Systematic And Guided Use Of Academic Writing Education Essay

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In this paper we present empirical data that support the hypothesis that the systematic and guided use of academic writing prompts is a successful instructional strategy to improve the academic writing of college students in Spanish, mainly during their first semesters. This research used a mixed methodology, with pre and post-tests, and was conducted from July 2009 to June 2010. The participants were freshmen students of different disciplines of the Human Sciences in a private university in Bogota, Colombia. The aim of this research was twofold. First, we aimed to identify the difficulties students faced in the writing process of academic texts when they are related to real communicative contexts. Second, we designed and applied the guided and systematic use of writing prompts for academic writing in a sequence called "The Cognitive Pedagogical Model of Writing for Higher Education". The results show empirical evidence that supports the use of writing prompts designed with specific academic purposes in order to improve the academic writing level of college students in their first stages of study. However, further research is needed to consolidate the results presented here.

Key words: communicative competence, blended learning, meaningful contexts, writing prompts, cognitive processes, autonomous learning.

Introduction

When Colombian students finish their primary and secondary cycles of education, they are expected to be capable of using the writing abilities that could help them perform skillfully when facing college academic demands. However, based on our experience as writing instructors on first semester in different undergraduate programs at a university in Bogota and the results of the ICFES Saber 11 national test, most college students start their undergraduate programs without having the tools for academic writing as well as without a wide perspective of the cognitive processes, and syntax, semantic and pragmatic levels of analysis involved in text writing process (texts conceived as communicative products).

Having these ideas in mind, we decided to work on the implementation of a research project to improve the level of academic writing though the use of systematic and guided writing prompts. We designed pre-test and post-test phases and a treatment of systematic writing prompts called "The Cognitive Pedagogical Model of Writing for Higher Education" (MPCE, according to its Spanish abbreviation) to foster the improvement of argumentative and critical skills. Although we recognize the importance of reading in literacy practices, we were interested in document the difficulties freshmen students face with academic argumentative writing because the mainstream literature has been focused on reading mainly and Latin America needs more research on literacy practices at different levels (Seda-Santana, 2000). The pre-test results evidence the difficulties already noticed in our students in class when writing for academic purposes.

The participants involved in this research were freshmen enrolled in four courses of academic writing part of the main core curriculum at a private university in Bogota, Colombia. The participants' majors were careers and disciplines within the area of the Human and Social Sciences, such as Management and Business Administration, Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, History, Journalism and Economy where reading and writing play an important role in academic success (Jordan & Plackans, 2003).

Research background

When going through the stage of literature review as part of this research process, we found several writing approaches and models in real contexts of communication. The first proposal we considered was by Marjorie Montague (1990), who stated that the development of new technologies allow the creation of new instructional strategies for an easier teaching technique of writing processes. On the other hand, Anderson (cited by Montague, 1990) proposes the concept of schemata, which are different ways to organize texts according to specific communicative needs. In turn, Brown (cited by Montague, 1990) states that writing should also be considered as a complex task which includes different meta-cognition processes; these meta-cognition processes are those according to which the writer reflects on their own thinking schemes and the way he/she organizes information. On the other hand, Sternberg (cited by Montague, 1990) focuses on the study meta-components, which are process in which learning capabilities are analyzed, and evaluation and monitoring processes are implemented.

Another model regarding writing processes is the one proposed by Flower and Hayes (1981), which presents a set of thinking processes the writer develop when writing. For doing so, it is necessary to go through one stage before going through the next one. As part of this proposal, the authors also included aspects such as rhetorical problem, memory recovery and the stages of planning, translation and revision. These are the stages the writer is supposed to cover in order to write a text.

On the other hand, Lu and Suen (1995) suggested the existence of more suitable cognitive approaches for solving specific problems. According to these approaches, students establish relationships among the cognitive styles, the contents and the evaluation processes based on criteria. Another reflection on cognitive processes regarding writing processes is the one proposed by Cobb and Bowers (1999). According to these authors, the cognitive perception is closely related to conceptual processes and operations regarding sensor-motor activity. In this sense, situated learning represents a learning strategy that makes knowledge generation easier, based on interactive systems the individuals are related to. These cognitive processes include a set of analysis units that have to be related to certain purposes previously stated.

