Escaping a ‘study skills’ approach to academic writing

As a part time doctoral student living in South Wales, I really appreciated the chance to share my on-going research into student writing in teacher education at a Literacy Research Discussion Group meeting last month.
Part of my research involves exploring the attitudes and practices of teacher educators and mature adult teachers-in-training regarding academic writing for university qualifications (PGCEs etc). I am using focus group and interview discussions, and the analysis of my own practice in writing tutorials with student teachers, to do this (see slides).
I have, however, noticed a kind of ‘slipperiness’ in some of my teacher educator focus group data. Discussions about student writing that start off as broader considerations of language practices can easily slip into an exchange about Standard English or referencing conventions. In the data from my writing tutorials too, my students and I talk about these surface technicalities far more than I had hoped or planned for. Even at the LRDG meeting (that bastion of literacy as social practice!) we occasionally started to slide in that direction (this was probably my fault…) Such ‘slippage’ demonstrates the powerful pull of a prescriptivist, ‘study skills’ approach to academic writing. Standard English and referencing style are relatively easy for any tutor to describe and therefore assess, and perhaps that is the allure!
However, focussing on these elements of academic writing means a skills-based hierarchy is set up where the tutor owns the ‘rule book’ that the student has to follow. When trying to develop student writing in teacher education, such positions do not facilitate a supportive, dialogic discussion where the teacher-in-training is able to bring their life experiences (inside and outside the classroom) into their developing writing identity.
So, in order to escape the gravitational pull of ‘study skills’, I want to investigate the writing practices and writing identities of teachers-in-training outside their university courses. The idea is that if I can better understand and value the wider writing lives of our teachers-in-training, I can better develop the constructivist and dialogic writing pedagogy I aspire to (following Lillis 2001). A further inspiration for such an investigation is the Teaching and Learning Research Project which informed Ivanic et al (2009) (see This involved work with FE college tutors and students to explore students’ literacy worlds, engaging with everyday literacy practices to support and inform writing in college.
The LRDG audience were perhaps most interested in this aspect of my research, where teachers-in-training talk about their writing lives outside of university. Prompts for these discussions are simple laminated cards on which I have written various domains (friendships/relationships; leisure interests/hobbies etc). Student teachers are invited to select two or three cards which have interest or meaning for them, and to talk about the writing they do in those domains. The LRDG interest in this area of my research is very encouraging, as I’ve only recently realised that I want this to be at the heart of my doctoral project. I feel it’s only by looking outside the university that I can properly support student teachers within it.
IVANIC I., EDWARDS R., BARTON D., MARTIN-JONES M., FOWLER Z., HUGHES B., MANNION G., MILLER K., SATCHWELL C. & SMITH J. (2009) Improving learning in college: rethinking literacies across the curriculum London: Routledge
LILLIS T. (2001) Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire London: Routledge

By Rachel Stubley, University of South Wales and Lancaster University


SRHE conference papers

I enjoyed delivering two papers at this year’s SRHE conference at Celtic Manor in Newport (Wales), the first of which was on my research of student assignment writing and the second on the Academics’ Writing project.

The Prezi for the first one is here (unable to embed in wordpress), and the paper is linked to in a previous post.

The argument that some of the practices drawn into students’ academic tasks could be described as ‘curation’ stimulated some good discussion around plagiarism, assessment frameworks, the literacies that assignments are supposed to assess, and information literacy skills. Some of the tweets below encapsulate these ideas and, overall, I found the discussion useful for my forthcoming book on assignments.


The second paper, on the Acads writing project, is here:


There are definitely strange things happening to disciplines in Higher Education. Since identities permeate academics’ writing practices for research, teaching, and even admin work, the paper generated a lot of interest and discussion afterwards. Some of these were also tweeted about:

The original version of this text is from my personal blog.


buyuk han © ibrar bhatt

It’s not a hobby

The Lancaster Literacy Research Centre is currently home to the ESRC-funded project, ‘Dynamics of Knowledge Creation: Academics’ writing practices in the contemporary university workplace’, led by Karin Tusting.

This project aims to understand how knowledge is created, shaped and distributed through the writing practices of academics. We are working with academics at different stages of their career, in three main disciplinary areas, and in three different types of English HE institution. The first phase of the project involves interviewing these academics about the range of writing practices they engage in.  We have asked what different types of writing they do, who they do it with, which tools they use, and the physical spaces in which it gets done.

