What can we learn from our student writers?

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Before I took up an academic position in higher education, I was involved in helping students to develop their study skills, and most prominently, their writing. It was a task that I enjoyed and found that working with students in this type of capacity provided a unique perspective about the ways that students accounted for their experiences as writers.

One of the most useful things about having a different perspective was being able to challenge some of the preconceptions held by teaching and support colleagues about student behaviours at the time. For example, one view that surfaced from time to time was that undergraduate students could adopt very passive learning styles and that international students, in particular, relied on a rote type of learning that made it difficult for them to embrace the criticality needed for their academic studies. I recall being surprised by this viewpoint. Although usually well-intended, this view did not tally with what I was seeing in my day-to-day work.

Back then, I was meeting with a range of students – all who cared about their learning and wanted to do well, and were committed in their efforts to crack the codes of academic writing, research and thinking. Many of the international students doing degrees in a second or other language were extraordinary. I talked to students who were not just reading but translating and grappling with difficult dense academic texts and doing so into the early hours of the morning, sometimes each day. One student corrected me when I confused an element of a theory – I checked my notes and they were right. Many I spoke to developed highly organised writing plans that built in time for reading, thinking, planning and writing. It was almost always impressive. These ways of working seemed too proactive and accomplished to be described as passive or rote-dependent. It was complex, it was brave and it was intellectual. These encounters made me realise how important it is to never underestimate what students do behind the scenes.

Skipping forward almost a couple of decades and a different set of assumptions about students have become noticeable within the academy. The wave of consumer-based policies – including the tuition fee hike – have put in place a student-as-consumer mantra that seems to guide and reflect the student experience that we are all familiar with.

But the student-as-consumer view is inadequate. It focuses on a single element, and from it, generates a caricature of how students are – namely, preoccupied with getting value for money via grades and job prospects. What this misses is the precariousness that tends to accompany significant debt and the pressure of making good a substantial investment so young – amidst hard economic times. It also misses the desire to learn, experience the world in new ways and to become adept in knowledge in a specific area. And it overlooks the difficulties that some students may experience when trying to broker the culture of higher education; a task that may be even more pronounced for those with less representation in the academy and those that are first generation students. The consumer view misses these aspects because it falls foul of what it suggests of others: it overlooks the affective nature of education.

My research on student writing attempts to tease out these aspects of higher education that speak to and include the affective domain. Through student accounts of what it is to write – to achieve quantitatively but to develop qualitatively – my new article in Teaching in Higher Education brings into view the deliberation that is the backstory of student writing. The discussion reveals the ways in which the students I talked to had a varied understanding of higher education and their own learning within it. Writing motivations can be consumeristic, yes – but what is critical about this is that rarely are they solely so. Rather, students seek out ways to develop their own learning via writing, to play and bend the rules of writing and to construct a disciplinary identity that interpolates their own world with that of academia. Alongside these types of approaches, sometimes students have to play the game – but is that any different to what we do as academics?

I started this blog post with the title and question: ‘what can we learn from our student writers?’. One way to start to answer this is by paying attention to what I am calling ‘the student writing experience’. With assessment so central in the curriculum development in higher education, it is surprising that student experiences of writing for assessment are not consulted with as much as they might be. We need to understand and take into account the competing imperatives that students negotiate as part of writing for assessment. We can recognise that students use writing as a tool to have fun, to test boundaries and to express themselves – especially when there is opportunity to do so. We can consider these aspects of student writing when designing assessments and when putting into place different types of support. And we can learn, that when it comes to writing, not everything may be as it first appears.

Verity Aiken (Nottingham Trent University)

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