Writing doesn’t just happen. It takes practice. To quote Wendy Belcher, good writers write. Short and steady sessions will, she says, win the race (Belcher, 2019: 18, 19) … Belcher (2019) advocates for a deliberate and regular practice approach and suggests the 15 minutes writing a day approach over the cramming approach as ideal.
In April 2022, I wrote a blog post about the need to rethink formative assessment in higher education (HE). Building on the work of Crossouard and Pryor (2012, 253), I called for a questioning of the practice of formative assessment and specifically that we need to rethink our approach to formative assessment in relation to the preparation for written based summative assessments in HE. Specifically, I argued that we should spend more time supporting students, within the classroom environment, with writing through what I called formative opportunities. Drawing on the work of Ericsson and Pool (2016), I called for purposeful and deliberate practice; that is, embedding the deliberate practice of witing in the classroom environment.
This blog post is a follow up to the 2022 piece. What follows are insights of and reflections on the ‘Writing into Land Law Project’ where we (the Land Law Teaching Team – Bonnie Holligan (Convenor), Ashleigh Keall, Chloe Anthony, Millicent Ele and I) embedded writing opportunities into every seminar of Land Law I, an Autumn term module. Broadly speaking, my headline message remains the same: if you are assessing by way of written assessment, you should build in opportunities for your students to write, reflect and build confidence in, and with, writing. In addition, I encourage you, as teacher/tutor, to take part; to participate and write with your students. Share in the vulnerability of writing. Share in the conversation about writing, about what good writing looks like in different contexts for the discipline. Arguably, this practice, and conversation with students, will become even more important as we navigate the role of AI, in and for, writing in HE.
Writing as deliberate practice
The impetus for the Writing into Land Law Project, as discussed in the previous blog post, was inspired by the work of Christodoulou (2017) and William and Black (1998) on responsive teaching and practice. In their work, they tell us that formative assessment should intervene in the midst of a student’s learning process not at the end. In its ideal form then, formative assessment, or formative opportunities, should be comprised of frequent activities that help to identify learning and develop the skills required – with an opportunity for teachers to respond in real time. In essence, the approach is to purposefully build the blocks required for students to excel. Students, we know, need knowledge and skill in the subject area. However, in HE, they rarely practice writing in a deliberate way. Though students ‘write’ regularly, the writing form, it seems, is primarily note taking and not developed passages of writing that resemble what they will later be expected to produce by way of assessment output. Moreover, and as previously outlined, our current design and approach to formative assessment in HE is such that few students take up opportunities to receive feedback prior to the summative assessment. In addition, though we may design seminar questions so that they look like summative questions, we have no real indication if the way in which a student has prepared for that question is going to help them build a suitable response for the summative assessment. Students require the building blocks of skills required for the summative. We are pretty good at supporting students to break down and build up blocks of knowledge but less so with skills. Yet, we know writing doesn’t just happen. It takes practice. To quote Wendy Belcher, good writers write. Short and steady sessions will, she says, win the race (Belcher, 2019: 18, 19). In guiding academics with writing, Belcher (2019) advocates for a deliberate and regular practice approach and suggests the 15 minutes writing a day approach over the cramming approach as ideal.
It is, I argue, rather curious that in the HE environment where there is now a greater emphasis placed on supporting academics to be able to write well and produce suitable REF outputs etc., that we don’t attach the same weight or understanding to the writing process for undergraduate study. Writing spaces, retreats, labs are growing in number and popularity across the higher education landscape to support academics. There is, it seems, a collective understanding amongst academics that writing is hard, writing takes time, writing needs support, that it can be isolating and that it needs to be deliberate. Why then, don’t we apply the same attention and focus to support our undergraduate students with writing? It is almost like we expect our students to be able to produce said assignment output by way of osmosis when we would never view our own writing work in the same light. There is a disconnect here and thus the effort to do otherwise in this project.
Building blocks: embedding writing into seminars as a deliberate and collective practice
The approach taken in the Writing into Land Law project was not radical. In fact, it was a simple albeit deliberate approach. We simply built-in space (5-10 minutes) for writing, or reflecting on writing, into every 50-minute seminar in the Autumn term. (Yes, it can be achieved!) By way of context, the substantive summative assessment for the Land Law I module is to write a coursework essay. The writing tasks we built in then were all purposefully geared towards the blocks of writing an essay and were roughly as follows:
Seminar one: free writing
In seminar one, we incorporated a 5-minutes free writing exercise at the end of the seminar. The prompt provided was simply to free write for 5 minutes in response to a short article on the right to roam or the impact of the pandemic on land use and space (this built on the class discussion). Following the free writing exercise, we then had 5 minutes to reflect on the practice and outlined our intentions moving forward.
