Eva Tzschaschel and Spencer Arbige from the School of Psychological Sciences (Faculty of Medicine, Health and Human Sciences) teach PSYU1102 and PSYX1102 (Introduction to Psychology 2) – a large unit of almost 2000 1st year students. In this post, Eva and Spencer share how they incorporated four twenty-minute writing skills workshops into tutorials and how this positively impacted student performance in an essay assessment.

Ever been marking an essay and found yourself wanting to scream as you stare down yet another poorly constructed sentence that meanders on forever? We’ve been there too. That’s why we developed a solution to help turn those screams (hopefully for ice cream) into dreams of better writing.

Surely, they can write?

The mismatch between expectations and reality

We noticed a disconnect between students, teachers, and future employers, as all these groups hold wildly different expectations for university-level writing.

Future employers expectations:Surely, graduates can write – I need my report for the board done ASAP.Employers expect graduates to have a basic set of skills when they enter the workforce (regardless of the degree undertaken).
Student’s expectations:“Surely, I can write – I text my mates all the time.”After having attended school for twelve years, students feel they should be able to write at a high level, and, accordingly, it should be relatively easy to get good marks.
Lecturer’s expectation:“Surely, they can write – they went to school.Lecturers expect students to write clearly. However, many assignments are challenging to decipher and demand much creative interpretation from teaching staff.

Study shows writing skills in decline

Despite these positive expectations, Thomas (2019) highlighted that NAPLAN writing scores declined rapidly from 2011 to 2018, especially within high school cohorts. As these trends occurred despite increased performances in reading and numeracy skills, Thomas cited ineffective writing instructions from educators as one potential explanation for these decreases.

A practical approach: make it digestible – like ice-cream

To combat this, instead of just describing what good academic writing should look like, we dedicated bitesized chunks of time at the start of each tutorial – to make it digestible (like ice cream or the occasional vegetable for the health conscious out there) – to practical academic writing tasks (e.g., editing sentences for clarity).

We naturally divided these activities into segments so that each task related to that week’s targeted section of the essay, such as the introduction, body and conclusion. For example, we included the editing activity described above within one of the body paragraph lessons.

Skill workshop 1The first of our four short twenty-minute workshops featured practical exercises for the introduction such as:
* how to write the hook
* what to include in an effective definition
* how to paraphrase
* how to best state one’s position
Skill workshop 2We dedicated workshops 2 and 3 to the body paragraphs and practised the basics. Students learnt:
* how to read a scientific paper
* what to include from these scientific papers in the body paragraphs
* how to structure paragraphs
Skill workshop 3Another workshop devoted to writing body paragraphs, this time focusing on:
* how to write clearly
* how to incorporate critical thinking
Skill workshop 4The last workshop covered writing effective conclusions. We discussed:
* key elements to include
* what to avoid

In addition, we provided an exercise on using APA 7 to help students become familiar with the many less-than-intuitive rules of this referencing system.

The writing skills workshops in tutorials also aligned with the recommended study timeline in the unit i.e. Weeks 1-4 Essay preparation, Weeks 4-6 Essay writing, Weeks 7-8 Essay revision and submission.

During these practical workshops, tutors introduced each week’s theme before students downloaded a worksheet from iLearn and split off to complete the day’s practical task, which involved either small group exercises, partner work, or individual assignments. Following a larger group discussion, tutors then provided answers to any outstanding questions about the worksheets. They also addressed any unique essay-related queries.

As the unit has three separate streams, namely on-campus tutorials, online Zoom tutorials, and asynchronous Open University (OUA) tutorials, we modified the delivery of the OUA content accordingly. For this cohort, in addition to the aforementioned worksheets, we also developed interactive content on iLearn to simulate partner work and immediate tutor feedback.

A noticeable improvement in essay performance

While the cohort was not better overall than the previous year (as evidenced by no change in performance on the lecture quizzes), students performed significantly better in the written assignment compared to the year before. The numbers are convincing – a 5% improvement in student essay performance marks compared to the previous year. This indicates our program was successful!

Student and staff feedback 

Although most students enjoyed the new format of bite-size chunks in preparation for the assignment, some wanted everything in one go. Others still didn’t like the ice-cream topic (have they no sense of humour?). However, that could be because they just wanted to work on the actual assignment topic (instead of having to transfer their newly acquired knowledge to the actual essay topic).

What we’ll change for next time

  • Take students’ feedback on board and make the instructions easier to follow
  • Offer an overview document for students who prefer everything in one spot
  • Perhaps think of a different topic example for the exercises (instead of ice-cream)
  • Provide better training for the tutors to further enhance the delivery of the program
  • Ensure students understand that the topic for the practice exercises is irrelevant – they just need to transfer what they learn to the actual assignment topic.

Eva Tzschaschel is an A/Lecturer and Co-Course Director for the Bachelor of Psychology (OUA) program at the School of Psychological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Health and Human Sciences. Eva is passionate about teaching psychology and focuses on imparting transferrable skills such as clear communication and critical thinking to her students. Eva is also a member of the Macquarie University Lifespan Health and Wellbeing Research Centre. Her research interests primarily lie in health and perception research. 

Spencer Arbige is a third year PhD candidate in the School of Psychological Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Health and Human Sciences. His research explores novel, online applications of hypnosis. Spencer has previously tutored for the introductory psychology and neuroscience units offered by the department and taught abroad in Sierra Leone through the Peace Corps. Given his extensive journalism background, he hopes to become involved in other similar research collaborations, with the aim of improving psychology writing and education.

Banner image: Adobe stock image
Other images supplied by Eva Tzschaschel
Post edited by Kylie Coaldrake

Posted by Teche Editor

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