Reimagining literature reviews as part of undergraduate research

I am currently supervising a PhD student, and she has been working on her literature review for the last few months, building the foundations and rationale for her study. Reading her successive drafts, and seeing her voice grow and develop, has given me pause for thought in terms of how we conceptualise, teach and write this thing called a literature review, especially in undergraduate education.

There has been a growing drive in the last five years or so, certainly in South Africa, towards making research a strong focus of undergraduate curricula, across the disciplinary map. In a higher education system that wants to grow its postgraduate  student base, both in quantity and in quality, having prospective postgraduates learn how to design, manage and write about research projects while they are undergraduates is becoming increasingly valued and important. Thus, parts of research projects – in particular methodology courses and literature review assignments – are becoming more common at undergraduate level. In this post, I will focus in on literature reviews – specifically a few of the main shortcomings of how they tend to be taught and assessed at undergraduate level, and the implications for postgraduate research.

In a fairly traditional research assignment or project, the literature review is almost always the starting point. We read to map out the field, to work out who are researchers are that are working in this area and what they are (and are not yet) writing about. We read to work out what we think about the research we are interested in doing, to work out what kinds of research questions might be viable and also interesting to answer. We read to develop our own voices, and to build our credibility as we map our own research project onto the field, especially into gaps in the field we are working in. In short, we do a great deal of reading, and a great deal of thinking, scribbling, drafting and revising as we build – whether for a large or small project – the foundation and rationale for the research we plan on doing.

Once we have scoped all of this out, and have honed in on one question we can answer, we design a study, develop a theoretical framework, and proceed to generate relevant data that we can analyse and interpret in order to answer the research question. Doing all of that reviewing and reading of literature makes sense in the context of a research project as a whole, because what we do find will then speak back to that field – adding a voice and new ideas and thereby making a contribution. Without the research project as a whole (behind and) in front of the literature review, it can become a disconnected and therefore potentially unhelpful exercise, if its aim is to begin to acculturate undergraduate students into the hows and whys of doing their own research.

A literature review is less a review of existing literature – summary and compare ‘n contrast exercises – and more contextual framework for the research you propose to undertake. You are setting out, for your reader, the parts of the broader research field that are relevant to your own research – that they need to know about in order to understand why your research is necessary and important. Relevance is key. What you should not be doing is writing a long assignment showing the reader everything you have read, laboriously summarising, comparing, contrasting and synthesising the views of different authors. What tends to happen, in these kinds of review exercises, is that your research project and questions get lost in the tumult of other researchers’ projects and arguments. You lose your voice, and the relevance of all that reading is lost.

Unfortunately, most of the literature review assignment at undergraduate level I saw at the writing centre I used to manage over the last few years end up becoming exactly this kind of exercise, largely because there is no drive to understand the rationale for a research project students are invested in. Students are given a topic, perhaps a couple of the same readings with instructions to find two or three more related readings on their own, and then asked to summarise, synthesise and connect the readings in a literature review. In the better assignments, the topic will be a research question, but it is (as I have observed) difficult and puzzling for an undergraduate student to work out what they are reviewing in the literature and why, I believe because it is not their research, or because there is not project as a whole. The assignments thus do not end up helping these students learn how to do the kinds of literature review work that will be useful to them in postgraduate study.

This brings me to a second issue: postgraduate study, and the expectations of postgraduate students as compared to undergraduate students. Honours and Masters degrees are usually quite structured, and students embark on coursework before undertaking a manageable research project. The reading lists are shorter than they would be, in general, for a PhD study. But the task is, albeit on different levels, the same: you need to construct a research question, and develop a study that can be carried out in order to find an answer (crudely put). Thus, whatever existing research you read needs to be relevant to that project – it needs to help you understand your part of the field well; it needs to help you locate your proposed research in relation to existing research; it can help you work out appropriate theoretical and methodological frameworks or approaches; it defines and delimits your context and scope for the research; and it guides your reader into the rationale and need for your research. If all undergraduate students have learned is to summarise whole readings, without knowing how and what to select from them relevant to a specific project, how will they be able to accomplish the challenging task of building contextual and conceptual frameworks for their postgraduate research? If undergraduate literature review assignments are more often than not stand-alone assignments rather than initial parts of whole research projects, how will we need to adapt our supervision and mentoring practices at postgraduate level to bring students up to the levels of research and writing that are required of them?

