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Developing students' academic writing at UCL

19 July 2013

Abbie Willett reports on an event designed to draw together the various people at UCL who are interested in developing students’ writing.

Students studying in UCL Library

The workshop, which was run jointly by the Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) and the School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS), began with a networking lunch which gave everyone the opportunity to share their interests and experiences around student writing. An Open Space format followed in which four key questions that had been volunteered in advance by participants were discussed.

The discussions held at the event covered the following areas:

Areas that students typically want or need help with

  • Students tend to write for their assessments so tend to be focused on the outcome (their mark) rather than the writing process. They particularly want advice on structure and need help drawing out the main points of their argument. Students need help tackling some core writing skills such as grammar and punctuation.
  • Students want subject-specific ideas. They want to understand what good writing in their discipline involves. This could be delivered via exemplars of good writing from previous cohorts of students. It could involve helping students to understand what it is about an academic article/piece of writing that makes it good within the context of their discipline.
  • Students writing in the sciences sometimes write in very disorganised ways despite science being about organised knowledge.

Our aspirations for student writing

  • Students have a set of beliefs about writing that doesn’t quite fit with how we want them to do it. Students need to understand their responsibilities both as readers and as writers.
  • We want to help students avoid complexity and jargon in order to write clearly. Getting students to read their work out loud to themselves and to their peers is an effective way of developing these skills. Students can also use complexity and jargon to mask the fact that they do not really understand what they are writing about. If they cannot clearly explain a point then they probably haven’t understood it.
  • We want students to have the confidence to write well in different ways. They need to be able to adapt their writing to suit the context and purpose of the writing they are undertaking.

Ideas for developing students’ writing

  • Using peer review/learning/feedback in writing activities; for example by getting students to explain a complex subject to each other, getting students to work together to summarise academic papers on one sheet of A4 or helping students deconstruct the final document that they want to achieve in groups/pairs.
  • Using exemplars and samples of writing to discuss various aspects of the work in groups; for example, how the work is structured, how the language is used, and other disciplinary features.
  • Designing assessment tasks that incorporate formative assessment so students’ work ‘feeds forward’ and their writing ability develops.

For further consideration

  • When is the best time to run writing workshops?
  • It’s not just enough to provide writing resources for students. How do we make sure they actually follow these guidelines?
  • How do you get students to give each other good feedback and reflect on their own writing?
  • How can we identify and help students at different levels of writing ability?

Further information

  • The Developing Students’ Writing at UCL series will continue next year, focusing on specific themes. Alongside the scheme we hope to provide more information and resources detailing the various initiatives on offer at UCL. We also hope to offer more detailed, specific and innovative ideas for developing students’ writing. If you're interested in learning more, email Abbie Willett ( or Nick Grindle (
  • For information, guidance and resources, visit the Developing Students’ Academic Writing page on the Teaching and Learning Portal
  • Read a case study about an academic who has improved students’ marks by an average of one degree class through introducing peer review of essays

Page last modified on 19 jul 13 12:04

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