Seminar two: introductions
Seminar two was all about essay introductions. We began the 10-minute slot by discussing, in pairs, what a good introduction looks like. We then had a go at writing an introduction to an essay question. Once the writing time was up, we shared some examples.
Seminar three: advancing an argument
Seminar three focused on advancing an argument. Here students were asked to consider what makes a good argument and to look at an abstract/draw on an academic article that had been set for reading to draw out arguments made by the author. For note, Wendy Belcher (2019: 68) provides some excellent ‘argument tests’ that can be used to help undergraduate students understand whether they have an argument or not. One example is the agree/disagree test that I use regularly with students. Provide students with a statement. If they can reply by saying ‘I agree/I disagree’, then it’s an argument. If not, then it’s not an argument.
Seminar four: conclusions
In seminar four, we focused on conclusions. Again, we allowed time for discussion on what makes a good conclusion, looked at an example and then allowed time to write a conclusion to a sample essay question.
Seminar five: brining it all together
Seminar five was specifically designed to replicate the summative assessment and was therefore about bringing it all together. Another headline message here is that formative essays or opportunities should link to the summative. It is often the case that formative essay assessments in higher education have no connection with the summative. They should. That’s the whole point.
Whilst there was some divergence in approach in different tutor groups, and that is to be expected, one key point to emphasise is that this approach works best if the tutor also takes part; that is, to share in the process and to connect through action.
What did the students think?
To glean some insights and any potential impact of the project, I asked students to complete a short survey at the end of the module. 55 students of 379 on the module responded to the survey. Not all students replied to every question so the limited scale of the project should be noted. I began by asking students about confidence in writing before and after the project and whether they felt differently about writing now. Of those that responded, there was a 16% increase in confidence about writing. In terms of affect and feeling, 84% (37 out of 44 students) said they viewed the writing process differently with 59% noting specifically that ‘they have a clearer idea of what is expected’. In response to the question, ‘what did you find most helpful about the in-seminar writing opportunities’, ‘demystifying the writing process’ was voted most highly at 30%. Thereafter, ‘regular practice’ at 27 % and ‘building confidence’ at 25.5%. Interestingly, only 9 students (16%) felt that ‘doing so in a community environment’ was the most helpful aspect.
It is unsurprising that ‘demystifying the writing process’ was voted most highly. As with academic writing, Belcher notes (2019:15) that ‘writing dysfunction is commonplace in academia’. There is a silence about writing. It is, she notes, something that is supposed to come naturally and should be performed in polite privacy (2019:15). The reality, of course, is much different. One student noted that the writing project provided a way ‘to break that fear you get from essay writing. It reminds you that it is possible, and you can do it’. Another student noted that it is ‘good way to build confidence and understand how to write/get thoughts onto the page in a better way’. Further still, another student recognised the building blocks nature of the process by noting that:
The seminar writing exercises in this module gives everyone a chance to process and break down their own thoughts about writing an essay. Hearing my tutor talk about ways of writing has been super insightful.
It was also clear that many of the students recognised the potential to further develop the project to include feedback and extend the writing time for example.
Though recognising that the survey conducted here is limited in terms of scale and thus only provides a snapshot of insights from the module cohort, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and as a project is worth pursuing and developing further. Only one student said that the embedded writing opportunities were not worthwhile. The feedback from students about building confidence, overcoming fear, and knowing what to expect, are things that we know, intuitively, are important for student learning and growth. Moreover, the literature on skills has long advocated for embedding in, rather than bolt-on, and thus the headline message remains the same; if you are assessing your students by way of written based assessment, build in opportunities for deliberate writing practice in seminars, or even in the lecture theatre. Regular opportunities, even for 5 or 10 minutes, seems to work more favourably than one-off opportunities. This project clearly shows that this approach can be achieved even in a 50-minute seminar and in a large core module with multiple tutors. It’s a question of priorities and focus. If you have a 2-hour seminar with students in an optional module, then there is even greater scope to develop and embed writing as a deliberate and supportive practice – and indeed to be even more creative in approach.
Belcher, W (2019) Writing your journal article in twelve weeks: A guide to academic publishing success. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Black, P and William, D (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in education: principles, policy & practice, 5:1, 7-74, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0969595980050102
Christodoulou, D (2017) The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Crossouard, B and Pryor, J (2012) How Theory Matters: Formative Assessment Theory and Practices and their Different Relations to Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 31 (3). pp. 251-263 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-012-9296-5
Ericsson, A and Pool, R (2017) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. London: Harper Collins