A methodology for enhancing student writing in the discipline through complementary and collaborative working between central and school based writing development provision

Sarah Johnson, Learning Development Team, Nottingham Trent University

Siân Trafford, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University

Contact: sarah.johnson@ntu.ac.uk


Academic literacies theory argues that academic writing is currently caught up in unequal power relationships which 'problematize the student' (Lea and Street 1998) and thus argues for a change in focus from a 'skills' model to the adoption of a more discursive model which values tutor-student and student-student discussion and considers writing and meaning-making within the context of the discipline. Haggis (2006), similarly argues for an embedded, dialogic approach to processes within the discipline whereby ' the embedded processual complexities of thinking, understanding and acting in specific disciplinary contexts need to be explored as an integral part of academic content teaching within the disciplines themselves.'  This article will demonstrate how a range of pedagogies has been adopted at Nottingham Trent University to enable students to develop writing strategies which are mindful of, and embedded within differing disciplinary practices.

It will also demonstrate how the Library's Academic Skills Adviser and the Learning Development Co-ordinator in the School of Social Sciences work together to deliver both staff and student facing services, with the aim of equipping staff to 'initiate students into the academic conversation' (O'Farrell 2005), and also to equip students with the skills to develop their own academic practice.  

Much recent theory exists to support an embedded approach to the development of student writing in the discipline (O'Farrell, 2005; Tierney and Shanahan, 1991). However, it is important to note that an academic literacies approach does not exclude the study skills or academic socialisation models, but rather seeks to emphasise the importance of the social nature of learning within the discipline in the current context of Higher Education.

Learning Development Team – Workshops

At NTU the Learning Development Team has developed a suite of interactive workshops aimed at first year students which reflects the progression of the academic year. This is in response to feedback from the HERE project (2012) which suggested that students are more likely to remain at university, if they had doubts, once they felt that they had adapted to the course and developed a sense of belonging. The HEA What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme (2012) similarly highlighted the importance of belonging developed through engagement with 'mainstream activities' aimed at helping all students to develop good study habits. If student engagement can, in part, be measured by the 'time and effort' a student devotes to activities supporting the development of academic study, then we should also measure the range of activities aimed at encouraging students to participate (Kuh, 2009).

Workshops run by the Learning Development Team during the first term address 'study skills' type issues, such as time management; the nature of studying at university and how that might differ from experiences of previous study; common features of academic writing; note-making and critical reading. The spring term workshops are more broadly focused on specific aspects of assignment writing and feedback, for example, breaking down the question; introductions paragraphs and conclusions; effective reports and understanding feedback. It is worth noting at this point that emphasis is placed on the process of writing rather than the product, and all workshops are prefaced with the notion that each deals with a specific element of that process. Finally the summer term is devoted to developing revision strategies and exam technique. The Learning Development Team workshops are highly interactive and it is intended that student attendance encourages engagement within the sphere of academic development, whilst also facilitating the development of student-staff and student-student relationships. Students presenting from the School of Social Sciences are additionally signposted to the School's Learning Development Co-ordinator in order to offer the option of discipline specific support.

Learning Development Team – Student mentor scheme

The Student Mentor scheme, launched at NTU in 2009, was also developed to encourage a sense of belonging whilst forging strong student-to-student relationships. The scheme was promoted as a cross-year scheme in which more experienced students scaffolded the learning of less experienced others within the same School. The vision for this model was one whereby highly skilled students were recruited and trained to work with lower year students, to facilitate discussion and promote familiarity with the conventions of writing in that School. According to feedback, the majority of students access a Student Mentor as they perceive that they are having difficulty with their academic work and a high percentage of students cite increased understanding and confidence as being one of the main outcomes of a session. Qualitative data is also positive:

The mentor was very patient and carefully guided me through my feedback, allowing me to reach my own conclusions whilst suggesting other ideas and techniques. I found this very useful; rather than being told what I need to improve, I was able to find solutions for myself. (Student Participant 2013-14)

Student Mentors run one-to-one and small group drop-in and booked appointments as well as termly workshops which not only serve to enhance writing development, but also to promote the scheme. Attendance at discipline-specific booked sessions far outweighs that at non-specific drop-ins, but the lunchtime drop-in sessions give Mentors time to complete administrative work, promote the scheme by handing out leaflets and talking to students, and get involved in resource creation. The main areas that are covered in one-to-ones are time management, understanding the brief, structure of writing and revision, and these most common topics become the themes of Mentor-led workshops. We find that the majority of students who respond to the online survey, attend only one session. Initially, this was a cause for concern, however, when we asked whether expectations had been met, again the majority of students said yes.

