Originally published in the Scotsman.

Across Scotland, first-year students are terrified: it’s essay-writing season.

I’ve been receiving panicked e-mails from my undergrads, seeking clarification of the assignment and tips on how to approach their first 2000-word essay. I’m a bit worried about the students who haven’t asked for help, because essay-writing is not a straightforward endeavour.

There’s an assumption that it’s exclusively about the topic at hand – if students understand a topic well enough, they will write good essays. Of course, it’s tough to produce quality without good ingredients, but that’s only one element of the process. Without good general writing skills, even well-researched essays will be mediocre at best.

The UK’s lack of basic academic writing courses never ceases to amaze me. Scottish universities do not require a writing module as part of a degree, yet every degree requires students to write academic essays. They are somehow expected to already know how to write – but any lecturer or tutor in any discipline can see that’s not the case. Only a few universities in Scotland offer optional workshops for undergraduates who want to improve their writing skills. From web descriptions where they are available, the sessions seem to be short, one-off seminars rather than ongoing workshops.

Apart from being unfair to the students, this poses a real problem for overstretched academic departments. They recognise the importance of writing skills, but struggle to find the time to help students develop them – even a brief introduction to essay-writing takes away from “real” course material. Comments on returned essays give practical guidance for improvement, but it’s months before students have another assignment. And even if there was more time to dedicate to re-working essays, most lecturers and tutors are not equipped to teach writing beyond the conventions of their disciplines.

The result is that students get hasty and piecemeal “top tips” from different subjects, rather than a coherent, well-developed programme with the foundations of good academic writing across disciplines.

Most American universities do have these kinds of programmes, with compulsory writing courses for all students, regardless of their main subject. Usually small and workshop-based, the courses help students understand what’s expected in academic writing. They present an opportunity to develop skills with the help of a dedicated writing instructor (usually a trained PhD student), and provide space to polish essays for other courses. In my experience, they were the most valuable courses I took during undergrad, with the most practical benefit. From being a mystery, essay-writing became a craft.

Ironically, universities across the UK are adopting superficial elements of the American system, in hopes of gaining the coveted “world-class” status. Switching from terms to semesters, charging tuition fees, encouraging alumni donations… Yet they ignore elements that would actually improve the quality of student learning and increase the skill level of workers in the British economy.

With the recent emphasis on “transferable skills,” it’s surprising to see this glaring oversight. In the information economy, effective written communication is the ultimate transferable skill. I know that many students learn to write well, despite the lack of instruction – but it seems strange to leave such an important skill up to chance.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to suggest setting up widespread writing courses overnight. But most universities already have student support centres that organise exam-preparation sessions. It would not be much of a leap to consider piloting a few optional writing workshops – even better if they were ongoing, interdisciplinary, and based around real assignments. I would predict that anything to help ease their fears and improve their writing would be embraced with a sigh of relief from staff and students alike.

1 Comment

  1. Peter Laidlaw
    6 December 2007

    A possible partial solution. Tutors should provide first and second year students with a stylesheet outlining in some detail what they expect, bearing in mind that this may differ between disciplines. They should also encourage students to learn from each other by swapping marked class essays. No invidious comparisons would be involved and they would soon be able to discriminate between good and bad writing.

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