By Sue Robbins & Chris O’Reilly

The Academic Writing Guide (AWG) is an interactive web-based resource developed for the core Academic Development (AD) module of the University of Sussex Central Foundation Years programme which introduces students to the research process and to argumentation. The AWG is designed for self-access and offers practice tasks and exemplars to help students research and write a discursive essay. It was developed as part of a process of constructive alignment – an integrative design for teaching in which the alignment between intended learning outcomes, teaching-learning activities and assessment tasks is emphasised. Students research and write a discursive essay in 3 stages, submitting work-in-progress at the end of each stage in order to gain feedback. This independent work is supported in weekly 2-hour seminars. We found this approach to skills development to be motivating, and students engage with the research, reading, writing and thinking skills required by this genre of writing while applying disciplinary knowledge with a high degree of success. 

Background of Teaching

Like many universities Sussex uses a centralised model of learning support to provide workshops or advice on generic study skills or writing. If we accept that ‘skills’ are situated, contextualised and discipline specific socio-cultural practices, however, offering generic study skills make little practical sense. As Wingate (2006) argues study skills should not be decontextualised from the process of learning and the subject matter being taught. Ideas that study skills are definable entities and that teaching study skills helps students succeed in their degree do not have a sound pedagogical basis. A body of research supports the idea that embedding provision within subject departments can be a far more effective approach, helping students link subject content with assessment requirements, and making explicit the norms and conventions of particular disciplines (White and Lay, 2019). As ‘third space’ practitioners we have in the past made efforts to teach generic skills and know how resistant students are and how ‘buy-in’ is minimal.  

The Academic Development (AD) module was initially devised as a ‘bolt-on’ module to the wider Foundation Year. Such a deficit-focused model associates skills learning with failure and this was evidenced by poor student and tutor evaluations. Focus groups and module evaluations showed that much of the students’ dissatisfaction centred on their perception of AD as ‘remedial’. Given the constraints of the programme structure it was unrealistic to aim for a wholly embedded academic literacies approach, so instead we worked to manoeuvre the module towards a position that is adjunct to the wider programme, where an overlap is created between AD and the subject modules.  

When students are expected to arrive with, or very quickly acquire, the necessary cultural capital and skills to succeed at university we need to make visible the things that are encouraged and rewarded in HE. It is often not immediately evident to students that staff assume they will:  

  • read widely  
  • find out how to make effective use of the Library  
  • be able to choose appropriate texts from the range on offer  
  • know to/how to skim read over chunks of irrelevant texts to find what is relevant  
  • be able to read and understand academic prose/journal articles  
  • interpret the assessment task  
  • have the confidence to work in ideas gleaned from their reading into their own writing   

Explicit instruction in these skills are integrated into the Academic Writing Guide (AWG). Writing is taught with reference to the content modules; the texts, tasks and systems involved come directly from the content course; and learning events cross-reference each other so that the module now goes some way towards synchronizing academic literacy development with subject content exploration.  

Description of Teaching Practice

Used on the core Academic Development module of the Central Foundation Years the Academic Writing Guide (AWG) is a web-based teaching resource designed to introduce students to the process of writing a discursive essay and to build their skills of argumentation. It is embedded into the VLE where a weekly narrative about the process is elaborated. Students work autonomously with the AWG completing a series of tasks to help them research and write their own discursive essay. They bring their work into weekly seminars for discussion, receiving peer and tutor feedback, and all module assessment is directly linked to their research. This scaffolded use of technology for asynchronous learning offers structured support for their independent learning. Student feedback about the AWG and the way their independent research is supported in and out of the classroom is highly positive.  

Evaluation & Conclusion

The Academic Writing Guide (AWG) offers students an intuitive platform and a wide range of task types. It brings together material written by teaching staff and relevant Skills Hub, Library and IT Services resources. This scaffolded use of technology for asynchronous learning as part of a task-based approach assists students in their transition to university study.  

Student feedback on the module has become more positive and there is a steady increase in student satisfaction scores from module evaluation questionnaires year on year. There is evidence that integrating academic writing provision as part of subject curriculum in AD has helped to reduce the concept of ‘remedial’. Use of the AWG on the module has allowed us to go some way towards synchronizing academic literacy development with subject content exploration, both of which are equally important for students to develop in HE 

The AWG is an OER with CC license and can be readily shared. 

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Sue Robbins is a Senior Lecturer in the Sussex Centre for Language Studies and Senior Fellow of the HEA. Sue teaches a range of modules/courses to foundation year, under- and post-graduate home and International students, and to pre- and in-service teachers (home and international). 

Chris O’Reilly is the Language Learning Coordinator in the Sussex Centre for Language Studies. Chris coordinators language learning materials and develops creative digital resources for the centre.