Too often, postgraduate students who have done well as undergraduates end up feeling stupid and incompetent when they try to use what worked for them at undergraduate level in their postgraduate work, only to be told that they are not working at the right level, or in the right ways. Our work, in teaching undergraduate students the value and practice of research, is to look for clearer ways to align undergraduate and postgraduate expectations and study; to reimagine the teaching of research at undergraduate level so that it builds, cumulatively and in progressive stages, towards the capacity to continue learning and growing at postgraduate level. We cannot keep leaving it to the students themselves to work all of this out on their own, if indeed we want research, inquiry and curiosity to be much stronger and more visible in undergraduate and postgraduate curricula.


Argument: creating a coherent whole out of the parts of your essay

One of things many undergraduate students I have worked with over the years have always battled with is understanding the difference between an essay that makes an argument, and an essay that has useful information in it that is not tied together around a central thread or point. In my former role as the coordinator of a university writing centre, I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to help students understand and address this struggle through writing workshops and tutorials, and in my work with their lecturers and tutors.

Getting your head around what an argument is, and how to craft and make substantive and coherent arguments, is key to succeeding at your higher education studies and beyond, and not just in the humanities and social sciences. Although they may do it in different ways and in different forms, all fields make and defend arguments for and against things: this design for a footbridge rather than that one for this community; this method for building a hydrology model rather than that one in this project site; this theory of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on modern society and not a different one; and so on.



The argument is the answer to the ‘So what?’ question you don’t want your readers to ask at the end of your essay. It is the ‘golden thread’ if you like, that takes the strands of your argument and pulls them into a defined shape to substantiate and develop the central claim your essay wants to make. This is often called ‘the thesis statement’. It needs to be clearly made, often in the introductory part of your writing, so that your reader knows what it is that is helping you to select and organise the parts of your essay or paper that will follow. What follows the introduction will be a connected selection of sub-claims, supported by relevant evidence, that further develop and substantiate the central claim, and all of these sub-claims must make up this golden thread – they need to connect, in a logical and coherent order, to create an argument that is persuasive and makes sense.



You could think of these sub-claims, and the evidence you have selected from literature or empirical data, or both, as strands of coloured wool. On their own, side-by-side, they just make up a collection of strands of coloured wool. Without a purpose or aim to draw them together into a blanket or a scarf or similar, they are just pretty strands of wool. They need a knitter and the knitter needs a pattern to follow. In undergraduate and early postgraduate studies, where students are completing coursework, they are given their ‘knitting patterns’ in the form of task questions and instructions to respond to. Later on, in independent research, students need to design their own patterns, or research tasks.

Students, as the knitters, will read (or devise) the task, decide on what research needs to be done to generate the information needed to respond appropriately to the task, and using their prior learning as well as the thinking, reading and writing practice they have had thus far, they will ideally weave or knit the information together to create something new, that represents (hopefully in their own creative way) the pattern they were asked to follow. They will create new knowledge from existing knowledge, even in a small way, by taking a position on an issue and advancing a substantiated argument. Without the argument to tie the strands together into a pattern, the essay will likely end up looking a bit like the picture above – a collection of paragraphs, each with their own point, but together not quite managing to create something coherent or sensible. The essay may well leave the reader wondering: ‘So what? What is the point of all of this?’

