There will be four interconnected stages in the Teaching Writing Well project:
- the development of this website as a resource centre and networking site
- a training program for tutors and faculty contributing to the project
- the development of writing-intensive modules across disciplines and faculties and their trial as pilots; and
- the dissemination of results from these trials across the sector
Stage 1: Online resource development
In this foundational stage of the project the purpose is to develop a resource that will benefit the growing cohort of academics teaching writing at the University of Newcastle. We have undertaken a literature review that fully explores the current state of knowledge regarding writing instruction. Educators and researchers in this field are faced with huge quantities of information, often with contradictory findings and developed within unfamiliar institutional contexts. The systematic review searches, extracts, appraises and synthesizes published international research, with a particular focus on the application of the enormous body of US pedagogy to Australian contexts. This stage of the project explores and disseminates a range of approaches in writing instruction, as well as evaluating and identifying their best-practice application in local context.
Stage 2: Training program
This stage of the project coordinates an ongoing training program for faculty and casual staff in teaching writing. It directly deals with two central problems preventing effective writing instruction: teachers' own perceptions of their lack of expertise and a tendency to focus on the short term. In response, this training program will facilitate instruction, mentoring and the sharing of ideas across different levels of experience, areas of expertise and disciplines, promoting an ongoing structure for engagement with writing instruction across the institution.
Dr Jill McKeowen, from the Learning Development unit at the University of Newcastle, is responsible for this stage of the project. Dr McKeowen holds a PhD in creative writing and has over twenty years experience in teaching writing skills at different levels across the tertiary sector, including to Faculty and casual staff. She is assisted by Dr Smith and Dr Osland, who have experience in teaching writing skills both within their discipline and in other faculties.
Stage 3: Development and trial of modules/courses
This stage of the project develops a suite of writing intensive modules/courses within disciplines across the faculties of the University of Newcastle. Writing intensive courses teach writing alongside content, explicitly addressing discipline-specific modes of thinking and writing, which carry substantial weight in assessment (e.g. ENGL1090, see below). We follow the lead of others who suggest that "high-level graduate attributes" such as writing skills are "most effectively developed in the context of discipline knowledge, embedded within disciplinary curricula rather than addressed by stand-alone strategies that are divorced or decontextualised from discipline content" (Barrie 271). Further, the approach has strong influence from the pedagogy dealing with deep versus surface learning approaches (Ramsden; MacFarlane et. al.). This body of theory argues that students' concepts of learning and the contexts within which learning takes place influence their approach to learning. A deep approach to learning is characterised by an intention to understand - focusing on the concepts applicable to solving problems, relating previous knowledge to new knowledge - and has an internal or intrinsic motivational emphasis. We aim to foster a deep approach to student learning, creating delivery and writing tasks that situate the acquisition of writing skills within authentic disciplinary contexts and problems. Thus the approach facilitates knowledge development and skill acquisition in writing whilst simultaneously actively engaging students, fostering meaning and understanding and promoting an internal motivational emphasis. Such approaches include discipline specific topics, problems, exemplars and writing tasks through which skills are introduced in a scaffolded fashion. Other strategies such as peer review of written tasks will be employed to further develop critical reflection and understanding.
The project leaders, Dr Rosalind Smith and Dr Dianne Osland, have already developed a pilot course, ENGL1090, in critical reading and writing skills within the discipline of English that was trialed first in semester 2 2009 to a cohort of 80 first-year students, and again in semester 2 2010 to 160 students. This course paired intensive writing instruction in terms of structure, mechanics and advanced rhetorical techniques with an examination of urgent heuristic problems within the discipline. The assessment centered on a single research essay, which was supported by scaffolded instruction in writing skills and developed through three revisions and a peer-review exercise. Formative student evaluations during the course, in the form of 1 minute reflections, were very positive and summative course evaluations were significantly above faculty average. Some changes, however, will be made as part of this project to further enhance its deep learning: a shift in structure to smaller tutorial groups to enable more individual instruction, and a greater weighting given to the very successful peer review exercise. The design of this course and the online resources developed within in it will provide a working template for the modules developed in other disciplines: particularly in its deep learning strategies linking writing instruction to real disciplinary problems and contexts, its careful scaffolding of writing instruction, and its assessment models based on revision and peer review.
The convenors for each course will take primary responsibility for the development and trial of each module. Disciplinary expertise is central to this project in focusing writing intensive instruction upon relevant and appropriate skills in local contexts.
A key part of this project is the development of a coordinated evaluation framework applied to all the courses under development. Existing research literature indicates that current evaluation tools of WAC/WID courses rely primarily on attitudinal surveys rather than measures of improvement in student learning. This stage of our project, in contrast, combines both quantitative and qualitative tools to measure changes in students' writing skills and in tutors' capacities to teach those skills.
Barrie, Simon C. "A Research-based Approach to Generic Graduate Attributes Policy". Higher Education and Development 23.3 (2004): 261-75.
MacFarlane, G. R., Markwell, K., and E. Date-Huxtable. "Modelling the Research Process as a Deep Learning Strategy. Journal of Biological Education 41.1 (2006): 13-20.
Ramsden, P. Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge Press, 1992.