Teaching & Learning


How to improve students' writing

Dr Adam Smith's new essay-writing course received 100 per cent positive feedback and led to big improvements. Just don’t call it a skills course.


3 September 2014

“There is a really big issue in the transition from school to university, and it’s getting bigger,” said Dr Adam Smith, UCL History. He is talking about first-year students and the difficulty they face in adapting to undergraduate essay-writing.

The problem, he says, stems from changes made to the A-Level curriculum over the past 10-15 years. As mark schemes for A-Level essays become more prescriptive, so students grow used to being spoon-fed essay plans. In some cases, that has left them unprepared to deal with the rigours of a university humanities programme.

His Provost’s Teaching Award-winning solution was to create Writing History – a first-year module unlike anything else on the programme.

In just its first year, it was better attended and more popular than any other compulsory course, with 100 percent of students agreeing the course was ‘good’ or ‘very good’. Every feedback respondent also said they’d benefitted from small group teaching – one of the hallmarks of the course – and Dr Smith’s colleagues agree student essays have improved as a result. 

Although he is quick to point out the style and structure of Writing History might not work for every discipline, there are a number of elements that others could find useful. Here are his key tips for improving essay-writing among undergraduates:

1 No-one likes generic skills courses, so don’t teach writing in isolation

I didn’t want to create a generic skills course. People find them boring. So we link Writing History to the topics that students are studying in their other modules.

The course kicks off with a few introductory lectures that introduce academic writing and research. After that, we match small student groups to tutors who have expertise in a subject the students are currently studying. As a result, the group can use examples and exercises that make sense to everyone and help them with those other courses.

You can’t artificially divorce content from form. That consideration was really key to the concept of the course and saved it from being a generic skills course that students would probably have hated.

2 Small group teaching offers major benefits

I’m really passionate about this. Across higher education there is still an obsession with contact hours. I think this is misplaced. Students don’t care about contact hours – they care about the quality of the contact.

One of the things that is completely new on this course is we break students into very small groups of three or four. That is what students really like and that’s what’s distinctive about it.

In these small groups, we then set practical writing exercises and discuss them with each other. It’s an opportunity to build confidence and ask questions in a situation that isn’t intimidating. It also gets them into the habit of peer assessment.

I don’t think you can’t replicate that in a standard seminar group or lecture.

3 When it comes to writing exercises, start small

All tutors have some leeway in designing their own tasks. What they have in common is the use of small writing assignments and group discussion.

In advance of my first tutorial session, I set a question relevant to my specialism. Students are asked to email their 150-word responses to me and the other students in the group. Then, in the tutorial, we pick them apart and discuss each other's. Why have they chosen those words? Have they communicated the idea they wanted to get across?

The discipline of writing 150 or 200 words is phenomenally helpful. It doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but is very difficult.

Other tasks include writing a synopsis of a book or condensing an argument in a short paragraph. I also present sentences taken from different parts of an essay and ask them to consider where they may have come from – the intro, the main body or conclusion. From here, we work up to planning and writing essays.

4 There is no formula for a perfect essay, but there are some key principles

A-Level students become used to receiving essay templates and detailed guidance. In Writing History, I present some key principles, but it is vastly less prescriptive than what they would be used to.

Really, the main thing I’m trying to do in laying out principles is explain the terminology tutors will be using in their feedback. I’ve noticed over the years I’ve been teaching that students can be confused by terms such as sources and structure, and I felt we weren’t spending enough time translating them. We are so ingrained in academic writing, we forget how difficult that initial introduction can be.

5 Feedback on the first attempt is crucial

Every History student writes their first essay in the context of this course. They each get to produce a first draft that they can discuss with their tutor. They then get feedback before producing a final draft.

Because students feel they are under a different assessment regime and aren’t sure what is expected of them, they are understandably anxious about writing, so the idea that the first time they give it a go they will get quality feedback on a draft is immensely reassuring.