A tool I recently learnt on a writing retreat has really helped me to create a define my own ‘pattern’ for my writing, and is helping me to make sure that I am actually knitting together arguments in my papers that make sense, and are properly substantiated. Taken from a book called The Craft of Research, the tool helps writers to plot out the golden thread by asking them to think carefully about the main claim, the sub-claims, the reasons for those claims, and the evidence needed to substantiate them. Claims and evidence are probably quite obvious – of course we need both of these elements to write a paper worth its salt. But what of reasons? According to the authors, reasons are important because they outline the logic of the argument you want to make. I have learned, using this tool, that I am quite good at generating many reasons for the research I want to write about, but I am less adept at pinning down my claims. This tool has been helping me to work on this.

This (below) is my version of the tool in action: an argument for a paper I am working on plotted out in my research journal on stickies. Following the retreat facilitator’s advice, I use stickies to avoid writing long-winded claims and reasons. This is not the plan for your paper, this is the plan for your argument, and you need to be able to identify and state your claims, reasons, and related evidence fairly concisely. If it takes you 7 or 8 stickies to state one claim, you have some more thinking and refining to do before you are ready to plot out your paper and knit your strands together.

photo 2

I start with my main claim, and then identify any sub-claims that are part of that. I then write out the reasons for the claims I am making, and follow with the evidence I either have, or need to have, to support these claims. The orange stickies at the end contain my ‘take-home message’ or the answer to the ‘So what?’ question (which will be part of my conclusion) as well as the limitations on the argument I want to make. Not every paper will include limitations, but all papers need to have claims, reasons, evidence, and a clear answer to the ‘So what?’ question. All papers we write, whether as undergrads, postgrads or professionals, need to have a point – and the point is the argument, and the way in which we are weaving that golden thread through the writing to create something new from all the strands of research, reading and thinking we have been doing.



If you are a writing teacher or tutor: consider using or adapting a tool like this to help students you work with understand the link between the research they are doing and the information they are gathering, and the ways in which this information and research need to be pulled together selectively around a central argument that knits all the paragraphs or parts together into a coherent, persuasive whole.

If you are a writer: try this tool out, and look for others that can help you to make clearer the ways in which your arguments are constructed and crafted, to ensure that your own writing is a clear, persuasive and makes as much sense as possible.

Reference: Booth, C., Colomb, G. and Williams, J. (Eds) 2003. The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

A new tool for talking writing: LCT and semantic waves

I completed my PhD last year, and I’m now embarking on postdoctoral research. One of the things I am really excited about is applying my conceptual framework to different kinds of teaching, learning and academic work to the case studies I looked at in my PhD. Specifically, I would like to connect my framework – Legitimation Code Theory – with my academic writing and academic literacies work where possible. This post reflects some of that thinking, so indulge me a little, if you will :).

Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), very briefly, builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein, but subsumes and extends aspects of these two eminent sociologists’ work to create a conceptual and analytical ‘toolkit’ that enables researchers to ‘dig’ beneath what they can see on the surface to find the organising principles underlying practices. It is a critical realist framework, and in terms of my own research in education – pedagogy in particular – it has been very useful because it enables a focus on knowledges as well as on the knowers without conflating the two as a social constructivist epistemology can end up doing. In sum, the toolkit can enable close-up, detailed research that can look meaningfully at what underlies our practices, beliefs and approaches to teaching and learning, for example, so that we can understand the whats, whys and hows, and think more carefully about how to change what needs changing.

One aspect of the ‘toolkit’ I have been using in my own research is Semantics, which comprises two tools: semantic gravity and semantic density. I’ll just be looking at the first tool, semantic gravity, in this post. Drawing on Karl Maton’s 2013 book, Knowledge and Knowers, semantic gravity concerns the degree of connection between meanings and the contexts in which they find application. So a concept/term that does not require a specific context to be understood, and is more abstract or generalised, displays weaker semantic gravity because it is further from any particular context. It could be brought into and transformed in a range of contexts, or applications. A concept/term that cannot easily be understood or applied outside of a particular application or context displays stronger semantic gravity – it is more dependent for meaning on the context in which it has been introduced.

