Improving Academic Writing Skills

Improving Academic Writing Skills

Dr Mary Pryor, Centre for Academic Development, tells us about how she worked towards improving standards of students' formal writing skills.  

Below, read Dr Pryor's report on the process implemented to achieve this aim.


Originally raised at the College of Arts & Social Sciences (CASS) Teaching & Learning Committee:

An agreed perception that, on arrival at university, there had been an incremental fall in the overall standards of students’ formal writing skills, which were causing problems for an increasing number of students in producing work of the appropriate academic level.

How was this to be resolved?

Would some form of early identification of the level of academic writing skills upon arrival, with follow-up writing development intervention, for those in need, be beneficial?

A working group was formed to explore options of an online solution


Focusing on student transition into university at Level 1, an online diagnostic writing evaluation for students was designed and delivered through the University’s VLE, MyAberdeen. Follow-up writing development would be offered, to those identified as being in need, through online resources and face-to-face workshops provided by the Student Learning Service (SLS), part of the Centre for Academic Development CAD.

The model:

Higher English Papers from the 1970s, requiring students to read and summarise a given text with accurate use of grammar, spelling and punctuation.

The method:

One-hour timed online diagnostic evaluation for all Level 1 students (in first week of teaching in September) with degree intentions in Arts & Social Sciences.

As an early indication that writing matters at university, the strategy is to offer early academic writing development to those identified as in need:

Read and summarise a text (approx. 600-700 words) in maximum of 150 words (timed     evaluation once commenced but available to access for a week)

Evaluations completed online and marked by academic staff in the appropriate School

Grading criteria:

        ability to summarise

        accuracy of spelling, grammar and punctuation

Results expressed as A (achieved) or N (not achieved) with written feedback provided by School academic staff markers

Students not achieving or not engaging with the first evaluation are directed to online writing improvement resources (offered by SLS) and take another evaluation in Week 5 of teaching (again with an A or N result and written feedback)

Students not achieving or not engaging with the second evaluation are required to attend a short course of academic writing development workshops offered by the SLS during Weeks 8-10)


Began as a pilot with two Schools (Education and Law) and graded on the University numerical (0-20) assessment scale

Was subsequently extended to include four more Schools (Divinity, History & Philosophy; Language, Literature, Visual Culture & Music; Social Science; Business); numerical grades were replaced with A or N and fuller feedback

From 2014-15, in response to student demand, the Writing Development workshops have been offered (by SLS) to all undergraduate and PGT students in the second semester (January to April)

From 2015-16 students are offered one-to-one meetings with SLS to discuss in detail their attempts

Student Feedback examples:

“…what helped me most has been seeing that other people could make mistakes as well…”

“All my troubles with academic writing are caused by a simple fact that I was writing…in a different language…”

“I found the tests very challenging, which helped me to see the standard required…”

“More workshops on parts of the English language such as improving spelling or grammar would be useful…”


As part of transition/induction practices, the Academic Writing Evaluations are now embedded as part of the curriculum for all Level 1 entrants to five Schools (excluding Law who have adopted alternative methods internally)

The advantage of markers being academic staff (as opposed to bought-in PGRs, as per the model of some other universities) enables identification of / making contact with early non-engagers helping with retention of those students who are experiencing early difficulties in adjusting to University life

PGDE programme in Education and PGT programmes in Medical Sciences and Art & Business have adopted a tailored version of early academic writing evaluations, with follow-up online resources / bespoke workshop, based upon the Level 1 model

2018-19 will see further expansion of this model in PGT programmes in the School of LLVE&M and possibly at Level 3 in the School of Geosciences

In response to demand from PGR supervisors, the suite of academic writing development workshops has been tailored and offered to PGR students across the University (by SLS)

Impact beyond Aberdeen:

Aberdeen’s free-text summary evaluation model adopted by University of Glasgow to extend their writing courses for Level 1 students

Paper Academic Writing Matters delivered at 12th Enhancement Themes Conference: Student Transitions into HE (June 2015, Glasgow) by Mary Pryor and Alison Lumsden

Subsequent to the conference paper, enquiries generated from The Royal Veterinary School, University of Edinburgh (to be used with postgraduate students) and Queen Margaret University (for undergraduate students)