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Is the medium the message? The National HE STEM project ‘Developing Writing in STEM Disciplines’ Dr Trevor Day

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Presentation on theme: "Is the medium the message? The National HE STEM project ‘Developing Writing in STEM Disciplines’ Dr Trevor Day"— Presentation transcript:

1 Is the medium the message? The National HE STEM project ‘Developing Writing in STEM Disciplines’ Dr Trevor Day

2 Observations Many surveys by professional bodies* recognise that the quality of communication in general, and writing specifically, is a cause for concern among employers of graduates, including STEM graduates University teaching staff may not acknowledge (or behave as though they acknowledge) that developing students’ writing abilities within the discipline, and for employability beyond, is a key part of their remit How can academic and other staff, and employers, work together with students to empower them to become more effective writers, within their discipline and beyond? * For example, the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE)

3 Is the medium the message? Marshall McLuhan, Canadian communication theorist, in the 1960s coined the phrase: ‘The medium is the message’ Meaning: The message cannot be divorced from its medium. The medium creates the context for the message. They operate together. Here, I am reframing McLuhan’s original intention, to assert that the written word is an important medium through which we wish our students to develop their understanding and practical expertise within their discipline. Writing may be perceived as a transparent ‘carrier’ or ‘vehicle’ for delivering information within the discipline. However, it is, of course, much more than that. It sets and reflects the culture, expectations and methods of discourse within the discipline. We may agree, but in our everyday dealings with students do we operate in this manner?

4 ‘Developing Writing in the Disciplines’ National HE STEM project Two strands: 1.To assess the requirements, concerns and expectations of Engineering employers regarding the writing skills of undergraduate placement students and graduate employees 2.To begin to transfer between the HE Institutions of the South West and beyond examples of known best practice in undergraduate writing development. To be informed by the findings and recommendations from Strand 1 and suggestions and examples from leading HE writing centres

5 Strand 1: Views of academics, industrial supervisors & placement students Semi-structured interviews with key Faculty staff Project advisory group from industry, UoB Engineering academics, HE STEM representatives and placement team meeting in January 2011 to shape the research Online questionnaire surveys of placement students and industrial supervisors Project advisory group, now joined by Careers Advisory staff, meeting in July 2011 to consider the research findings Findings and recommendations presented at the European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing Conference (July 2011) and at the ‘Developing Writing in STEM Disciplines’ Conference at UoB (September 2011). Plus further dissemination activities.

6 Strand 1: Questionnaire surveys 156 Engineering placement students and 80 industrial supervisors invited. 59 (38%) of students and 43 (54%) of supervisors responded Mixture of open and closed questions: Forms of writing and other kinds of communication students carry out on placement With whom such communications take place Students’ reported confidence in writing and other communication skills Students’ and supervisors’ perceptions of how the range of writing tasks of students compares with that of engineering graduates Students’ satisfaction with preparation for writing on placement Supervisors’ satisfaction with the writing ability of recent placement students and graduate employees Who students and supervisors consider should be most responsible for helping students prepare for writing on placement

7 Strand 1: Key findings (1) Most important communication abilities 1.Students and industrial supervisors agree: Oral skills, slightly ahead of writing, drawing and information technology skills (abilities) For writing abilities: writing clear and concise reports, whether for internal or external readerships followed by e-mails, letters and other short communications 2. Students and industrial supervisors agree. In order of importance: correct spelling, punctuation and grammar writing style and content of documents being well matched to their readership document’s visual appearance integration of text with visual elements

8 Strand 1: Key findings (2) With whom is communication most important? Students and industrial supervisors differ: Students: 1. Line managers & senior colleagues (93%) 2. Clients (80%) 3. Colleagues (58%). Supervisors: 1. Line managers & senior colleagues (93%) 2. Colleagues (88%) 3. Clients (49%). 35% indicated that placement students had little or no contact with clients Expectations for placement students & graduates Students and industrial supervisors differ: Students: 1. Only 23% of students thought graduates carried out a wider range of tasks. 2. 63% thought the range was similar Supervisors: 1. Overall, supervisors thought graduates carried out a wider range of writing tasks 2. These included writing letters and reports to clients Alert! Writing becomes more academically focused in final undergraduate year.