If we work too much in spaces with either weaker or stronger semantic gravity we run the risk of either making it difficult for students to understand how to apply and work with abstract knowledge OR making it very difficult for students to extract abstract meanings from problems and applications to be able to move into different contexts and work ably within them. What is necessary, for students to integrate conceptual understandings with application or problem-solving for example, is a waving movement from stronger to weaker semantic gravity as concepts are drawn up, for example, from students’ own contextual and applied knowledge, and then crucially back into the context to show how using different kinds of conceptual knowledge can lead to different ways of working within that context and then back up to abstraction again and so on. This can be called a ‘gravity wave’ and it could look, heuristically, a  bit like this:


Generic semantic gravity wave

Generic semantic gravity wave

I want to now reflect on how we started to use this tool to think about our conversations with students, focused on developing their writing, and them as writers. I started with a tutor workshop, showing the tutors the tools and getting them to try them out a little. Then I asked them to explicitly think about ‘waving’ in their peer tutorials with students, and reflect on whether and how this worked for them, or didn’t, in their narrative reports written about each tutorial. The conjecture we wanted to start thinking about using Semantics was this: If we work only or mostly in the context of each individual written task, talking about, for example, this introduction, rather than talking about introductions in writing more generally and then using that ‘concept’ to analyse the specific introduction in front of us with a view to revisions, are we not doing students’ longer-term growth as reflective writers a disservice? How would our conversations, and students’ view of their writing, change if we were able to more clearly focus on moving between the assignment itself and more generalised or abstracted meanings that can attach to parts of academic writing, like introductions and arguments?

The tutors offered some very interesting feedback in their reports as they started to apply this tool, very lightly, in their tutorial sessions. I was also able to observe them, and was able to ‘hear’ how they were trying to wave the conversations up and down, rather than staying down in the context of the assignment students were working on. Several tutors, for example, commented that they started in the contexts, always: asking students how they are, what they are working on, what concerns or problems they’d like to talk about in the session. Then they moved to the essay, asking students to talk to them about what they had done thus far, and where the draft was in terms of work in progress. Then, depending on their prior reading of the task and analysis of the key issues, tutors tried to shift up the wave a bit, asking students for more generalised understandings of, for example, what referencing is and why we do it, or what an introduction looks like generally, and what purpose it serves in a piece of writing. After establishing more general ‘principles’ like this, the tutors then tried to bring students back down the wave into the referencing or introduction in the assignment in front of them, asking students to then think about where they might be able to improve or make changes, and why.

Most tutors found that this more explicit notion of what could be considered ‘abstract’ and ‘contextual’ in written assignments, and especially the idea of needing to move a student between the two in successive waves over the course of a conversation about an assignment, very interesting, and useful. Often, due to time constraints, student panic, and tutors really wanting to help students improve a piece of writing, we stay too much in the context of this assignment, these writing challenges, these revisions. The worry is that, while this assignment may improve, students may not necessarily take forward from the experience a wider or less specific understanding of what they did well or not, and may therefore struggle with the same issues in similar ways in future assignments, slowing their growth as confident and competent writers.

Rather than staying ‘down’ in the context, being able to bring students ‘up’, even a little, to where they can see the whole picture, and a wider understanding of principles of academic writing more generally, may enable them to go back down, over and over, into different assignments with increasingly greater dexterity in adapting the principles to effectively respond to assignment criteria, and cumulatively develop a deeper understanding of academic writing and what it takes to do it well.

Maton, K. 2013. Knowledge and knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Responding to ‘reviewers’ – a tool for developing consciousness in writers

I love getting new ideas to use in my writing workshops, both with lecturers and students. This new idea is a tool for lecturers to use with their students, and it’s built on a practice I was told about by a lecturer in a foundation year programme this week. This tool is useful for helping students to develop a reflective stance on their own writing and a meta-level of consciousness about what they are doing when they write and how their approach to writing, reading and thinking is shifting over time.

This tool is called ‘Response to the reviewer’ because it bears similarities to the letters authors of journal articles/books/chapters in academia are more often than not asked to write after they have completed revisions recommended by peer reviewers. In these letters, authors have to explain to the editors of the journal what changes they have made to their work, why and often where in the paper the changes have been made. It’s a challenging exercise because it doesn’t just require a list of changes made – editors often want some idea of the reasoning process that went into making or not making the changes.