Regarding instructional strategies, Shih (cited by Cobb and Bowers, 1999) proposed it is necessary to implement a set of four instructional strategies to make writing processes easier in academic contexts. The first strategy is the creation of modules according to themes. The second is the creation of writing courses based on contents. The third procedure is the creation of English language course as tools to make reading processes and information search easier for students. The last strategy conceived by the authors is individualized tutoring sessions for students to solve writing problems and to improve writing processes.

Mosenthal (1983) introduced the Pyramidal Model of Contexts for Written Competence in classroom. According to this model, there are four contexts to be considered in writing processes: the first is the writer's context. The second is the material contexts, which means the topic or the situation encouraging text writing. The third one is the tasks context, which is related to the criteria for writing texts in accordance with certain particular formats. The last context is the situation organizer, which focuses in the potential reader of the text.

Berthold, Nuckeles and Renkl (2007) carried out a research intended to measure the effectiveness of instructional tutoring offered by some professors to students (in their first year) enrolled in an undergraduate psychology program. The researchers offered different types of tutoring: a cognitive processes tutoring; a tutoring about meta-cognitive processes; a tutoring combining the processes previously considered; another kind of tutoring which did not include any consideration regarding learning strategies. Findings of this group of researchers suggest that tutoring helps students to improve their academic performance.

In a similar study, Nuckeles, Renkl and Berthold (2009) intended to analyze if there is a relationship among learning protocols writing and the use of learning strategies. These researchers found out that when students receive training for knowing how to use learning protocols and strategies, they can improve their comprehension levels of different contents analyzed in college.

Bereiter and Sacardamalia (1987) suggested that writing is a mechanism for problem solving which involved the dialectic movement between content and rhetorical space. According to these authors, the writer can take advantage of this dialectic movement to transform his/her knowledge about any particular topic.

Regarding writing, Bangert- Drowns (2004) states that writing is important for educational processes if there is an awareness of the fact that these processes are the basis for meta-cognitive and self-regulated learning processes carried out in formal education. Shraw (1998) proposed three strategies (planning, self-control of comprehension and evaluation) for helping students to have the capability to assess the efficiency of learning processes and products.

Breetvel, van den Bergh and Rijlaarsdam (1998) focused their research on the relationships between the cognitive activities developed in the different stages of writing processes and the quality of writing products. The authors came to the conclusion that some stages (like organization and planning) are more useful in the first phases of writing process, whereas some other activities (such as establishment of writing goals and evaluation) are more useful when writing products are already finished. In a research process similar to this one, Kellog (1987) intended to establish whether the quality of a text depends on the draft done on the composition stage. This research also found that more skillful writers prepare more precise drafts (in terms of ideas and sentences), so their texts are clearer.

In Latin America, particularly in Colombia, research studies show the challenges freshmen students face when they start their undergraduate programs, the lack of resources to overcome their writing and reading weaknesses, and the change of literacy culture from High School to college (Uribe-Alvarez & Camargo-Martinez, 2011). In this study, we focus particularly on academic writing processes in the first stages of college education. We aim to assess the level of academic writing when students start their higher education cycle, and to test the implementation of guided and systematic use writing prompts in a sequence called "Cognitive Pedagogical Model of Writing for Higher Education".

Theoretical Framework

This section presents the theoretical background that has guided the model proposed. The first concept to be considered is Competence proposed by N. Chomsky (1965). According to this concept, the native speaker of a language can produce an unlimited number of sentences due to his knowledge of grammar structures. This native speaker's capability or competence is conceived as an abstract capability, which cannot be evidenced. Besides, this capability should be distinguished from Performance, which is a concrete and evident linguist behavior.

In 1970s, Hymes (1971) proposed the communicative competence concept as a set of capabilities and knowledge empowering the speakers of a specific linguistic community to be understood among each other. This competence starts to be evident almost right from the beginning of a speaker's life; its complexity level will increase as the communicative needs (related to different communicative contexts) the speaker has to meet make him/her learn new abilities. According to this, the same characteristics are evident in written communicative competence. This means, the college students already have a certain level of this competence, but they have to face more complex communicative contexts and needs as they enter the university level. Therefore, college students need to develop some other capabilities and knowledge to face this new academic context.