9 Strand 1: Key findings (3) Who is satisfied? Students: Satisfaction with preparation for writing on placement? 12% very satisfied 42% satisfied 28% neither satisfied nor dissatisfied 18% dissatisfied Alert! Room for improvement, but we don’t know specifically what to improve (further work required). Likely to include addressing key items mentioned earlier. Supervisors: Satisfaction with the writing capabilities of recent placement students? 28% very satisfied, 51% satisfied, 19% neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, 2% dissatisfied (1 person) Not bad but … those in last two categories had plenty to say

10 Strand 1: Key findings (4) Who is responsible? Who is responsible? Who should play a major role preparing students for the kinds of writing they do on placement? Students and supervisors agree: Students say 1. Schools (68%) 2. Universities (58%) 3. Placement organisation (20%) Supervisors say 1. Schools (86%) 2. Universities (65%) 3. Placement organisation (23%) Ah, so universities have a major role to play …

11 Strand 1: Some issues arising 1.Final year of undergraduate Engineering programmes has a greater emphasis on academic skills, but employers say that they want early-career graduates to be able to write for a wide range of audiences and purposes 2.Placement students and industrial supervisors agree that schools, followed by universities, followed by employers, should take the major role in preparing students for placement 3.Questionnaire survey, advisory group and interview findings suggest a rather instrumental view of writing that is skills- focused and/or based on socialisation rather than transparency and empowerment

12 Strand 2: Identifying and promoting good practice Examples from the project partners: Bath, Coventry, Exeter, Limerick, Oxford Brookes, Plymouth, University of the West of England subject specialists working with students writing specialists working with students subject specialists and writing/learning specialists collaborating to provide empowering learning experiences for students

13 Strand 2: Developing disciplinary identity 1.Lawrence Cleary at University of Limerick. Examining the texts of Engineering practical reports to reveal key conventions of the discipline 2.Barrie Cooper at University of Exeter. First year mathematicians. ‘What is a mathematician?’: moving students from group work to expressing individually the qualities of a mathematician through writing for two very different audiences – prospective students and graduate employers encouraging students to reflect on their early learning experiences at university and their position in the mathematical community, and express these in writing First year mathematicians writing reflectively about their learning experiences

14 Strand 2: Empowering students 1.Nicola King’s work with bioscience students at Exeter: encouraging students to be researchers and ‘change agents’, identifying the needs and concerns of their student peers, and working with staff to mobilise effective responses Creating a biosciences writing handbook 2.Lawrence Cleary and Íde O’Sullivan at the University of Limerick: developing student peer-tutors who work inductively and non- intrusively with students ‘drawing out’ rather than ‘putting in’

15 Strand 2: An holistic approach 1.Trevor Day’s work with undergraduate and postgraduate students at Bath: using the IPACE model (identity, purpose, audience, code and experience) as a planning tool feedback to students, from large scale to small scale 2.Mary Deane at Coventry and Oxford Brookes, diagnosing the elements of writing, from large scale to small: fulfilment of the assignment brief information structure e.g. logical flow of an argument within and between paragraphs sentence-level analysis vocabulary analysis within the disciplinary tradition proofreading errors e.g. grammar, punctuation, consistency, appropriate use of citations and references

16 Strand 2: Exemplars, with commentary John Hilsdon at the University of Plymouth: WrAssE - The Writing for Assignments E-library Project collection of students’ written assignments assessor’s feedback given through the lens of a critical thinking framework reveals elements of writing such as viewpoint/authority, structure, voice and style highlights both good practice and areas for improvement

17 Some of the outcomes 1.Project conference in Sept. 2011 attended by 45 from diverse backgrounds 2.In Oct. 2012 a special edition of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education on ‘Developing Writing in STEM Disciplines’ 3.A symposium at the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education (ALDinHE) Conference in April 2012 on the theme ‘Generic Graduate Attributes and Writing Development: How do they fit together?’ 4.An HE STEM-funded Project Collaboration Group (PCG) ‘Writing and Communicating in STEM Disciplines’ 5.Workshops in Manchester and Bath: ‘Addressing the needs of employers: writing development and other forms of engagement on undergraduate STEM programmes’ ( he-stem-event/employability-skills-STEM-courses) 6.Follow up on project report’s recommendations by Bath’s English Language Centre and Careers Advisory Service

18 Take home messages Make the implicit explicit. Use a writing development model (e.g. IPACE) to make requirements more explicit Scaffold development of identity and appropriate abilities, values and attitudes across the undergraduate programme, so that when students emerge as graduates, they are more confident, more well-rounded writers Scaffold for employability as well as academic capabilities, using a range of assignments And writing will have served as a powerful vehicle for helping students develop a deep understanding of, and an identity within, their discipline, as well as helping them prepare for employment

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