Whatever your thoughts about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), the higher education initiative proposed by Jo Johnson and open to consultation, it is an opportunity to focus on what should matter most in the education of undergraduate students: those qualities we wish them to develop during their time at university. That is likely to be a very long list, from personal integrity to specialist technical knowledge. However, one facet often overlooked in many disciplines, or at least underestimated, is writing.
many university teaching staff view commenting on writing as a ‘Cinderella’ activity
Writing is self-evidently important. It lies at the heart of intellectual endeavour, as both process (writing helps us develop clarity and depth of thought) and as product (in many disciplines, written assignments and/or exams are still the primary form of assessment). Should students stay on at university as researchers, writing will be the main vehicle for gaining funding through grant applications and for communicating research findings. And for employers of newly graduating students, writing ability lies at or near the top of their list of concerns alongside numeracy, IT and other communication skills (see, for example, Kaplan, 2014; CBI, 2015). But many university teaching staff view commenting on writing as a ‘Cinderella’ activity. It is not their job to develop students’ writing. If not, then whose job is it?
In interviews and a small survey conducted as part of a National HE STEM project on Developing Writing in STEM Disciplines, when university teaching staff and employers were asked whose responsibility it was to develop students’ or future employees’ writing (from argumentation, reader awareness and document structure down to spelling, grammar and punctuation) a sizeable proportion thought it was someone else’s. Many STEM teaching staff revealed a rather instrumental, remedial view of writing and thought that responsibility for writing development lay with feeder schools and colleges or other staff in the university. However, many employers felt that school and university staff, including lecturers, were responsible, although employers were willing to do their part in guiding employees’ writing so that it was ‘fit for purpose’.
If writing is so important, shouldn’t university teaching staff take more responsibility for it? And that being the case, shouldn’t it be a specifically identified element in any TEF framework?
Current student experience surveys have a poor record in asking about writing. The latest National Student Survey (NSS) does not have a question about writing; writing is subsumed within a general question about communication. Nor did the HEFCE-commissioned review of the NSS in 2014 recommend a question specifically about students’ writing.
it is through writing that we think deeply, test ideas, self-reflect, and open up our ideas to the scrutiny to others
This highlights a key problem: differences of opinion and/or tradition as to the role and significance of writing in academia. Talk to some lecturers and they see writing as a more or less ‘transparent’ vehicle for reporting, after all the thinking has been done. Others, of course, have a different view. Many in the humanities, social sciences and arts are keenly aware that language (and writing) reflects the epistemology, culture and power relations within the discipline. For them, writing shapes the discipline as much as writing is shaped by the discipline: it is through writing that we think deeply, test ideas, self-reflect, and open up our ideas to the scrutiny to others.
We also need to recognise that even lecturers who would like to help students with their writing may lack the confidence to do so. They know what they like but have difficulty unpicking those elements they value so much, and articulating them to their students. They do not have a well-developed conceptual framework and associated vocabulary for talking about the writing. Such frameworks do exist (see, for example, Day, 2013). And there are people in universities – writing developers, learning developers, language staff and visiting professionals – who can help teaching staff map these frameworks onto the assignments they set. As with developing numerical, IT skills or other kinds of communication skills, incorporating assessment criteria is not that difficult. Doing so, writing immediately becomes more visible, and its ‘rules’ more explicit and open to discussion.
Subject specialists know the culture of their discipline, and it is through collaborating with writing or learning specialists that they can better ‘decode’ the workings of language within it. Doing so reveals that many of the qualities of powerful academic writing apply to writing more generally, thus nurturing transferable skills that will be invaluable to students, whatever they do in later life.
The importance of writing, too often overlooked or underestimated in university life, needs to be brought back into the foreground. How a department supports a student in developing their writing should be a key element in any Teaching Excellence Framework.
CBI (2015). Inspiring Growth: CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2015. Pearson/Confederation of British Industry.
Day, T. (2013). Success in Academic Writing. Palgrave Macmillan.
Kaplan (2014). Graduate Recruitment Report: Employer Perspectives. Kaplan Europe.