The lecturer who sparked this idea writes fairly detailed rubrics outlining his assessment standards and criteria for his students. He does not have time to have them all write drafts, have these marked formatively, and then rewrite and revise these as he has over 300 students. So, what he does is create an assessment plan that makes each successive task build on the tasks before, so that the previous essay, for example, works a little like a draft of the following one, even if they are not on the same topic. His rubrics, then, and the way he completes them and comments on students’ work feeds forward rather than just feeding back, as he wants students to think about how to improve on areas of struggle/vagueness/weakness in the following assignment. I think this is a really creative way of addressing the issue of wanting students to revise and improve in their writing without the ‘luxury’ of time for multiple drafts and guided revisions. In order to see whether these revisions and improvements are indeed happening, he asks his students to attach task one’s draft to task two, and so on, so that he can remind himself, and also them, of the comments he has already made on their writing.

The tool build on this by adding a self-reflective an extra dimension. One of the goals we must have in higher education is to guide students not just in acquiring and applying certain technical or applied skills or knowledge-related practices, as well as theoretical and principled knowledge, but also to guide them in becoming certain kinds of knowers – people who think, act, write, behave, see the world in particular ways (a lawyer, for instance, or an accountant or an analyst of some kind). Part of this becoming is developing a consciousness – who are we? Where do we fit into our field? What are our roles? What choices can and do we make and why? What could we do differently? How? Etc. Often this works at a meta-level, underpinning all the actions we take and choices we make, and so after a while it becomes more tacit, and more part of our ‘way of being in the world’ as Bharuthram and McKenna argue about academic lecturers’ understanding of their disciplines. The tricky thing is understanding, once you work like this, how you developed this consciousness in the first place, and as a teacher, working out how to help your students, through the tasks and teaching you design, to develop this in themselves.

Here’s one idea of how to begin to do that: Take, use, adapt my colleague’s idea first. Write rubrics that give your students a clear set of assessment criteria. When you assess their work, don’t just tick boxes and assign a mark – give yourself a space for comments, and give them three  or four clear things to do or consider the next time they write an essay. Explain as far as possible what you mean and how they might go about doing these things so that they have an actual plan of action rather than just a wishlist. Then, get them to attach the rubric from task one to task two when they submit but add this new tool – ‘Response to the reviewer’ – by asking them to write a paragraph explaining how they put your comments on task one into action in task two, or how they did not and why. This, I think, will achieve two important goals: the first is that it will give you very useful information on whether and how your students are (or are not) using your feedback, and why. Then you can make adjustments, and learn from their responses how to improve your feedback-giving. Second, it gives students opportunities to reflect on a different part of their writing development – not the ‘what’ that they are writing about, but the often more hidden ‘how’ and ‘why’ they have written the task the way they have, what they have found do-able and what they have struggled with. You can use this tool in each assignment or you could give students guidance on writing more substantial reflections quarterly or semesterly on a set of rubrics they have been working with in your course.

We don’t just develop this kind of conscious understanding of our practice – we are often guided to it through questions we have to consider from colleagues or mentors, or  tasks we have to complete, or through more mundane things, like applications for promotions or for new jobs, where we are asked to reflect on what we have done thus far and what we’d like to do next, and why. The why is so important here, because this is what moves us into that ‘meta’ space, where the tacit can be surfaced, looked at critically, and rethought perhaps. This is a space for growth and change, and the more we can take students here and make it an encouraging and also challenging space where they are supported in being more reflective and self-critical, the more they can begin to grow and transform in the ways we may well want them to (and that they may well desire themselves).

Making an argument: what it is and is not in academic writing

This post follows on from our previous post about unthinking the way we teach students to argue in their written work. We see many students every year at the Writing Centre with argumentative essays. We therefore spend a lot of time talking about how to help students understand what argument is, and how to construct arguments in their essays. We also have to talk about what it isn’t, amongst ourselves as tutors and also with students.

