Developing academic literacies – part one

A photo of Susan Robbins: Senior Lecturer in English Language (Sussex Centre for Language Studies)
Post written by Susan Robbins: Senior Lecturer in English Language (Sussex Centre for Language Studies)

Embedding study skills, it is argued, helps students make the important link between the conventions of academic writing, the contested nature of knowledge, and the way writers use theory and evidence to argue.

What to do about study skills?

What do we mean when we talk about study skills? Current approaches position study skills as a ‘fix’ to a wide range of difficulties experienced by students, and study skills support is presented as a panacea for resolving the issues presented by educational expansion. Viewed this way, they are little more than ‘a remedy as a placebo, providing confidence and emotional “sticking plasters” to students without treating the much more complex cause of their difficulties’ (Bond, 2020). If we instead view skills as situated, contextualised and discipline specific socio-cultural practices which therefore cannot be decontextualised from the process of learning and the subject matter being taught (Wingate, 2006), then the way that we teach study skill’s has to shift.

Critical thinking, for example, is an essential part of any student’s mental equipment and is often positioned as a ‘21st century skill’. Critical thinking is not a skill, however (Willingham, 2008). There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Without anchoring these skills in domain-specific contexts such an approach may have little value. Similarly, students can only ‘be critical’ in their writing in relation to the subject area they are studying, and with an understanding of the way knowledge is communicated in their discipline.

Researchers have attempted to capture the complexity of the skillset required to ‘communicate competently in an academic discourse community’ (Maldoni, 2017, p.104) using the term ‘academic literacies’. Rather than focussing on technical or generic skills and acculturated behaviour norms, an academic literacies approach looks at academic development as situated social practices at the level of epistemology and identity, and in particular at academic writing as having multiple, contested meanings, discourses, power relations and authority (Lea & Street, 1998). Students are making decisions about their writing in a context which is marked by hierarchies of power and authority (Webster, 2021).

A photo of a mortar board placed on top of an open book.

The academic literacy support continuum: ‘bolt-on’ to embedded

At the generic end of this continuum are academic skills workshops and generic online materials, while activities at the embedded-literacy end include collaborations with departmental staff to offer targeted activities to improve students’ academic literacy skills. In between, discipline-specific online materials and individual 1:1 consultations bridge the gap by addressing the concerns of specific disciplines and specific assignments.

1. Generic

Skills module ‘bolted on’ to a programme

  • Students may not see the purpose, or the usefulness of the module to their wider programme/ future studies.
  • Students assess their own skills as better developed than they are.

2. Moving from generic to embedded

Overlap created between skills module and subject content modules/programme

  • Students may continue in the belief that the module has little relevance to their wider programme/future studies.
  • Subject modules build in formative & summative written work aligned to the ‘skills’ module so that students see value in harnessing ‘skills’ taught.

3. Embedded

Academic literacy support embedded within subject modules/programme

  • Writing specialists teach the writing syllabus as part of the subject module.  
  • Embedded approaches help overcome poor student uptake/poor reception of strategies offered outside the curriculum.  
  • Writing specialists provide tutorial support at subject module assessment points.

Students need effective support with their academic skills at all levels of study at university, particularly regarding academic writing (Ganobcsik-Williams, 2006). While generic resources and workshops have a place as part of a broad institutional offering, the bolt-on skills approach is a deficit-focused model which associates skills learning with failure. Often working as ‘third space’ practitioners, Department of Language Studies (DLS) faculty have in the past made efforts to teach generic skills modules which are credit-bearing and oblige attendance from all students, and are familiar with the resistance they engender.