Recent research conducted at University of Limerick (O'Sullivan and Cleary, 2014) suggests that the embodiment of engagement by Mentors has a positive impact on those attending sessions with a Mentor. However, interestingly, we have found that feedback from Mentors is also positive, citing improved confidence, increased engagement with their own studies and enhanced student experience as being some of the many benefits of being in the role. Two-day residential training encourages a sense of community and Mentors engage in role-play and analyse case studies to create a collaborative approach to running a mentoring session. They also consider a range of web- and paper-based writing resources which deal with features such as writing structure, analysing the question, grammar and punctuation, in order to practise using these in actual mentoring sessions. Feedback from the training also suggests that Mentors themselves are able to reflect critically on their own writing, serving to highlight areas for improvement.

Student diversity

In common with other UK universities, Nottingham Trent University draws students from the local area and the UK as well as from the EU and other countries. In addition, as a post-1992 university, many of its students are from non-traditional backgrounds. Baker, Brown and Fazey (2006) defined these students as being over 21, from a minority ethnic or socioeconomic group previously underrepresented within HE, or having entry qualifications other than A level. This creates a diverse student population (Wingate, 2006) but these students, arriving with a range of qualifications, experiences and expectations, can find themselves struggling to fit in to the university environment and may need additional study skills support as well as pastoral support (Webber, 2014). In order to provide not just these students but all its students with the support they need to help them pursue and complete their chosen studies, a range of strategies to support student learning is in place. This support includes not only Student Support Services, which provides access to services such as financial support, counselling and disability support, but also several forms of Study Support, referred to as Learner Development. This is provided centrally by the Learning Development Team based in the Library, and there are also two Schools with Learning Development Co-ordinators. The Library-based Academic Skills Adviser and the Schools-based Learning Development Co-ordinators employ strategies which incorporate both Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing In the Discipline (WID) approaches to academic writing to accommodate the range of student identities and learning styles.

School of Social Sciences

The increased access to higher education (HE) that came with widening participation has provided many with the opportunity to study at HE level (Webber, 2014). Older students are welcomed, as are students who may previously have found it difficult to gain a place because of disability, or a Specific Learning Difficulty. As a result, 31% of the NTU student population is over 21, with the School of Social Sciences catering for a slightly higher proportion (36%) of over-21s than the NTU population, which may be because of the nature of the courses taught – in particular the Social Work courses, Youth Studies and Health and Social Care, as these attract more mature candidates.  Many of these students are from Nottinghamshire and the East Midlands area, with over half of these students coming from Nottinghamshire itself. This is possibly a reflection of the work carried out by NTU's Schools, Colleges and Outreach Service which operates to tackle the attainment gap between children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and their more affluent counterparts. This is a particular problem in Nottinghamshire, as evidenced by Nottinghamshire County Council's report into GCSE Attainment and Deprivation (2009), which found that Nottinghamshire school pupils' attainment is consistently lower than that in other parts of the UK.

These more mature students then are more likely to have taken less traditional entry routes in to Higher Education than their younger peers, who may have followed the A level route. These non-traditional students may therefore have been away from education for several years and, as a result, may lack confidence and struggle with the transition to HE. Similarly, 5% of students at NTU have a Specific Learning Difficulty and there is a dedicated Dyslexia Support Service to meet their needs, such as drop-in sessions and one-to-one tutorials. The School of Social Sciences also attracts more female than male students, reflecting the pattern of UK HE attendance, whereby 57% of all students are women (Equality Challenge Unit, see Woodfield, 2011). 72% of the School's students are female, compared with 54 % of NTU students, possibly because the subjects taught in the School may be perceived as more attractive to female students – in particular Social Work, Youth Studies, Health and Social Care and single and joint honours Psychology courses. Thus, taking into account the large number of non-traditional students, the high proportion of female students, and the acknowledgement that female students are more likely to seek support than their male course mates (Berry et al, 2011), there is potentially a high demand for learning development within the school. Even so, it must be acknowledged that difficulties with writing are experienced by many students, not just those from particular groups. For example, O'Farrell (2005) contends that, in order to be able to express their personal voice in their academic writing, students need to be initiated into the discourse of their particular discipline. Similarly, Hargreaves (2007) asserts that study strategies are useful for every student, because of the challenging nature of the transition to HE.

Accordingly, the Learner Development Centre in the School of Social Sciences was introduced to provide academic writing support for all students at all levels in the School, whether they are studying undergraduate, postgraduate or professional courses. The term 'development' is preferred to avoid connotations of a deficit model, because the intention is to help not only students who struggle with the conventions of study at HE level, but also to help those who wish to improve at any level.  The Centre also liaises with other NTU services, such as Student Support Services and the Nottingham Language Centre, to broaden the range of support available to students in the School. It is mainly student-facing but it also has a staff-facing role at staff development events.