Several research papers within the field of academic literacies and writing look at argumentative writing, and debate student struggles with this genre and how to help them write more effective or relevant or appropriate essays. Key among the findings of the papers we have read seems to be that students come to university with a narrower understanding of what an argument is. In short, many students associate argument with arguing in the sense of having a fight with someone. Further, they also then see making an arguments as reinforcing your side of the fight or argument only, leaving someone else to oppose you. Most academics would immediately say ‘Oh no, it’s not about fighting, it’s about…’ debating, persuading, challenging, weighing up two or more sides of pertinent issues, and so on. Academic arguments are, among other things, balanced, careful, evidence-based, logical, well-structured and well-referenced. They are based on research, and weigh up different sides of an issue from the standpoint of the writer’s stance or position on that issue. Different disciplines like Law or English or Physics will make arguments in different ways, for example thinking about case summaries or literary critiques or models. However, for the most part they have many of these more general characteristics in common. They are designed to persuade more than to inform, to challenge and debate more than to simply present a position.

But explaining to students that these are some of the main things academic arguments are is not necessarily all that helpful. Students need, also, to know what they are not, and through guiding feedback on their writing to be shown what to do differently if they are not making arguments in the ways expected of them. Academic arguments, as stated, are not ‘fights’. They are not one-sided or narrow, and they do not pretend that the opposing side does not exist. They are not based on opinions, heresay and personal views, and where they are based on a writer’s personal views, these are supported and critiqued with research and evidence. Academic arguments are also not descriptions or explanations alone. A writer will use the tools of description or explanation to defend and support the stance they are taking, but an essay that merely describes or explains an issue without taking a position in relation to that issue and the evidence is not an argument.

Again, merely telling students these things does not guarantee that they will understand what you are saying clearly enough to put it all into actual practice in their own writing. They need this kind of advice on their writing as they write, through verbal or written feedback. However, explaining to students ahead of reading and writing what you as the assessor do think an argument is and is not, and what you expect from their writing and why you need or want them to write like that is an important step in making the ‘rules of the game’ clearer to novice writers especially. Having to explain these rules or guidelines to students also creates an opportunity for reflection on the part of lecturers or tutors, and possibly also an opportunity for rethinking some of the ways in which you can creatively and critically address the teaching of argumentative writing in your field or discipline. Perhaps you could share some of the ways in which you do this? We’d love to hear some new thoughts and ideas.

Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 2

This post follows on from my previous post about beginning the year challenging ourselves to ‘unthink’ some of the ways in which we think about academic writing conventions in higher education. The first post dealt with how we teach students to avoid plagiarising the work of others, and how we might go about teaching referencing differently. This post discusses another way in which I think we can rethink academic writing: by rethinking our approach to teaching different forms of written tasks, in particular argumentative essays.

I must preface the rest of this post by saying that I think this is a tough topic. It’s difficult to write good argumentative essays as an undergraduate and as a teacher of undergraduates I know that it is also difficult to teach students how to write these kinds of essays well. We see students at the Writing Centre all year long who are really confused about what is expected of them and what they need to be doing with their research, reading, thinking and writing in order to produce these kinds of essays. We find it hard to help them beyond a certain point because what it is to argue, and what counts as evidence and also as the appropriate use of evidence in support of claims made differs from discipline to discipline.

However,  disciplinary lecturers and tutors are themselves not always clear about what a good argument looks and sounds like, or have fuzzy ideas about how to write good arguments or explain how to do this using clear and unambiguous language. Many academic literacies and writing centre practitioners and scholars have written about this, but I am going to draw particularly here on a recent paper by Ursula Wingate (‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about). In this paper, Wingate looks at samples of students’ work and at comments from tutors, and also talks to students about writing argumentative essays in an effort to understand what students think an argument is coming into university and how they are helped, through feedback on their writing, to begin to write the kinds of argumentative essays required by their disciplines.  What she found, in short, were gaps between what students thought an argument was, and what the discipline required of them, and further, she found that tutors were largely unable to communicate clearly the shifts and moves students needed to make in their thinking and writing through their feedback. The tutors themselves did not seem to have a clear understanding of what argument looked like or how to communicate this to students.

