This session reports on a study in progress which seeks to improve first year undergraduate academic writing ability. It is widely recognised that students direct from secondary school have limited experience and poor understanding of how to write academic essays (Wingate 2012). Although colleges and universities commonly provide online learning resources designed to help them learn to do this better, there is evidence of poor uptake (Brown et al. 2008). The purpose of this study is to establish whether increasing the salience, perceived relevance and meaningfulness of these learning opportunities will result in increased engagement with relevant online learning and improve assignment grades.
Currently, the most widely adopted approach to communicating learning activity and assignment details is via text in module web pages made available through the virtual learning environment (VLE). This content may include, although sadly not often, information about supplementary learning resources, activities and help/advice. It is left to the student to recognise the purpose and relevance of what is on offer and take the initiative to locate, access and use it precisely at the time it is most applicable to performing the academic task. This can be quite a daunting challenge for novice, disadvantaged and overwhelmed learners, such as new undergraduates or international students. They will be unfamiliar with what is required of them, with a poor understanding of the nature of the task, such as writing their first essay.
The intervention planned is to use a Xerte learning object (LO) as a wrapper (or container) that presents assignment task information jointly with a model of the practice of academic writing combined with links to relevant learning resources. This LO will substitute directly for what was previously the assignment task text. Students will be required to open the LO to access the assignment details and will, at this point, encounter the practice model for academic writing. Each component stage of writing an academic essay will explicitly signpost the student to the most relevant online learning resources/services. Although uptake will still be optional it is hoped that less confident and capable students will be encouraged to take advantage of the help available to them.
Experimental data is due to be gathered in the first semester of the academic year 2019/20 with undergraduate first year intake (n=480) in the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University. Students are required to write two academic essays. The first is for formative purposes and the second a summative assignment. Grading and feedback will be provided for both submissions, with a marking scheme differentiating between evidence of academic knowledge and writing ability. Percentage marks will be assigned to each with an overall grade. Exactly the same assignments and approach to assessment are to be used as with previous cohorts. This will allow for performance to be compared between cohorts to establish whether the intervention impacts positively on academic performance.
The poster and GASTA talk will address the potential value of this approach, explain the underlying rational for the design of the study, and expand on potential future implications for promoting student engagement with online learning.
Brown, C.A., Dickson, R., Humphreys, A-L., McQuillan, V. and Smears E. (2008) Promoting academic writing/referencing skills: Outcome of an undergraduate e-learning pilot project, British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 39 No 1. pp 140–156
Wingate, U. (2012). ‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Vol 11. pp 145–154