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FH Newsletter 2021 Issue 2

Research into Learning and Teaching:
Educational Implications of Research Students and Faculty Seeing Different Challenges in Academic Writing


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A new study reveals major differences in the primary challenges in academic writing, between English as second language (L2) Engineering research students and the faculty who teach them. The findings will help universities better prepare their Engineering research students to meet the standards of academic writing at the postgraduate level.

Dr Linda Lin and Dr Bruce Morrison, from the English Language Centre of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, surveyed 82 L2 research students (PhD and MPhil) and 24 faculty in Engineering from three universities in Hong Kong. They found that the primary concern of these research students about academic writing is at the sentence level, i.e., word use and grammar. The major concern of the faculty, however, is at the discourse level, i.e., logical organisation, cohesive connection, and conciseness.

One aspect that is considered important by the faculty, but received little attention from the students is intertextuality. “This is the skillful deployment of existing sources to underscore the academic contribution of a new study, and is essential for writing an effective Introduction and Literature Review of an academic text,” said Dr Lin.

The study also revealed that some students relied on online writing tools like Google Translate for their academic writing, but the faculty did not support this practice. “Using modern technology like machine translation for academic writing is common amongst L2 graduate research students; however, it can cause many undesirable consequences,” Dr Lin continued. “Machine translation such as Google Translate can only achieve a limited level of overall accuracy. Too often, the translation is uneven and not clear. More importantly, this tool cannot help students manage issues beyond the sentence, and it is at the discourse level that the faculty believe their students need the most help.”

Yet, the study also found common ground between students and faculty. Neither group felt technical vocabulary was a major barrier to research students, who have sufficient exposure to their discipline topics by this point. Both groups believed that using “model” academic papers was the most effective strategy to manage research students’ writing challenges. They also agreed on the importance of careful planning for the academic text and external assistance when necessary.

“Academic writing poses significant challenges to L2 Engineering graduate research students,” said Dr Lin. “Helping them overcome these challenges requires addressing both what the students wants, their self-perception of what they lack in language skills, and what they need, the faculty observations of the language skills students should enhance. In order to manage these issues effectively, pedagogical assistance should be offered at the start of the students’ graduate programmes.”

The findings of Dr Lin and Dr Morrison have very significant implications for postgraduate education. Universities should provide appropriate writing examples, such as annotated academic articles and theses, to help L2 research students develop academic writing skills at both the sentence and discourse levels. This requires close collaboration between the faculty in language teaching units and those in the programme departments.

The delivery of timely and subject-specific writing interventions, such as effective writing classes, are also very important for L2 graduate students. They help students better understand the primary moves in each main section of an academic paper, and improve their ability in ensuring intertextuality.

More importantly, writing interventions can highlight the significance of language features at the discourse level. By analysing “model” academic texts, writing classes help students better understand the logics of academic texts, and learn to connect sections and sub-sections. This instructional framework is especially useful for students who use Google Translate for academic writing. Instead of making ineffective attempts to stop the growing trend of students using machine translation, language teachers can teach them how to leverage this writing tool in the writing process and help them to be more focused on discourse-level writing skills.

Dr Linda Lin holds a PhD in applied linguistics. She has extensive experience in L2 language learning and teaching, L2 language writing analysis, and pedagogic development. Her research interests include academic writing, vocabulary learning, corpus analysis, and applications of concordancing in teaching and learning.

Dr Bruce Morrison is the former Director of the English Language Centre at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He has extensive experience in language teaching, curriculum development, teacher education, educational research, and pedagogic administration. His research interests include the non-native speaker tertiary learning experience, independent and self-access language learning, and technology enhanced language learning.

The work described in this article was substantially supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of the HKSAR.

More about the research:

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