Even though we are interested in all types of writing, including teaching-, impact- and admin-related writing, what our participants most want to talk about is scholarly writing. When asked what they enjoy most about their work, perhaps unsurprisingly, they talk about their research rather than their admin. Some participants differentiated between scholarly and other types of writing by referring to the former as “proper” or “serious” writing. When prompted to tell us about other types of writing, one professor said, “I can’t think of other types of writing” before pausing and adding, “I mean, there are other types of writing, aren’t there, like when you produce documentation, say, for courses you’re teaching.”

So far so obvious. But here’s the rub: When we looked at their calendars and asked about their typical day, what they considered the “proper” writing scarcely featured during their allocated working hours. Instead, days were swallowed up by exactly the types of writing they did not consider central.  One professor began, “If I have a work day…” When I asked what this meant, she described a day when she came to the office and had meetings, dealt with emails and did admin.  I was reminded of Rowena Murray’s article about academic writing, entitled, “It’s not a hobby”, in which she explores the place of scholarly writing in academic work.  Almost every participant in the Academics Writing project, has said that they do little, if any, scholarly writing in the office, and that they struggle to find time for it.

The next phase of the project will shed more light on any patterns associated with this, to do with, for example, discipline or type of institution, but it paints a compelling picture of the challenges facing academics, particularly in an era when research output is assessed as never before.

by Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Murray, R. (2013). ‘It’s not a hobby’: reconceptualizing the place of writing in academic work. Higher Education, 66(1), pp. 79–91.

May the source be with you

When I worked as a lecturer in EAP, I taught my students how to structure essays in English, how to do referencing, etc. At that time, I also read a lot of excellent scholarship around related topics such as paraphrasing and plagiarism, yet I noticed that my students’ written work did not always reflect the types of issues discussed in this body of research. Or rather, it did, but not to the extent I expected.

I did see problems like patchwriting or failure to cite when required, but these issues were relatively minor compared to what I saw as bigger concerns in their writing. Specifically, they often seemed to give too much prominence to their sources’ views, marginalising their own. Sometimes it was not clear why they were citing, since the evidence they used did not seem to advance their argument. However, the literature had less to say on these issues, and seemed rather fixated on the avoidance of plagiarism. The problem with this is that avoidance of plagiarism does not necessarily lead to effective deployment of source material. Rather, it may mean that, as I did, markers have the feeling that something is not right about the way source material has been used, but that this was hard to address since referencing was done correctly on the whole and students had implemented what they were taught (which mainly focused on referencing conventions).

For my doctoyodaral research, I decided to investigate the way student writers used source material, but rather than looking only at the surface manifestation of source use in writing, I also investigated the ways in which they engaged with their source material as they read it in preparation for writing. After all, “using” source material begins when one reads and responds to it, not when one decides to reference it.

I observed and interviewed three postgraduate students over the 18-week period during which they wrote their Masters dissertation. They completed a series of “think alouds” while they worked on their dissertations, and I collected their completed assignments at the end. I also collected the feedback they received from their markers in order to see which aspects of source use attracted the markers’ comments.

The results of the study indicated that the students did indeed do most of their analysing and evaluating of source material as they read, and began formulating a position in relation to their sources early in the reading-to-write process. Differences emerged in the ways the students engaged with their sources. For example, some took a more instrumental approach to the dissertation-writing task, making efforts to perform the role of a “good student” by citing frequently in order to display their knowledge. Others engaged on an emotional as well as cognitive level with their material, often making evaluative comments and elaborating on what source authors said.

One of the most interesting findings was that the markers barely commented on the mechanics of citation, and instead praised students when they made meaningful comparisons between their own and their sources’ views. This suggests that the way students demonstrate engagement with the content of their source material might be seen as more important in determining the success of a piece of writing than the extent to which referencing conventions have been followed or information has been paraphrased. Of course, it may be that problems with what might be called “transgressive intertextuality” (Abasi & Akbari, 2008) distract the reader and make it more difficult to evaluate content. It is important, however, that researchers do not also become distracted by the low-hanging fruit of plagiarism at the expense of arguably more substantive issues relating to conceptual engagement with sources.

Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Abasi, A. & Akbari, N. (2008). Are we encouraging patchwriting? Reconsidering the role of the pedagogical context in ESL student writers’ transgressive intertextuality. Journal of English for Specific Purposes 27(3), 267-284.