28 August 2008

Academic writing for foundation students

By Dr Yong Fung Lan and Melinda Kong

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Since many professionals spend a significant amount of their working hours writing, the ability to write well is crucial to their job performance. Many personal assistants, business managers, and engineers write more frequently on the job than English lecturers. Academic writing taught to foundation students is a manageable pursuit that has practical use for their future academic and professional endeavors.  Foundation students should therefore realize its value, not only as a course prerequisite but also a soft skill vital for professional development.

Academic writing is designed to be an enriching learning experience for foundation students; however, some students do not perceive its purpose and regard it as drudgery.  To overcome this negative attitude, lecturers need to demonstrate to foundation students that academic writing differs from much of school writing, so it is not a case of more of the same old stuff.  The former focuses on persuasion and argumentation, which are powerful communicative tools in the real world, unlike the latter which tends to be schoolish versions of description and narration.

If foundation students are convinced that they can use the new writing skills to win scholarly arguments, interact meaningfully with others, and persuade people to give them jobs – when they can see the value of academic writing, they will willingly participate in it. 

In other words, positive attitudes toward academic writing can be fostered by increasing the learner’s awareness on its significance in the scholastic and real world.

Academic writing does not occur in a vacuum:  part of learning to write well is about learning where and how to access information and which information to select. In learning to do so, students are acquiring the vital skill of seeking out knowledge for themselves. This is a valuable life-long skill that will serve them well past their foundation and university years.

Clearly, academic writing and learning are complementary mental functions. For instance, the more foundation students write argumentatively, the better they become at evaluative thinking and critical problem solving, and the deeper their learning will be. 

Compared to listening or reading, which are relatively more passive skills, academic writing is productive and makes subject mastery more integrative.  Highly kinesthetic, academic writing requires students to apply their cognitive and psychomotor skills simultaneously. In short, it promotes more efficacious learning as it requires students to concurrently use their visual, kinesthetic, and emotional modalities.

Thus, as a multi-presentational mode of learning, academic writing deepens foundation students’ interest in subject matter, transferring it to long term memory. An obvious advantage is that it prepares them for research projects in various academic disciplines such as in engineering, business, information technology, and multimedia. For example, it enables business students to compose according to the discourse conventions of commerce – how to think and argue as entrepreneurs, financial analysts, or advertisers.  By the same token, it enables engineering students to express their ideas in clearly written English.

To have a productive writing experience, foundation students should receive a subject outline right at the beginning of the semester that details grading criteria for the writing portfolio, midterm, final examination, and class participation.  A good reference book on the process of composition and sample essays further enlighten them on what effective academic writing requires.

To motivate foundation students, lecturers need to show them crucial role of academic writing.  First, it contributes to higher order learning, as it encourages them to synthesize and evaluate information.  It fosters active learning that enables students to validate what they conceptualize – to derive something tangible from the abstract.  Students will find it is rewarding when they see their own unique thoughts and ideas crafted into concrete textual evidence or knowledge.

Many disciplines, including engineering and business, evaluate students’ academic performance in terms of how well they elaborate in writing. Quality writing goes beyond the classroom, however.  While it equips young people with the expressive skills that have a positive influence on their academic performance, it is far more importantly a preparation for engagement with the world outside.
Finally, effective academic writing can be mastered, but like all valuable skills, it comes with mental effort, meaningful practice and simulated use. The lecturer’s task is to enthuse foundation students into enjoying the task of creating a text that they own and which speaks their voice.

Dr Yong Fung Lan and Melinda Kong are lecturers with the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. They can be contacted atfyong@swinburne.edu.my and mkong@swinburne.edu.my