This is perhaps not a very surprising finding, although it is worrying for students as many of them rely on their lecturers and tutors to help them through this maze. As many scholars like Wingate have argued, we need to be careful of assuming that all lecturers and tutors know how to explain the process of producing an argument in clear, accessible terms to novice student writers. As I said earlier on, arguments in academic discourse are difficult to make, and there are so many steps that go into the process.

Think about it: you first need to read and understand the question you have to respond to. Then you need to work out what search terms to use so that you can search the library databases and the Web for relevant information on that topic. Then you need to read all of that information, understand it, summarise it, synthesise it into a coherent whole of understanding so that you can relate it to a reader in your own words. You also need to keep track of where it all comes from so you can reference it. Then you need to go back to the question and formulate a structured, organised and logical response using all of that information. But this is not all. You can’t just create a patchwork quilt of other people’s words and ideas, even if you are not plagiarising. You also, and Wingate makes this point so clearly, need to take a position. You need to have a ‘voice’ in that paper, and you need to direct the information, using it to support the claims you are making as part of the position you have chosen.

Often though, this process is not understood by students as being this obviously complex and many of the students we see in our writing centre don’t really understand all these steps or how to carry them out effectively. So, I think there needs to be some unthinking here, or perhaps rather just different thinking about how we teach students to write essays like this.

In the first place, while at the Writing Centre we can talk to students about the fact that they need to take a position, and we can help them think through their logical and structured response to the question, we cannot always give in-depth insight into exactly how they need to relate their position and the supporting reasons and arguments and why they need to do it like this and not like that. Thus, disciplinary lecturers really need to understand what they are asking of students in terms of the process, and they need to work backwards to build in time to teach students some of these relevant skills, if you like, or academic practices as they also teach them the substantive knowledge of the discipline. Students also need opportunities to practice writing in these new ways, and get feedback that guides them. It’s not always easy to do, but it is necessary.

Another thing that we need to unthink is the language we use. Wingate and also Lillis and Turner (2001)  argue that the words we use to speak about argument which seem clear to us as insiders to this academic discourse and more often than not jargon to students and impenetrable. Words like ‘structure’, ‘coherence’, ‘cohesion’ and also ‘argument’, ‘evidence’ and ‘position’ are all fairly dense words with a lot of meaning packed into them. We need to unpack these with our students and help them to see what we mean, what we need them to do and why we need them to do it in that way.

Once we begin to unthink the way we think about argumentative writing we can see that what we are asking of undergraduate students is a lot, and it is not surprising that so many struggle with writing and research at this level. We can also see more clearly what we can be doing to light their path and equip them with the knowledge and practice they need to understand what they are doing and begin to improve and grow in confidence too.

Lillis, T., & Turner, J. 2001. Student Writing in Higher Education: contemporary confusion, traditional concerns. Teaching in Higher Education, 6:1, 57-67.

Wingate, U. 2012. ‘Argument!’ helping students understand what essay writing is about. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11, 145-154.


Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 1

It’s 2014, and after a much needed break we are back and work and back on the blog. I want to start off this year with a short think-piece about something I have been wondering about for a while. Unthinking the way we think about writing, or aspects of how we teach students to write in academia. This post will be part one.

By unthinking what I am trying to get at is questioning our assumptions about what makes academic writing generally good, or worthy of praise or recognition – some of the ways in which we write and think in academia are so for good reasons and don’t necessarily warrant changes; but not all of them are so helpful and may even be making it harder for students to succeed. Perhaps, then, the start of a new academic year (for us in the Southern hemisphere at least) is a good time to ponder some of these issues.