Martínez (2004) points out that learning is a process based on the human ability to make schemes and to incorporate them into the cognitive macro-structure. These more simple schemes get intertwined and become more complex every time due to the need of adaptation to new problems to be solved. Regarding the written communicative competence, a student has a determined writing level when enrolled in undergraduate programs. As he/she reaches higher levels in his/her educative program, reasoning and abstraction levels get more and more complex. Hence, college students should adapt themselves to these new problems and increasing complexity of their reasoning structures.

When a student develops the capability to solve new problems in a specific domain, he/she becomes an expert apprentice, being novice apprentice no longer (Pozo, 1996). In this sense, college students are supposed to start developing gradually higher complexity level, developing similar abilities to the ones an expert apprentice has. Communicative problem-solving prompts locate writing in a particular context with specific communicative objectives that resemble authentic characteristics of writing production. The academic writing prompts at the college level help to increase the conceptual planning and the quality of compositions when generate the ability to solve communicative problems that involve writing as a form of communication or response.

This concept of expert apprentice is closely related to the concept of autonomous student, thought as a student who is capable of reasoning on his own, including critical thinking procedure of reasoning and different points of view (Kamil, 2003). Regarding written communicative competence, an autonomous student is the one having appropriate writing habits for producing suitable texts for different communicative contexts. Furthermore, an autonomous student has appropriate criteria for evaluating his/her own texts. Since these autonomy characteristics (which we intend to provide our students with) can be internalized in different contexts -not only the classroom context), we have decided to use the methodological approach provided by Blended Learning. This approach is thought to be any possible combination (from a wide range) of learning means designed to solve specific problems (Brenan, 2004). In this study, we designed a systematic and guided use of writing prompts with different levels of complexity according to the writing objectives. We defend the hypothesis that the systematic use of academic writing prompts implemented in the sequence called "Cognitive Pedagogical Model of Writing for Higher Education" help college students to improve their academic writing levels as well as their autonomy in the writing process.

Description of the MCPE

The strategies we designed for improving the development of written communicative competence are based on the implementation of systemic and guided writing prompts in a sequence called "Cognitive Pedagogical Model of Writing for Higher Education" (MCPE from now on). This model is conceived as a structure to help students and professors reflect on cognitive, communicative and pedagogical processes related to writing, as well as make decisions regarding writing. Some of the objectives we have established for this model are, on the first place, to propose a tool for collecting evidence of cognitive and communicative processes involved in writing. Second, to provide students with certain strategies for facing texts writing process in an easier way, by the reflection on certain stages or phases proposed on MCPE. Third, to help students learn a set of criteria for assessing and evaluating their own texts; this way, students could increase their autonomy level regarding their own learning process in academic contexts. Finally, to encourage students reflect on the relationship between communicative problems and communicative purposes, the kind of reader the text is addressed to and the writing goals. In this sense, we intended students to learn how to use a set of pragmatic criteria for writing in different communicative contexts, particularly in academic contexts.

The MCPE includes the following stages and frameworks:

The MCPE starts with the objectives of the writing activity, followed by the description of the specific competence the student will develop through it and the writing prompt or case. We present here a brief description of each component:

Objectives: The writing learning goals are set in this section. These goals guide students' performance regarding the writing task and set the expectations for the activity.

Description of the specific competence: It refers to the specific competence to be developed through the writing task. In this part it is important to establish the competence complexity level to be reached.

Case (writing prompt): a real communicative context is presented in this section. Based on this real communicative context, the student is supposed to plan and write his/her text. We have included this section in the model considering that the specific written communicative competence can be measured more appropriately when related to a communicative context students are supposed to face in their daily lives, in and out of academic contexts. Each case proposes a communicative problem the student has to solve through writing a text. Besides, every case states a communicative role for the student according to which the proposed problem is supposed to be solved.

When the student has read the case or writing prompt, she/he is encouraged to follow three stages to write the required text. These three stages are adapted from Anderson's stages of qualitative development of basic abilities: Cognitive, associative and autonomous (1995). Through these stages, the student will clarify his/her communicative purposes and will guide the students to make decision regarding writing strategies.

