Applying to your context
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Academic writing has developed a troublesome reputation, and so has the learning and teaching of it. If you want to help your students develop their writing, avoid the discussion about writing and assessment that begins with negative conversations, including about plagiarism and plagiarism software. These serve to create a climate of mistrust between you and your students. While students should not copy ideas and arguments from others without proper acknowledgement of the original source, it makes little sense to threaten students with academic misconduct and plagiarism penalties before they understand the purpose of reverencing and the problem of copying. If these things are important to us, we need to make the time and space to initiate them into the forms and conventions of successful academic practice. As laboratory educators, it’s up to us to help students understand the what, why, and how, of the processes of academic writing, preferably in small, generative, and low-stick tasks in the first instance. Thus, rather than asking students to precis an article or immediately write a fully fledged essay, ask them to playfully produce six 40 or 80 word essays, or patches, on a topic. Using more creative and playful approaches suggests that writing can be exploratory, and you need not to know where you’re going before you start your journey. And finally, writing can be fun.
While what we recommend in this course has been proven to work, there might be challenges along the way such as students resisting the invitation to write, or the writing is not progressing as anticipated. We suggest:
- Set aside class time for students to talk with each other about their writing (or non-writing) and equally set aside time for yourself to reflect on what you have been attempting to achieve with respect to writing development – what has worked well – and how to do even more of that.
- To prevent resistance to writing make it part of your course (regardless of the subject, the content taught, or the assessment mode), from the very beginning: ten minutes of writing at the end of a seminar to summarise key ideas – or to make conscious how they might use that week’s content in the assignment – can help here.
- Encourage students to keep a scrapbook of ideas that they can go back to if they run out of thoughts about an assignment. Encourage them to paste in pictures and poetry and press cuttings – to make it an enjoyable resource to return to. Every so often encourage them to ‘review’ the sketchbook – highlighting key findings and throwing away unnecessary material. This is an active revision process which also highlights what they have learned – and helps them to clarify and improve their learning.
Further, do not set ‘right answer’ tasks. While assignments and questions where there is only one right answer may be appropriate in some modules and at some stage, they inhibit the exploratory thought that is so necessary at the beginning of a degree programme. If rigidly imposed, students can be so constrained by this sort of assignment that they cease to think for themselves and start to only look for the answer that the lecturer wants. This limits students’ thinking and further increases their fear of writing.
Similarly, ‘model answers’ may not be the right way forward. Whilst students want model answers and will argue convincingly for them, their provision can backfire. The model answers provided can act as straitjackets on thinking, suggesting that there is only one solution to a problem. Moreover, it is thought by some that they can lead to academic misconduct because students start copying answers rather than writing their own.