‘Are they writing enough?’

According to Sir Edward Acton, the recently-retired Vice Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, the right response to the introduction of £9000 fees in the UK was to focus on student workloads. Lower staff-student ratios, higher contact hours, and more written work would motivate students to work forty-hour weeks, and consequently to benefit fully from their degrees. UEA, he claimed, got this right.

While Acton’s tone is the familiar self-congratulatory one of a former VC, the content of his piece is nonetheless interesting. UEA charted a distinctive path through the post-Browne years, so its results are worth considering. But not everyone at UEA agrees with Acton. Its sabbatical Education Officer, Connor Rand, responded with a blog-post arguing, among other things, that Acton confuses quantity with quality in his approach to student workloads. More isn’t necessarily better.

I want to focus here on just one aspect of this debate: the question, familiar to all academics, of whether our students are writing enough. Precisely how much UEA has done about this is difficult to ascertain, since they hide their module descriptions from outsiders. (That’s a curious policy, by the way, if they’re really proud of what they’re doing.) My understanding, though, is that their principal innovation has been to increase the number of formative (or ‘unassessed’) essays. This prompts some key questions. If students write more essays, will they necessarily become better writers? If we value this as a goal, how much time and resource, and in what form, are we willing to devote to it? And, above all, what’s the relation between quantity of writing and quality of achievement?

The common sense answer is that practice must be a good thing. Students arrive at university with widely varying levels of skill as writers. Moreover, many students will leave – often collecting decent degree results – without having addressed some frighteningly basic problems with expression. For Acton, the solution to this problem is something approximating the Oxbridge model of weekly essays. Regular writing and regular feedback will drive the student forward.

But is it all so simple? Rand responds to Acton that all the formative essays in the world are of limited value if feedback is tardy. And speedy feedback is a challenge because of our own demanding workloads. (Did you see the Times Higher piece on this? Honestly, tell us something we don’t know!) At Exeter we enforce three-week turnaround times, but it’s not easy. Many of my colleagues mark essays right through the Christmas break.

And then there’s the matter of students’ workloads. While Acton seizes on evidence that many students don’t fully stretch themselves, there’s now plenty of evidence to the contrary. Stress is a big concern at Exeter. Furthermore, if students are required to write more, are we prepared for them to spend less time on other things. One of the great developments in my own subject in my lifetime as a teacher has been the increased emphasis on other kinds of assessment tasks (e.g. group-tasks, presentations, etc.). By fetishizing the essay we may overlook the range of skills that our graduates need when they leave us.

So are there ways to work smarter rather than harder on the development of writing skills? One of the challenges we face in the UK is that the teaching of these skills is not professionalized. There is an assumption that academics – especially in a subject such as my own – all know how to write so we should all be able to teach others to write. In truth, though, the way individual lecturers in the humanities go about teaching students to write, and correcting their basic errors, varies widely. Very few of us, after all, have been trained to do this. We’re a long way behind the US, where writing-based modules are a staple of the curriculum, and many academics specialize in teaching them.

While we can’t hope to replicate the US model, it’s nonetheless worth asking what we might learn from it. First-year modules are obviously crucial in this regard: ensuring a range of short, sharp writing exercises, and thinking about how we embed skills-based work in the curriculum. Our efforts at Exeter to teach academic writing in designated modules has never been popular, but this doesn’t mean that students aren’t keen to address their deficiencies. One of my dedicated, American-educated colleagues, the estimable Emily Bernhard Jackson, offers additional sessions on writing skills. She scheduled a 5 p.m. session on the semi-colon and attracted seventy-one students. That’s right: seventy-one.

Then, perhaps most important of all, is the matter of ensuring that students learn from their experiences of essay-writing. Feedback is crucial, of course, though ensuring that the feedback is absorbed can be another matter. We endlessly debate whether it’s a marker’s responsibility to correct every single error. Is it? Will this necessarily ensure that they will reflect and improve? And, as much as we might want to spend one-on-one time with students to review their work, is this always going to be feasible and useful?

Or might we think more creatively about feedback and support? One of our most important innovations at Exeter in recent years has been the establishment (inspired by practice in the US) of an Undergraduate Writing Centre. The UWC trains and then pays students to mentor their peers in the development of writing skills. This doesn’t replace staff feedback, but supplements it in valuable ways: student tutors can help their peers to unpack staff feedback, and review basic skills. This is not a panacea, nor is it cost-free, but it’s been an interesting step in a positive direction.

So, are they writing enough? I guess, hand on heart, we’d all like our students to write more, just as we’d like to be writing more ourselves. We’d like more hours in the week. But surely the more important challenge is to create learning environments in which the development of writing skills is valued. We need to think, especially in a time of tightening resources, of quality rather than quantity.

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