The limitations of a bolt-on study skills approach

Universities need to support the academic skills development of a student cohort with diverse backgrounds and varying levels of educational experience. The Widening Participation agenda can create challenges when developing curriculum models that are able to accommodate a more heterogeneous student body. Many of the responses to the challenges of mass higher education are based on a deficit view of the students, where the problem is located within the student. A shift towards a social model, where we examine attitudes and practices as the cause of the deficit/difficulty can help students with the task of ‘becoming academic’. It’s interesting that in their report on the effects of embedded skills on first year UG attainment, Cook & Thompson (2019) conclude that although ‘the effect of socio-economic background of our students on their learning is largely excluded from our report… our research suggests it may have a significant effect on the [lack of] receptiveness to academic support’.

The need for an alternative approach to generic, bolt-on academic skills support is clear. ‘The literature is unequivocal that high impact student learning occurs when communication skills are integrated within disciplinary learning and assessment’ (Maldoni, 2017, p. 105). An alternative is found in the ‘embedded’ approach, which is defined as ‘explicit development of students’ academic language and literacies within the specific curriculum of the discipline’ (Chanock, 2012, in Maldoni, 2017, p.105). This approach recognises that academic literacy skills are complex and involve more than learning particular surface skills.

A photo of a tower block building covered in plants.

Embedding study skills

Embedding, it is argued, helps students make the important link between the conventions of academic writing, the contested nature of knowledge, and the way writers use theory and evidence to argue. Embedding provision within subject departments can be a more effective approach to the academic development of students in that it helps students link subject content with assessment requirements, and makes explicit the norms and conventions of particular disciplines (White and Lay, 2019).

I would point out that attempting to establish an embedded approach (wherever on the continuum you aim for) makes great demands of time, energy and resources. In the DLS we make efforts to take the principles of the academic literacies approach into account in our planning and teaching of academic skills, but the structural constraints we encounter make this impossible to achieve this by ourselves. Implementing embedded support requires institutional support, collaboration between departments and time (McWilliams and Allan, 2014).

The current curriculum review at the University of Sussex offers an opportunity to think more about embedding skills development across the curriculum, and resourcing subject-based support. This would help foster students’ understanding of disciplinary approaches by focusing on subject-specific skills that seek to broaden a student’s disciplinary knowledge and unlock the threshold concepts of each subject. A shift towards a social model that locates attitudes and practices as the cause of perceived skills deficit/difficulty can help all students with the task of ‘becoming academic’.

I talk more about this in part two of this blog.


Bond, B. (2020) Making language visible in the university: English for academic purposes and internationalisation. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Cook, P; Thompson, A; and Dias-Lopez, A (2019) Report on PTAS Project Analysing the Effects of Embedded Study Skills on First Year UG Attainment. University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK. Available at: roject_Report_Analysing_Effects_Embedded_Study_Skills_on_FirstYear_UG%20Attainment_Coo k.pdf (Accessed: 14 June 2023).

Ganobcsik-Williams, L. (2006) Teaching academic writing in UK higher education: Theories, practices and Models. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lea, M.R; and Street, B.V. (1998) ‘Student writing in Higher Education: An academic literacies approach’, Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), pp. 157–172. doi:10.1080/03075079812331380364.

McWilliams, R. and Allan, Q. (2014) ‘Embedding Academic Literacy Skills: Towards a best practice model’, Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 11(3), pp. 94–114. doi:10.53761/

Maldoni, M. (2017) ‘A cross-disciplinary approach to embedding: A pedagogy for developing academic literacies.’ Journal of Academic Language and Learning, 11(1).

Webster, H. (2021) rattus scholasticus, 31 March. Available at: (Accessed: 14 June 2023).

White, S., & Lay, E. (2019). Built-in not bolted-on: embedding academic literacy skills in subject disciplines. Creative Pedagogies Imprint, 1(2), 33–38.

Willingham, D.T. (2008) ‘Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?’, Arts Education Policy Review, 109(4), pp. 21–32. doi:10.3200/aepr.109.4.21-32.

Wingate, U. (2006) ‘Doing away with “study skills”’, Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), pp. 457–469. doi:10.1080/13562510600874268.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Blog, Uncategorised

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *