Teaching Academic Writing – The Challenges (Part 2)

No, there was definitely no touch of madness where academic writing is concerned (or maybe it was me who almost got driven to madness, more like it).

Sigh. Well, back to blogging.

In my previous post, I provided some background information on my Academic Writing class. It’s best for you to read that post, before moving on to this one.  Well, to be honest, this might just be a place where my rants are going to blow its’ sirens; I had a tiring, tough, challenging 3 months with my class for many reasons. Teaching writing is no easy task,and and there are several factors that made it even more challenging:

I had a whopping number of 40 students in the class. Well, it may be quite common for some of you, but it wasn’t for me. It was really tough giving feedback for each of the writing activity that took place (although students were placed in groups of 4), as this was academic writing. While I gave feedback to some, the other groups tended to chatter away. I did not attempt any other form of feedback (peer feedback, self editing) in the classroom; I just could not see it happening! Student’s have never been exposed to academic writing before, and I knew (and felt) that they totally relied on me for the feedback that they received.

Well, to be honest, a lot of them did not read the materials that they were supposed to have read at home; I don’t think they considered this writing class to be an important one (perhaps some did, but a selected few). THey were, after all, dentistry and medical students, and as one of them put it “Miss, we have a lot of other important assignments for our core subjects; this is taking too much of our time!” It was a lose-lose situation on my end; If I proceeded without going over the notes, they’d be left in the dark; If I went through the notes in class, it would’ve taken a lot of time! I did try out some strategies, though, which worked to a certain extend. Then again, I kept reminding myself that this was a writing class – they HAD to get their “hands dirty” by getting into the writing part, regardless of whether they read the notes or not.

7 face to face sessions (with 2 hours per session) was a ridiculously short time. It was way too short a time to teach something as “heavy” as synthesis writing. The large class size didn’t help as well. It really felt like I was “cramming” as much as I could within the short span of time. Also, I felt like I was working around the clock, as a lot of the communication was online as well. I had to constantly reply fb messages, email messages, online assessment on the portal (which took up A LOT of time), vetting assignment topics, screening their outlines. A lot of times I found myself getting so exasperated. It felt like I was working around the clock, 24/7! Tough job. Yes, I it was jolly molly tough!

Or maybe this was my problem. I found that the teaching did not equate to the expectations that was placed on students. There were so many issues that had to be dealt with at a very basic level. Firstly, a significant number of these learners were weak in writing – they had basic grammatical issues, inability to link and connect ideas in sentences and between paragraphs, wrong usage of linking words, inability to logically arrange their ideas in order to increase the meaningfulness in writing. These are the issues that need to be dealt with first, even before they enrol into the academic writing class. It would be great if the university could have a “remedial writing” or “Introduction to Academic Writing” to help build their basic writing skills prior to enrolling into this module. In that case, yes, 7 face to face would be sufficient.

Before I get into this, I must say that the head of department is a lovely, open minded person, willing to take in feedback and ideas to help improvise this module. Perhaps I could give her the link to my blog!  Anyway, getting back to the module, I do feel that the module needs to be reordered and edited again – some of the terms were wrongly used (thesis statement and topic statement were used intermittently when they actually did not mean the same thing!). Also, some of the journal articles selected were way too challenging for the students –  the contents were too complex. Yes, I do understanding their reasoning as to why these articles were selected – these were medical students, after all. My argument is, though, that this writing course was aimed at building learners skills in terms of scanning for main ideas, extracting these ideas, paraphrasing them, using citations, synthesizing these ideas using synthesis-specific language which all, then, led to the writing itself. If this was to be successful, the content definitely needs to be simpler. Students, will then, not be faced with the challenge of trying to understand and make out the content first, before getting into the writing task (which I found, took so much of time in class). Of course, another way is for them to read the articles at home before getting into the writing task, but as mentioned earlier, they fail to see the importance of doing so.

It was a great attempt to get students to do the tasksheets at home. I do think that the number of task sheets could be reduced – some did not seem to serve the purpose, and did take too much of a time. Also, rather than having individually written assignments, it might’ve been better to have the first assignment done as pairs, and the 2nd one individually. There are several reasons for this: Firstly, the world of academic writing can be very daunting to students. It would’ve helped to build their confidence gradually, where they could first collaborate on a piece of writing before attempting the second one by themselves. They could also have learned and helped each other out. Perhaps, conducting an initial placement test in writing, and using the results to pair stronger and weaker students together for the first assignment might have helped. It’s sure worth a shot!

Long shot, yes. I don’t think much could’ve been done to change this – the university issues the schedule. Classes were usually between 4-6pm. I think, by then, students would’ve had a long day!

On the overall, I found that the classes were rather teacher centered, at least in terms of feedback given. In my next post, I’m going to list down some of the strategies I tried using to help make my large class more student centered and most of all, . Ironically, a lot of the CELTA methods wouldn’t have worked! 😉

Coming up next – Strategies for teaching academic writing……


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