First cognitive stage: Cognitive Stage. In this section, the student should answer a set of questions designed to establish clear information needed for solving the case previously formulated. Those questions are focused on:

Problem: In this section the student identifies the particular characteristics of the context and circumstances under which he/she is required to write a text. The identification of the communicative problem that triggers the construction of a written text may serve as an outcome to make decisions about the writing strategies to be used.

Communicative context: The questions regarding communicative context are thought to help students elicit useful information related to the elements of the communicative act. Particular time, space and socio-cultural features may play an important role in determining the type of text and language to be used, among others.

Participants: The questions regarding participants help students establish the people involved in the communicative event the text written on. Besides, this section help student consider who the reader of the text will be, as well as reader's characteristics.

Second stage of analysis: Associative Stage. Based on the answers given by the student in the previous section, this analysis stage points to a decision-making process regarding the planning of the text to be written. In this phase, the student should relate the communicative problem, the communicative context, participants, planning stage and the written text (the final communicative product). This stage involves certain questions related to these elements:

Communicative purpose: These questions help student state explicitly the communicative objective(s) to be reached through the text; in this case, the text represents a solution to the problem stated on the case formulation and has a specific intention.

Type of text: The student should establish what kind of text is the most suitable one for the communicative purpose previously stated. In this model, we have considered the typology proposed by E. Werlich (cited by Simon, 2002), which includes four basic types of texts: narrative, descriptive, expositive and argumentative.

Writing goal(s): This section helps student consider which the most suitable format is for the text. Some text formats considered by student are letter, essays, reviews, etc.

Specific details regarding language: These questions are proposed to help students make decisions about the most suitable type of words and varieties of language (standard variety, specific terminology, etc.) for the communicative context previously considered (Meta-cognition).

Specific details regarding information: This section encourage student to assess and evaluate the quality of sources and information. The main criterion in this section is student's capability to select the most appropriate sources considering the aspects previously stated (considering information regarding communicative context, communicative purpose and characteristics of the reader of the text), as well as verifiability, reliability and trustworthiness.

Text structure: This section asks student to establish a structure or a diagram to organize the text before writing it. As the writing process is not rigid, the student can make decisions during the stages and make changes when necessary.

Development: In this phase, the student works specifically in the writing process and revision and editing stage (considering textual, paragraph and sentence frameworks of production).

Third analysis stage: Autonomous Stage. This phase has been divided into two evaluation and assessment processes carried out by the student in order to make him/herself sure of text pertinence and quality.

A case deconstruction: In this process, the student establishes if (once the text has been written, revised and edited) the resulting text appropriately solves the problem stated in the case. Here, the student is able to create a rationale for their choices and for other texts assessment through a process of deconstruction.

Argumentation process related to the solved case: In this stage, the student shows his/her arguments supporting all the decisions made about the written text.

Our hypothesis is that this model is the foundation for the development of increasing autonomy and expertise in academic writing for college students when used in a systematic sequence, not as a sporadic exercise. To test this idea, we implement a treatment with pre and post-test phases. The methodology is described in the following section.

Methodology

We used a mixed methods design, with an intervention of the sequence for one semester with each group during two academic semesters (March to June, 2009 and June to December, 2009). In this study, approximately 150 students participated, divided in 6 groups of 25 students (3 groups one semester and other different three the next semester). The classes were taught in two hours sessions twice a week; that means each group had four hours of workshop during 16 weeks plus the hours of independent study. We implemented the strategy in three learning contexts for each group: workshop classroom, virtual class and tutoring sessions. For each learning context involved in this research a set of suitable model implementation strategies was developed. For example, in workshop-class context, some exercises were solved with students in order to model how to solve certain difficulties regarding writing, as well as to solve the arisen questions when students took the tests. For each test (pre and post treatment), based on an academic prompt that proposed a problem-solving case, each student was required to write a text. As a writing guide, the student was asked to answer the questions proposed for the cognitive, associative and autonomous stages.

The final text produced for each test was assessed and evaluated according to content and form criteria, which included textual level, sentence level and paragraph level (Chart 1). The assessment and evaluation form used to evaluate each test includes a set of descriptors of the competence development according to the criteria considered for evaluating and assessing the writing process and planning, as well as the final texts produced by students. The evaluation is measured in a qualitative and quantitative rage from 1 to 5 (Chart 2).