Students are made aware of the Centre in several ways. Most courses include information about the Centre at induction and the Centre's own on-line module is included in all student learning rooms. In addition, academic staff are periodically reminded of the Centre and they can, and do, refer students who they feel need support.

The Centre offers a range of development options, such as taught sessions, face-to-face tutorials and on-line support. The taught sessions include weekly School-wide open workshops covering topics such as 'Developing Academic Style', 'Critical Thinking and Writing', 'Reflective Thinking and Writing' and 'Citation and Referencing'. The workshops are sequenced to help students progress from lower order skills, such as recall or interpretation of information, to higher order skills such as analysing and evaluating information (Anderson and Krathwohl, see Biggs and Tang, 2007, p 81). Although not identical, the content and style of the School-specific and the central Learning Development Team's workshops mirror each other, and students can access either or both. Students are made aware of the School-specific workshops by email and via the 'News' facility on NTU's Online Workspace. All are welcome to attend the workshops and there is frequently a mix of undergraduate and Masters students.  In addition, the Centre works with several courses to provide timetabled discipline specific sessions on similar study skills topics. Some of these sessions are delivered by the Learner Development Co-ordinator and some are delivered jointly with members of the course teaching team, or colleagues from NTU's Library and Learning Resources Team or the Learning Development Team.

Students can also book one-to-one tutorials with the Learner Development Co-ordinator, or they can attend in twos and threes if they wish, although this happens very infrequently as students seem to prefer to come individually to discuss their work. The tutorials take the form of 60 minute appointments, although some issues are dealt with in a shorter time so not all students stay for the whole hour. Students are self-referring or are referred by tutors, usually via assignment feedback. The students choose what they wish to cover in a tutorial, and sessions typically deal with interpreting and applying feedback to their performance and implementing strategies for improvement, or with structure and planning of assignments, although all areas of study skills can be discussed, such as time management and approaches to reading, thinking and writing critically.

The on-line support takes two forms: a module on NTU's On-line Workspace, and email support. The on-line module, entitled 'Learner Support', is included in the 'Learning Room' of every student enrolled in the School of Social Sciences. Its purpose is to provide information about writing development in the form of quizzes, learning strategies and links to appropriate websites. In addition, all the open workshops are uploaded so that students who were unable to attend the sessions have access to the information. Email support is available to all students, but is mostly accessed by those who are on part-time courses, or whose courses entail lengthy, intensive placements, such as BA (H) Social Work. These students can experience difficulties accessing support, either because they need to prioritise their course taught input when they are on campus, or because their placement precludes them from accessing support when it is available during the working day. Typically, they ask for feedback on work in progress, or advice about referencing conventions, and evaluation demonstrates that they appreciate being able to access support in this way while away from campus.

As part of this on-line support, the Library's academic writing drop-in sessions, and the student mentor appointments are also signposted in the Learning Room. This collaboration accords with the student centred approach, and allows students to access a wider range of writing development opportunities. Social Sciences students are also verbally signposted to these opportunities by the Learning Development Coordinator should there be no convenient appointment immediately available for them. Students can therefore choose to access either or both forms of support.


Increasingly, the Centre is working with the Library's Academic Skills Adviser to produce and deliver staff development sessions. Working from O'Farrell's (2005) premise that academics are 'in the best position to teach the particular rules of discourse within that discipline', the aim of these sessions is to promote the benefits of including academic writing activities in taught course sessions such as lectures and tutorials. These staff development sessions are grounded in academic literacies theory but they also have a practical application because they provide staff with activities that can be used in taught sessions to introduce academic writing and the associated discourse, encourage critical thinking and stimulate engagement with the discipline.

In line with academic literacies theory, it is our intention to collaborate increasingly to offer more school-specific opportunities to develop academic writing. This will entail offering greater numbers of tailored workshops, Mentors in all Schools and more Mentors per School. Following positive feedback from the most recent staff development workshop, we will also be looking to run more staff development workshops to encourage academics that they are indeed best placed to work with students to discuss academic writing within their discipline:

One of the things that the workshop really brought out was our tacit knowledge of the conventions of our fields, all of the taken for granted stuff about the discipline, about being a sociologist – or whatever area you happen to work in. I realised that my students don't know this or have this and that only I can really help them with that aspect of their learning (Academic within the School of Social Sciences, 2014). 


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