Writing is a skill

I have always been interested in how we learn sports skills, and when I taught on sports coaching modules I always enjoyed discussing this aspect of coaching with students. Now that I tend to teach more on academic skills modules, I have begun to think about how the concepts discussed in sports coaching modules can be applied to helping students learn academic skills. Of particular interest to me, as I begin to take on more writing-based work (e.g., copyediting, proofreading etc.), is how we learn the skill of writing. In this post, I will briefly discuss the skill of writing, and the need to provide writing practise opportunities for first year undergraduate students.

I try to emphasise to my students that as writing is a skill, it requires them to practise writing to develop what is an important form of communication and assessment in their chosen discipline. However, in my experience, students often limit their practise by rarely engaging in writing beyond that required for writing-based assessments. Only engaging in writing for assessments results in infrequent writing, as writing-based assessments can be separated by several weeks, or alternated with other assessment formats (e.g., presentations). If writing is infrequent, then opportunities for lecturers to provide feedback on writing also become infrequent. Like practise, feedback is required to develop a skill, and infrequent feedback can affect the rate at which students’ develop their writing.

The skill of writing is multi-faceted, and research has suggested that it takes at least 20 years to develop expert-level writing skills. Students arriving at university for their first year of undergraduate studies could be expected to be at least 10 years into this process of development (assuming they have had the opportunity to consistently be part of the education system). Yet, the level of writing skill demonstrated by the first year undergraduate students I teach is often below what I would expect, with similar observations also made in the academic literature. Unfortunately, this level of writing skill is often not sufficient to allow students to communicate effectively in writing.

The skill of writing itself incorporates perceptual-motor and cognitive components. The perceptual-motor demands of typing, and the cognitive demands placed on memory, thinking, and problem-solving capabilities, have led to learning to write being likened to learning to play chess or a musical instrument. As a lecturer, I do not often have the opportunity to observe indicators of students’ typing ability (e.g., words per minute), as students typically produce their assessments away from the classroom. Consequently, it is how students have managed the cognitive components of writing that I am able to observe once an assessment has been submitted for marking.

A three-stage model of how the cognitive components of writing skill develop has been proposed, with each stage lasting at least 10 years. In the first stage (knowledge-telling), the writer is primarily focused upon getting their ideas onto the page, but not always able to appreciate what the text they have written actually says. The second stage (knowledge-transforming) sees the writer develop their appreciation of what the text says, and whether this fits with their intended meaning. In the third stage (knowledge-crafting) the writer not only has an appreciation of how the text fits with their intended meaning, but how a prospective reader may interpret the text. For the writer, effectively managing their ideas, what the text actually says, and a prospective reader’s interpretations places a large demand on memory and attentional capacities. As the writer develops and moves through the stages, this demand can be managed more effectively, as components of writing skill become more automatic. Greater automaticity can reduce the demand on memory, and facilitate the appropriate allocation of attention to the different components of writing.

The assessment submissions I see suggest that some students are yet to progress from the knowledge-telling stage to the knowledge-transforming stage. Unfortunately, being in the knowledge-telling stage is not conducive to producing work that communicates ideas and concepts effectively, and will not help students achieve higher grades. It has been suggested that a lack of deliberate practise (i.e., discipline-specific, effortful, motivated, structured writing practise with feedback) prior to university could account for slow progress through the stages. If this is the case, then deliberate practise opportunities should be provided for university students to help them progress. Whilst some university programmes provide such opportunities for deliberate practise, others do not, therefore limiting students writing to assessments only. When writing is limited to assessment, lecturer feedback on assessment submissions has to address not only writing, but other areas of the submission such as factual accuracy, conceptual issues, analysis, and presentation. Consequently, writing specific feedback may be limited, or lost amongst feedback on other areas.

Incorporating opportunities for deliberate writing practise into the first year of university programmes is challenging. Discipline-specific content and assessment will take precedence, with additional generic (i.e., not discipline-specific) writing support sometimes provided at an institutional level for students to access, but only if they choose to do so. Fortunately, I am currently involved with programmes that have academic skills modules for new students, allowing discipline-specific writing to be addressed (albeit as one of several other academic skills that have to be covered).

Whilst academic skills modules provide the opportunity for deliberate writing practise, a further challenge is motivating students to engage in deliberate writing practise not directly linked to assessment. Some universities have attempted to incorporate discipline-specific writing modules (with assessment) into their programmes. Yet, as discussed by Kim Mitchell of academicswrite.ca, this can paradoxically lead to writing being devalued, with writing modules seen as not comparable to discipline-specific modules, despite the importance of writing for discipline-specific communication and assessment.

As long as writing is a skill that is important for communication and assessment, and as long as students are commencing their studies with lower than expected levels of writing skill, opportunities for deliberate writing practise should be provided. Whilst incorporating these opportunities into programmes is challenging, efforts must be made to develop how these opportunities are provided for students so that they can take advantage of them, and improve their writing skill. I will explore approaches to developing and incorporating such opportunities in a future post.

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