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This question may be too wide or in some perspective perceived as unclear but covers a key issue (for me) in academia, namely, academic writing.

Students start their academic career with varying skills in writing. Often, and this the case in my department, there is no thought through progression to go from beginner through novice and proficient to expert level (the latter perhaps in graduate school) or some such scale.

My question is therefore how to get students to progress in appropriate steps through an education. In other words what is a reasonable progression of writing skills through an education. I am looking for suggestions of appropriate expectations for, say, an annual or semester wise increase in difficulty or complexity of exercises with the aim of learning academic writing skills through an education including graduate school.

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That is an excellent question. We have the same issue in hour lab. Sometimes, it seems that the ability to write is something really difficult to acquire and that the issue is not academic writing but just writing. .. –  Wiliam Apr 24 '14 at 13:26
The answers might differ depending on discipline. Academic writing in mathematics requires different (but overlapping) skills than academic writing in chemistry or psychology or economics or history. –  JeffE Apr 24 '14 at 13:34
Just been through a (horribly buzzword-laden) process to specify and unify this in my (quantitative sciences) department and despite the buzzwords and coolaid something has probably been accomplished. That said, the short version is "require the students to write and grade them on it" (something that I was doing before we began). The discipline specific bit is determining what they should write and how to grade the writing they do. –  dmckee Apr 24 '14 at 15:11
@dmckee Requiring the students to write and grading them on it measures their performance. What is your department doing to teach them how to write? –  David Richerby Apr 25 '14 at 9:02
@DavidRicherby We talk about it in the context of making the assignments, we show the rubric and exemplars of good writing and we make them hand in drafts for comments. –  dmckee Apr 25 '14 at 18:08

5 Answers 5

In my lab, we were required to produce three-to-four page white papers, including figures, every time we presented at a lab meeting (approx. every 6 weeks).

This had two significant effects. Firstly, it forced the student to write down their progress, which was invariably ridiculously useful when the student actually started writing their thesis. Staple together a few of these sections and the methods, and often a good part of the background, was written for you.

Secondly, it gave everyone a chance to practice their professional writing in a casual lab setting. No one felt threatened and everyone improved. We would even review the articles being written by the lab professor, as there were always improvements we could suggest to him as well.

I strongly recommend this practice.

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Note that this practice only works if the group actually reads and provides critique on the writeup. If no one provides feedback, the person writing doesn't learn, and the exercise becomes much less useful. –  eykanal Apr 24 '14 at 19:21
This is a nice way to force everyone to write on a regular basis, but doesn't take an awful lot of time? Making lab presentation already take some time, so writing an additional report is even worse. Any idea what was the work lead for such practice? –  Wiliam Apr 25 '14 at 8:17
@Wiliam - That's the beauty of it - sooner or later everyone will have to write up their research anyways, be it for an article, proceeding, book chapter, or dissertation. This simply forces them to do it incrementally rather than all at once. –  eykanal Apr 25 '14 at 11:30
I ask all my students to submit a weekly summary of their work. There are no length or format restrictions—it's just a summary of what they've done, and what they plan to do. It makes meetings much more productive, since we already have an agenda worked out. –  aeismail Apr 27 '14 at 16:06
  1. HAVE them write. A lot of times students don't write because they simply aren't asked to. (Keep in mind the corollary to this is you're going to have to do some reading!)

  2. Have them research! Many times students don't make the leap on their own between reading, writing, and then (hopefully) thinking that's incredibly obvious to those of us who have devoted our lives to teaching. I've seen a lot of lightbulbs go on when I've been able to help a student make the connection between research, writing, and work output.

  3. As gman started to say above, if your school has an academic writing center go there and ask lots and lots of questions. Usually people who work in these departments have thought far more deeply about your question than you might ever be able to. They might even be able to give you exercises or assign a tutor to monitor your class. At the very least, make sure the students know the writing center is there and that you expect them to use it!

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As a grad-student I really appreciate this question. As a Humanities student most of our writing is text. I found even at under-graduate level a substantial amount of time could be taken up going over the same writing issues (usually after assignment hand-backs) over a number of course modules. It amazed me that there was not a module to at least give the basics in academic writing.

I have noticed though in Ireland(my home country) that there is a number of Academic Writing Centres starting to set up in Universities. At the moment they are voluntarily drop in centres where you can get advice on your writing.

In the case of the university I attend

The AWC offers free one-on-one tutorials on essay writing for NUIG students. Last year, AWC tutors helped over 500 students to overcome recurrent problems with grammar, punctuation, spelling, and essay structure.

They also run group workshops at certain times of the year for different levels within the University, so some are aimed at under-graduate and some at post-graduate. Normally at these workshops you bring some of your writing and as a group you give each other advice on improving our writing style.

Finally they run an online course which works in the following way.

Online students are assigned weekly writing tasks and editing tasks. Editing tasks consist of specific questions which assist students in providing constructive feedback rather than criticism. Guided editing tasks help students to re-evaluate and improve their own writing. Students then rate the usefulness of the critique they received. In this way, points are awarded for effort rather than existing ability or experience. The entire process is strictly anonymous. The AWC takes on a supportive role for the duration of the course. Students receive weekly readings and emails.

A number of other universities also have a academic writing centre in place. See here and here

While this is by no means a perfect model because it requires the student to want to participate it is a step in the right direction for improving a persons writing skills.

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To build on eykanal's answer, if you run a lab then have a lab blog and encourage or require your students to contribute to it. It is a great way to structure writing and improves research, learn how to communiate research, encourage active learning, and even improve technical writing. The public nature of a blog, puts a bit of pressure on the student, and you (or a senior student) should help them edit their first couple of posts, but afterwards give them freedom to roam. This is especially useful during thesis writing, since a student can package partial progress into posts. Finally, by requiring students to blog, you let them build a web presence and let them make connections in the field that don't depend exclusively on your klout or their papers (which usually are few and concentrated toward the end of the PhD for many students).

As a graduate student, I chose to blog on my own and it has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It has allowed me (along with other parts of my online activity like G+ and SE Q&As) to develop papers faster, feel part of a bigger community, and make new contacts that lead to new independent collaborations. I can't recommend it enough.

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We start by getting all students evaluated by our Teaching & Learning Centre. TLC staff will recommend an action plan for students that are struggling with their writing skills. Additionally, in most courses we ask students to write essays and summaries of any lab work, which is returned with specific comments on the quality of writing. After all this, most students will somewhat improve their writing; however, many will never be great at it.

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