EVALUATION AND ASSESSMENT CRITERIA

CONTENT

COGNITIVE STAGE

Identification of communicative context.

Identification of participants and their most relevant characteristics.

Identification of communicative purpose.

ASSOCIATIVE STAGE

Determination of the type of text

Determination of the product of writing

Language adjustment

Adjustment to the academic context (in case of need): reference to sources, disciplines, conceptual frameworks, etc.

Content structure

AUTONOMOUS STAGE

Capability of reconstruction and explanation.

Capability of argumentation.

FORM

TEXTUAL FRAMEWORK

Parts of the text

Title

Style

Format

PARAGRAPH FRAMEWORK

Connectives

Composition

Theme order

SENTENCE FRAMEWORK

Punctuation

Grammar

Spelling

Semantic aspects

Chart 1. Evaluation and assessment criteria

PEDAGOGY OF WRITING

ASSESSMENT AND EVALUATION FORM

STUDENT'S NAME: _____________________ SUBJECT-MATTER: _____________________________

COMPETENCE: Capability for writing an argumentative text that is adapted to the production context and that follows the minimum requirements or argumentative structure and academic writing.

Evaluation: 5. Expert performance 4. Good Performance 3. Fair performance 2. Novice Performance 1. No performance at all

CONTENT

STAGES

ELEMENTS

DESCRIPTORS

5

4

3

2

1

COGNITIVE

Problem

Student identifies clearly the problem stated in the case.

 

 

 

 

 

Context

Student identifies the characteristics of the context in which the problem is set.

Participants

Student establishes particular characteristics of the intended reader.

ASSOCIATIVE

Communicative Intention

Student identifies the text goal and it is coherent with the problem.

 

 

 

 

 

Type of Text

Student recognizes the type of text suitable to the communicative intention.

Writing Goal

Student chooses the suitable format in order to achieve her goal and fit to the context.

Language

Student identifies aspects related to suitable language according to the context.

Information

Student understands and uses properly information, concepts and references.

AUTONOMOUS

Argumentation

Student is able to support the decisions taken during the process.

 

 

 

 

 

Estructure

Student plans and structures properly her text.

 

 

 

 

 

FORM

FRAMEWORK

ELEMENTS

DESCRIPTORS

5

4

3

2

1

TEXTUAL FRAMEWORK

Text parts

Student structures her text in a way it is easy to identify its parts.

 

 

 

 

 

Title

Student proposes a suitable title.

 

 

 

 

 

Style

Student cares about style and composition techniques.

 

 

 

 

 

Presentation Form

Student follows instructions about the presentation format.

 

 

 

 

 

PARAGRAGH FRAMEWORK

Connectives

Student uses coherently connectives.

 

 

 

 

 

Composition

Student writes well-formed and cohesive sentences.

 

 

 

 

 

Thematic Order

Student follows a coherent thematic order.

 

 

 

 

 

SENTENCE FRAMEWORK

Punctuation

Student uses properly punctuation.

 

 

 

 

 

Grammar

Student follows the rules of grammar.

 

 

 

 

 

Orthography

Student uses properly the rules of orthography.

 

 

 

 

 

Semantics

Student shows a proper use of word meaning and word suitability.

 

 

 

 

 

OBSERVATIONS:

Chart 2. Assessment and Evaluation Form.

The assessment and evaluation form is composed by the criteria establish according to the MCPE and a set of competence descriptors to measure students' written communicative competence. This set of 21 descriptors included in the model turn out to be a useful strategy to make students be aware of the cognitive, communicative, argumentative and pragmatic complexity involved in writing processes. Pre-test was administered at the beginning of the semester and post-tests at the end of each semester. The treatment includes the guided and systematic use of writing prompts using the sequence proposed in the MCPE along one academic semester.

The treatment was implemented in the three learning contexts (Blended Learning): as class practice and modeling in the Workshop-class; as additional practice and individual exercise in the virtual classroom (Moodle); and to improve individual weaknesses through individualized tutoring in the Writing Laboratory. On one hand, the virtual classroom works as a complementary and autonomous learning space. On the other, the Writing Laboratory was an academic environment proposed for student to work on their specific difficulties regarding writing with the help of a tutor-professor. These difficulties were solved through the design of an action plan. Furthermore, the action plan proposal also helps students internalize the suitable criteria for evaluating and assessing their own written production.

