M. and Street B. V.(1998). Student Writing in Higher Education: An Academic
Literacies Approach Studies in Higher Education vol 23 (2) 157-172
Lillis,T. and Scott, M. (2008) (eds.) Special Issue of Journal of Applied Linguistics. New
Directions in Academic Literacies. 4.1.
Nesi H and Gardner S (2012) Genres across the Disciplines: Student Writing in Higher
Education. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press
Singh G (2009) A synthesis of research evidence. Black and minority ethnic (BME)
students’ participation in higher education: improving retention and success.