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Integrating the Teaching of Writing Skills into Subject Area IT Programs.

Helen Drury

Learning Assistance Centre

The University of Sydney



Successful written communication of subject area knowledge is highly valued in assessment processes within the tertiary sector and is a preparation for professional life after graduation. Effective IT courseware needs to integrate the teaching of written communication, with content. However few IT programs have addressed this integration and those that have suggest that a content based program can only support the development of such skills (Hedberg et al, 1994). Although programs and web pages have been designed to advise students on writing university genres such as reports or essays, these incorporate few, if any, interactive features, nor are they situated in any disciplinary context (Perez and Ninnes, 1996). Interactive programs have been developed to teach grammar and editing skills but these programs are not an integral part of a relevant writing task which is discipline based (Darling, 1997). This paper reports on the selection, analysis and preliminary evaluation of pilot courseware which is being developed to help students become effective editors of their own writing within the context of particular genres in their discipline. Since the courseware is based on a considerable body of learning materials already developed to help students improve their written communication, the steps taken to adapt and extend these materials for a computer-based mode of delivery will be described.


First year students entering university are challenged not only to learn new content in the disciplines but also to communicate this. A significant number of students will not have adequate academic literacy levels to be able to do this successfully (Jones and Bonanno, 1995 (1). Atlhough traditionally students were expected to develop academic literacy skills without any explicit teaching of these skills, universities now recognize the increasingly diverse backgrounds of their student populations and have put in place mechanisms for helping students develop their academic literacy. These have included the establishment of literacy and learning units as well as the requirement for university curricula to address the teaching of generic skills including communication skills.

The Learning Assistance Centre (LAC) at Sydney University, like other literacy and learning units, has been involved in a number of collaborative projects with first year subject area staff to integrate the teaching of communication skills into the curriculum (Webb et al, 1995, Taylor and Drury, 1996). These initiatives have resulted in the development of new teaching materials and approaches as well as new practices of assessment and feedback. However, as subject area curricula are being adapted to computer-based forms of learning, it is also necessary to consider how the teaching of communication skills can be integrated into these programs or how the teaching of communication skills can be contextualised within the learning of subject area knowledge. This paper reports on one such attempt, the development of pilot courseware which aims to help students become successful editors of their own writing.

The Background

The 'Self-edit' courseware draws on print-based materials used in teacher directed workshops developed to meet the needs of first year non-English-speaking background (NESB) students in Electrical Engineering who have been described as 'at risk' of failure due to inadequate academic literacy levels. These teaching materials were developed as part of a larger collaborative initiative between the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Learning Assistance Centre (LAC) at Sydney University, trialled in 1995, which targetted the literacy needs of all students entering their first year of study. This initiative involved the following components:

However, despite their success, the above interventions have encountered a number of problems. In particular, attendance at the remedial workshops which targetted the area of grammatical correctness was poor despite the full support and encouragement of subject area staff and this has led to the conclusion that such workshops do not justify the resources which go into their preparation for the following reasons:

Given that a significant proportion of first year Electrical Engineering students have difficulty in reaching acceptable standards of grammatical correctness in their writing (28% of the 1995 student cohort, a total of 38 students) an alternative to the remedial workshops has been sought. A computer-based alternative has been chosen for the following reasons:

it would allow students flexible access and relative anonymity in using the program;

However, despite these advantages, a computer-based alternative can be seen as a relatively expensive option for such a relatively small number of students, although the program would be available to all students in the Department including international postgraduate students. Therefore, to justify funding for the pilot courseware (funding was successfully sought from the University's Equity Funding), the pilot project had to be the basis for further developments in the application of IT to the teaching of communication skills, namely:

Courseware Design : Theory and Practice

The primary consideration in the design of the program was firstly, how to motivate students to actually use it and secondly, how to enhance learning outcomes in an area of remedial literacy learning which is extremely resistant to change. The following aspects were considered as essential to increasing motivation:

This focus on motivation as an essential ingredient in improving learning outcomes is part of the constructivist model of student learning which also emphasizes learners' prior concepts, their perception of the learning goals and interaction with the learning materials and the learning environment. A complementary teaching approach which is described by Ramsden (1992) and Laurillard (1993) as a 'conversation' allows students to engage with the educational media. This approach to teaching and learning and how it is seen to apply to the Self-edit courseware is illustrated in Figure 1. The components of the 'conversation' are listed alongside the Figure.

negotiation of relevant goals for the learner (ie.students do not have to complete the whole program but only those parts that are relevant to their needs);

sharing of conceptual knowledge between student and "teacher" (ie. students' conceptions are identified through a diagnostic entry task and teacher concepts are presented through explanations, models and interactive exercises);

interaction between student and "teacher" (ie. the student engages in active learning through exercises, simulations and modelling and receives computer-based, peer and teacher feedback);

adaptation of teaching materials to the students' conceptions (ie. the program is, to some extent , sensitive to students' responses and can recommend appropriate pathways for the student to achieve the learning goals);

reflection on feedback and how it relates to learning goals (ie.students can integrate concepts and monitor their progress through a summary of where they have been and an exit task to tell them what they have learnt).