Pre and Post-Treatment Tests

In this section, we present a sample of the pre-treatment test, based on the MCPE, implemented with students involved in this research process (Chart 3).

PRE-TREATMENT TEST

STUDENTS NAME:

SUBJECT-MATTER:

DATE:

OBJECTIVE:

Establish a diagnosis of the level of students' written competence for establishing individual and group work goals for this semester.

COMPETENCE(S):

Capability for writing an argumentative text, which is adapted to the production context and that follows the minimum requirements or argumentative structure and academic writing.

Read the following case. Then, go through all the analysis phases and write a text that follows the requirements for the case to be solved.

CASE:

Mobility is a central issue for Bogotá government authorities. According to this, the current city government has proposed a project for building an integrated transportation system which will be included in the metro system construction. However, there is a deep debate regarding this issue since many citizens have positions for and against the metro construction system. The next ones are the most important aspects to consider when deciding whether building the metro system in Bogotá is feasible or not: financing, other countries´ experience when building metro systems, technical and urban development analysis, cost-benefit factor, among other aspects. You, as civil society representative, will send a document in which you present and support the most convenient positions for Bogotá citizens regarding this important topic of Bogotá metro construction. This text will be send to the government institution in charge of the making decision process of metro construction.

CASE-BASED REASONING:

FIRST STAGE OF ANALYSIS (Cognitive Stage):

PROBLEM: Which is the communicative problem presented in the stated case?

COMMUNICATIVE CONTEXT: Which is the communicative context in which the problem has aroused?

PARTICIPANTS: Who participates in this communicative event? ¿Who is the reader of this text?

COMUNICATIVE PURPOSE: Which is the participants´ communicative purpose to solve the stated problem?

SECOND STAGE OF ANALYSIS (Associative Stage):

TYPE OF TEXT: What kind of text is the one you are about to write?

WRITING GOAL (PRODUCT): Which text are you to write? Which format are you to use for your text (letter, essay, review, report, act, article, etc.)

SPECIFIC DETAILS REGARDING LANGUAGE: Which special language requirements are supposed to be considered for your text regarding the context?

SPECIFIC DETAILS REGARDING INFORMATION: In case this text is written for an academic context, which special requirements are supposed to be considered for sources, formats and information search?

STRUCTURE: What kind of diagram would be useful for proposing the text content structure? Propose that diagram.

DEVELOPMENT: Write a first version of your text. Then, go through proofreading and editing process. Finally hand in the text final version.

Chart 3. Pre-Treatment Test.

The results of the pre-treatment test were presented to each student with observations on their performance in order to establish specific learning goals and foci of the treatment. At the end of each semester, a Post-Treatment Test (with a different case proposed including similar structure and complexity level) was implemented too. Results of both tests were presented to the participants including the evaluation and assessment matrix of evaluation with observations. Beyond the quantitative grade, we focused on the qualitative particularities of each student and the most salient group needs.

We believe it is important for students to know these evaluation and assessment criteria since students could use it by their own to evaluate their texts. Thus, students can become the first evaluators of the text they write; this way, we could encourage students to reach higher autonomy levels in their writing processes. Besides, we also believe it is important for the student to be aware of the fact that these criteria can be used to evaluate and asses any kind of texts, so it could be considered as an assessment tool. To guarantee reliability, these tests were previously proved in a pilot project with a similar number of students. However, this study did not count with a control group to verify other influential variables. Therefore, we recognize that further studies are necessary in order to improve the methodology.

Results

This section shows the general results of the pre and post- tests implementation of two groups of students during the same semester; however, as the results were consistent across groups, these results show the tendency presented by the other four groups included in this study.

Graph 1 shows the general performance level of 44 students (21 in one class called "Taller de escritura" and 23 in another class called "Propedéutica de textos", who took the pre and post-treatment tests in the second semester of the study). In the graph, the horizontal axis represents the number of each student who presented the test, distributed randomly; and the vertical axis shows the level of general performance in the test in a scale from 1 to 5, computing the 21 descriptors presented above in the assessment and evaluation form. The color red represents one group and the blue, the other group. As it can be observed, most of the students started the course with a very low academic writing level. The general level of writing performance of each group was between 2.9 and 3.05 in the vertical scale. We also noticed the differences in performance among students; while few students were over 4.0, we had five students under 2.5. With these students we intensified the use of the Writing Lab, with the aim to support them with their individual difficulties.