My first example is the way we deal with plagiarism. I have lost count of the number of assignments we have seen where the task question starts with a list of all the rules for the task, at least two of which have to do with referencing and plagiarism and really severe punishments for instances of the latter. Many of the students we work with have been told that they must reference and that plagiarism is a very serious offence but have no idea what plagiarism really is, or how to avoid it. This is especially so for first and second year students. It has somehow become assumed that someone, somewhere will explain this to students and so many lecturers don’t take the time to explain either how to reference or how to avoid plagiarism to their students. Many students fail at avoiding plagiarism – I did when I was an undergraduate – and many are really worried all the time that they are going to get into serious trouble. Surely we can adopt a different, gentler and more pedagogical approach here.

Shelley Angelil-Carter wrote an excellent book some years ago entitled ‘Stolen Language?’ in which she talked, and here I really am paraphrasing, about the need for students to ‘try on’ different kinds of academic discourse, almost like wearing clothes that don’t quite fit and adjusting them to fit over time, as they grow into them. Another version of this is ‘fake it til you make it’ – writing in a voice and tone and style that is mimicry rather than your own until it becomes your own and feels authentic and easier to keep working in. Students need to ‘try on’ their new academic discourses and often need to ‘steal’ the language and words of others who already have the right voice to try and work out how theirs should sound.

I am not advocating for plagiarism – referencing the work of others is more than academic convention; it also speaks to how knowledge is cumulatively built within intellectual and educational fields and also how shifts in knowledge knowing and making have occurred over time, for example. It is very important and necessary for students to learn how and when to reference and also why. But what I am advocating for is creating space, at undergraduate level particularly, for students to practice writing over and over in the new discourses they need to become familiar with.

This space needs to be low-stakes – no or little assessment or marks and no punishment attached – and students need to be guided as to how to begin to claim a new voice. Exemplars of successful essays can be given to students and lecturers can talk more about what makes these exemplars worthy of good marks and praise. Likewise, exemplars of poorly performing essays can also be discussed. Tutorials can focus on getting students to talk and write more and become more aware of particular conventions and expectations within different disciplines and why these are there. Assessment schedules can be rethought to allow more time for students to practice writing before they are asked to hand in an assignment that counts for a significant percentage of their overall mark but for which they have had very few chances to really prepare.

Most importantly, though, we could shift our focus in higher education from the products of student work to the process that is an education. It takes a long time to cultivate a way of seeing the world, or a ‘gaze’ (Maton 2013). It’s a process that is completed most successfully by have many opportunities for immersion in the new ways of thinking, reading, writing and so on with those who already have this gaze and can guide, teach and help novice students (see Bernstein 1999). Monica Hendricks and Lynn Quinn wrote a very interesting paper a while back about teaching referencing to students as epistemological access to knowing in the disciplines, and their argument is sound: learning how to reference and how to use other people’s words and ideas to shape our own thinking and intellectual development is way more than convention; it is indeed an issue of epistemic access to knowledge and ways of knowing it.

Rather than trying to punish students for failing to recognize often tacit academic conventions and produce ‘perfect’ work, we could see their failures (especially at the beginning of their studies) as opportunities to open up discussions about how disciplines make knowledge and value it, and why we have to enter into conversations with others, living and dead through what we read, in order to grow our own understandings of the world or the parts of it we are interested in learning about and researching. We could explain more clearly the nature of academic research and why academic work has value, and why students need to cite others – not as a chore or as a rule, but as an act that makes them part of these academic conversations and that make them not just knowers of knowledge but potentially also able to contribute to what Leesa Wheelahan calls ‘society’s conversation about what it should be like’ (163).

Angélil-Carter, S. (2000). Stolen language? Harlow, UK: Longman.

Bernstein, B. (1999). Vertical and Horizontal Discourse: An Essay. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20(2), 157-173.

Hendricks, M., & Quinn, L. (2000). Teaching referencing as an introduction to epistemological empowerment. Teaching in Higher Education, 5(4), 447-457.

Maton, K. (2013). Knowledge and Knowers. Towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge, 86-105.

Wheelahan, L. 2010. Why knowledge matters in curriculum. A social realist argument. London: Routledge, 145-163.