However, in order to become successful writers, students have to achieve a certain learning outcome, namely competency in editing skills. Thus the constructivist approach is supported by more explicit guidance and structuring so that effective learning can take place (Hedberg et al, 1994). A competency-based approach to learning editing skills for the purposes of academic writing provides this structure as it allows for progression in learning where goals at each stage are explicitly identified. Competency-based learning curricula and assessment practices have been introduced in a number of educational areas (high school, TAFE, Adult Migrant Education Programs) after the Finn report in 1992. Similarly, in the university context, generic skills have been identified for students graduating from any undergraduate degree course and recommendations made to develop these within university curricula. However, if generic competencies such as communication skills are to be mastered they need to be situated in a particular context (Hager, 1994). The Self-edit courseware integrates the learning of skills within the context of discipline examples and genres and thus avoids a rigid 'rule-based drill approach'. This integrated approach to learning about language is based on the 'genre' approach to literacy pedagogy which emphasizes the influence of context and social purpose on how language is actually used rather than rules about language (Cope and Kalantizis, 1993). The 'genre' approach has been successfully combined with the competency-based approach in language learning programs for NESB students (Feez and Joyce, 1995), although these programs are not computer-based.

Figure 1. The overall teaching and learning concept of the Self-edit courseware

Refining, Reusing and Repurposing

The changes involved in adapting the workshop materials for a computer-based mode of delivery and in moving from face-to-face interaction with a teacher to a computer-human interface, are summarised in Table 1.

While it can be argued, based on the above Table, that the workshop approach is still the more effective approach to teaching editing skills, this approach is no longer viable and the computer-based approach incorporates other advantages which have not appeared in the table, such as flexible access. The effectiveness of the Self-edit courseware, particularly in terms of student learning, will not be fully evaluated until its full trialling in first semester next year. However, preliminary formative evaluation of parts of the program have identified the following areas which need further attention:

Table 1. The characteristics of the workshop mode compared to the computer-based mode.



Self-edit courseware

Needs analysis

Comprehensive discipline-based diagnostic writing task assessed all levels of writing skills including grammatical correctness. Authentic task. Comprehensive, individualised feedback given. However, workshop on problems in grammatical correctness held 3 months after diagnostic task and feedback.

Discipline based diagnostic writing task assessed students' competencies in editing 5 key grammatical problem areas at the sentence level. Texts for editing based on authentic student texts but authenticity of task limited to 5 key problem areas and by technology (See Figures 2 and 3 below). Feedback tied to advice on pathways through courseware. Courseware immediately accessible after feedback.

Information subject matter

Teacher based and print-based. Explanation limited by duration of workshop. Subject matter chosen on basis of most frequent grammatical errors in diagnostic writing task.

Screen based explanation with interactive features. Explanation at different levels of detail and complexity possible although limited by size/duration of program. Subject matter (5 key problem areas) chosen on basis of most frequent grammatical errors in original print-based diagnostic writing task.

Examples/ models

Authentic: based on discipline area content.

Authentic: based on discipline area content. Interactive features, animations and simulations included.


Both sentence level and extended text exercises using discipline content. Group exercises possible. No clearly defined authentic task as workshop goal.

Both sentence level and extended text exercises using discipline content but more complex exercises limited by nature of assessment and feedback. First assessed assignment as goal of program.


Highly interactive and varied. Student groupwork and student-teacher interaction. Students can question and receive feedback according to their needs.

High levels of interaction with computer but limited to certain methods only. Some interaction with peers and teacher possible (via e-mail)


By peers and teacher. Comprehensive teacher assessment.

Computer assessment immediate but limited to the 5 key problem areas. More comprehensive assessment only through e-mail to teacher.


Comprehensive, individualised, detailed feedback possible but limited by teacher time.

Computer can give basic feedback sufficient for many types of exercises but more complex exercises such as those involving writing of extended text need feedback from teacher. Students can compare their writing to a model but may not realize or understand how their text compares with model.


Fairly inflexible. Teacher directed, although can be adapted to suit student group needs. Teacher has overview of how learning takes place and controls pace and delivery of information, exercises etc. Responsiblity for learning more with teacher.

Flexible. Student directed. Students can choose pathways to suit individual needs. Choices determined by hyperlinks in original program. Danger of students 'getting lost' in a complex program. Responsiblity for learning more with student.


Figure 2. Extract from the diagnostic editing task.



Figure 3. Example of feedback on extract from the diagnostic editing task.


Challenges for Future Development

The challenge for the future development of courseware that aims to teach writing skills centres around the issues of authenticity and integration of computer-based tasks. The present limitations of the technology mean that when levels of authenticity and integration are raised, students need to receive feedback on their writing from a teacher. Even when considering learning editing skills, which can be considered low level writing skills, the challenge is to embed such skills within an authentic context.

In addition, the nature of learning any language related skill is how to decide on where to begin and where to end since language is a continuum. For example, where does the problem area of sentence structure begin and end, when certain sentence level choices have consequences for the paragraph and the text as a whole. Language does not lend itself easily to be learnt in discrete parts and it is possible that the new technology has the potential to overcome this problem by showing the interconnections and the complexity as one moves from the micro to the macro level, from the sentence to the whole text. In addition, the new technology has the potential to use visualisation and simulation as a means of learning about language in new ways (McNaught, 1996).

The criteria of authenticity must also be applied to the selection of problem areas in grammatical correctness, the subject matter of the Self-edit program. How do subject area lecturers perceive these errors or, for that matter, how do employers perceive them? These are questions for future research so that more realistic levels of competency can be chosen for the Self-edit program

The Self-edit courseware represents a beginning and an experiment in the area of integrating the teaching of writing skills into subject area IT programs. One of its strengths lies in that it is based on the adaptation and extension of learning materials that have been extensively trialled. It has also been able to balance, to some extent, the need for structure and flexibility in creating a variety of pathways for students to follow. Perhaps, most importantly, it has provided a template for developing courseware for other discipline areas as well as the basis for developing courseware for other interconnected areas of learning about language and writing. Both the present courseware and future programs will have the potential to reach large numbers of students, not only those attending Sydney University.


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(c) Helen Drury


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