Graph 1. Pre-Treatment Test Results

At the end of each academic period, the academic writing level improved considerably in certain cases, particularly when students attended the Writing Laboratory. The general level of each group also increased to 4.5 in the assessment scale. Graph 2 and 3 show the comparison between the pre-treatment test and the post-treatment test for each group. Each number on the horizontal axis represents the same student's performance in both tests; for the first group, the dark blue series represent the pre-treatment test general results, while the light blue series represent the post-treatment test general results (Graph 2); for the second group, the dark red series represent the pre-treatment test general results, while the light red series represent the post-treatment test general results (Graph 3). The two graphics also show that students who present less comparative improvement were the ones who presented the highest writing level at the beginning of the course. In contrast, the students who presented the lowest levels of writing competence at the beginning were the ones who advanced the most. However, all the students in this study improved their academic writing level.

Graph 2. Comparative pre and post-treatment test results for group one.

Additional graphs were made for each descriptor and comparison between critical descriptors; we also considered variables such as frequency of attendance to Writing Laboratory and virtual classroom. Due to space restraints, we only present here the general results of two groups here. However, it is important to notice that both groups had a low academic writing performance at the beginning and a substantial improvement throughout the semester.

Graph 3. Comparative pre and post-treatment test results for group two.

Conclusions

According to the data analysis and results, these are some of the conclusions of this particular study:

a). When students enrolled undergraduate programs in the areas of Human and Social Sciences, the majority do not show an academic writing level which could help them reach an optimum academic performance in the first semesters of the program. For example, in the first group (See Graph 2), only the 17.03% scored around 4.0, while the 43.50% scored under 3.0 in the pre-treatment test. This low writing level may influence students' performance in subject-matters where academic writing is a fundamental skill for academic achievement.

b). Students in first semester, at least in the context studied, are very diverse in terms of the academic writing level they have at the beginning of their undergraduate program. For example, in the same group 2 (See Graph 3), the student number 20 scored 2.2 in the academic writing scale, while the student number 6 scored 4.0 in the pre-treatment test. This fact influence the instructional decisions in the classroom as the needs varied considerably. Even among students who have a similar general level, the specific kind of skills they need to strengthen may vary significantly. This means that it is necessary to design an action plan for making students with lower competence levels reach a suitable level of this competence, so they can reach the average level in a group or the competence level expected for a specific course.

c). The implementation of systematic and guided use of writing prompts in which the student faces different context-based communicative problems have a positive impact in freshmen's academic writing level. The post-treatment test results show a consistent improvement in all the students who participated in the project. One way to improve the students' level of written communicative competence at college is the awareness regarding communicative needs, communicative context, the reader and the communicative problems related to the text to be produced by the student. However, other studies are necessary to confirm these results as we did not have control groups and we did not measure other variables like motivation and socio-cultural background.

d). The results of a significant number of tests showed deep inconsistencies among the answers given by students to the questions stated in the cognitive and associative stages of analysis, and the final written text they produced. Our hypothesis is that these inconsistencies could be related to a lack of connection between theory and practice. For example, a student could have some theoretical background regarding different types of texts, although he would present serious difficulties for establishing the type of text that suits better a communicative intention or how to produce effective context-based texts. However, further studies are needed to confirm these relations.

f). Tutoring and assisted virtual practice impact positively students with lower levels of written communicative competence, who need higher improvement in a determined period of time. For example, students number 9, 17 and 18 in group 1 (See Graph 2), who used these strategies, presented a comparatively higher improvement as they increase almost two points their academic writing level in one semester. These strategies could be particularly useful for courses with large groups of students, in which it is difficult for the instructor to have a direct and close relationship with every single student.

Finally, writing (and reading) is a complex task that involves cognitive, communicative and linguistic features and skills. Furthermore, writing is a lifelong process which requires a high autonomy level by the part of the student, even more in the professional formation. For these reasons, it is important to design instructional strategies that help students be meta-cognitive of this complexity and internalize criteria to become skilful and expert writers according to communicative expectations in academic contexts.

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