Developing Academic Writing Project: Progress so Far…

By Sarra Saffron Powell (Educational Development) sarrasaf@liv.ac.uk

In the Department of History, academic staff have identified writing skills as a priority for student development in order to support higher attainment across all cohorts and levels of performance. The History Writing Project, a collaboration between the School of Histories, Languages, and Cultures (HLC) and Educational Development (CCL), provides students with one to one writing tutorials/workshops. The tutors are current PGR students trained to assist students and record common areas of difficulty, to feed into an online diagnostic tool to be housed in iLearn. Relevant learning resources will be created and uploaded into iLearn for use by all History students.
The pilot is funded by the HSS Faculty Improvement fund, in order to assess the benefits of co-curricular writing skills support delivered by PGR students. It is led by Sarra Saffron Powell (CLL) and Richard Huzzey (History), with support from the HLC Learning and Teaching Support Officers, the History HoD and Margaret Procter (History).
Progress to date
Four PGR tutors have been recruited to the project: they are proving to be enthusiastic, committed and autonomous in their approach. Prior to working with students they attended a bespoke CPD workshop (facilitated by CLL) on approaches to learning and teaching for writing skills development.
A system that enabled staff to refer students as they marked assignments was established. Staff were issued with stickers that they could place on students’ assignments during marking if they judged that the student would benefit from a writing tutorial. This informed students that they could contact the tutors through an email (writing@liv.ac.uk) to arrange a session. However, the PGR tutors have reported that this approach has been problematic, resulting in poor uptake of the service, as a considerable minority of students no longer collect hard copies of their work. This appears to be linked to the infrequency of students visiting the History department since timetabled instruction was moved to central teaching rooms. In addition, the widespread adoption of electronic feedback sheets makes tutors’ use of stickers impractical; if the Writing Project continues then History Department feedback forms should be redesigned to advertise this service on the pro forma template.

Student Engagement
Given the limited student engagement via sticker referrals and to encourage further uptake, the service has been offered to all students in History via email and VITAL module announcements for core (required) modules. In total 52 students have, or will be, attending one-to-one tutorials which demonstrates a clear need and demand for this service.
The tutors are currently developing a pair of two-hour essay writing workshops open to all History students to be delivered in February and March. The first session is already fully booked with 15 students attending (and places reserved). Anticipating the March workshop be fully booked, a total of 82 students will have benefited from the service.

Developing Digital Capabilities
The foci of the diagnostic are currently being identified during tutorials (thus far, these are typically confidence issues, grammar, structure, style, referencing and use of primary and secondary texts). The diagnostic will be available to all History students in a bespoke section of iLearn. When a student completes the diagnostic the system automatically marks it and sends the student an email of the results which contain hyperlinks of resources in History iLearn. Effectively, iLearn produces a personalised learning plan which could be used during induction, by Academic Advisors, School Learning and Teaching Support Officers and by the writing tutees prior to tutorials. The back-end of iLearn stores all diagnostic scores with student ID which provides valuable data, that over time, will allow anticipatory identification of student skills issues: making it possible to provide development opportunities at appropriate times.
The materials in iLearn will be created to specifically support the development of students’ digital literacy skills that can be harnessed to specifically support improvement of academic writing, organisational and time management skills. iLearn materials will be live and available for student use by Semester 1, 2015.

Evaluation:
Undergraduate students attending tutorials or workshops are asked to provide feedback on their experience, which will allow us to evaluate the pilot and gather qualitative information for the department’s curriculum development and iLearn services. Postgraduate tutors are also asked to provide feedback and reflections on their practice and experience. Preliminary qualitative information is given below:
Benefits for undergraduate students
Students report that the sessions were useful and indicated improvement in their perceived self-efficacies. Example feedback illustrates that students value and appreciate the service:
“Many thanks for taking the time to see me. I found it helpful and appreciate the advice…I am sure I will find the group session useful as well.”
“Thank you very much for today’s session, I found it really useful and can definitely see places where I can improve in future essays.”
“Yesterday’s session was really helpful, I’ve been back over my other essays from my last semester and I think with the advice you gave me my essays should be better this semester!”

Benefits for PGR tutors
Our PGR tutors report that their work on the project has given them enhanced capacity for critical self-reflection and greater confidence in small-group teaching contexts. Given the poverty of opportunities for History PGR students to gain teaching experience as part of their degree programme, the project has provided them with essential CV experience for future job applications. Our PGR tutors have stated:
“I have been proud to be involved in the project and have found it to be particularly beneficial to my personal and professional development. I have appreciated being involved from the initial planning and implementation stages… Meeting with undergraduate students on a one-to-one basis to share best practice and identify issues with their writing has really improved my confidence.”
“As a final year PhD student, I have found the Writing Tutors pilot to be extremely useful and engaging on several levels. It has provided me with valuable teaching experience, including the planning and running of a workshop, and one-to-one tutorials. With limited opportunities for teaching experience on the PhD programme, the pilot has given me the chance to practice and improve my teaching skills in new and different ways. Working closely with students on their writing skills has given me a real insight into the broader undergraduate experience, and has shaped my own understanding of how to provide useful feedback. Looking at common writing mistakes and how best to overcome them has also made me think about my own writing skills, and how they can always be improved. I have really enjoyed working with the students, the other tutors, and the staff that have worked to carry out the pilot, and I hope that it can continue in some form for the rest of the academic year and beyond.”