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The writing of assignments in a pre-service primary education programme: Student and staff perspectives

The writing of assignments by tertiary students is an area that merits exploration due to the high stakes involved for students, staff and institutions. Generally, in order for students to pass courses, they need to write assignments at a level, and in a manner, deemed appropriate by the staff members marking the assignments. I found the community of practice lens useful for this study, since I viewed learning as a socially situated activity which occurred through participation. While staff and students were engaged in textual practices, they were also functioning as members of discourse communities. Because I was interested in academic writing induction, I adopted a sociocultural view of academic literacy; a purely cognitive view would have been too narrow. In addition, I adopted a rhetorical view of academic writing, since I regarded the context (including audience and purpose) as having a major influence on decision-making in respect of textual features. Several gaps emerged when I conducted an exploration of existing studies. There was a scarcity of research focusing on the academic literacy learning experiences of distance students. I found there was a limited number of studies, especially in respect of those that had domestic students as participants that had investigated staff and students’ understandings of some aspects of academic writing (e.g., voice). I also discovered a paucity of research in which students and staff had been asked to reflect on what they considered to be helpful and unhelpful for students’ academic writing induction. Therefore, an in-depth study of academic writing induction (which included staff and students’ understandings of academic writing) was warranted. This qualitative, interpretive, ethnographic case study explored student and staff understandings of academic writing induction. There were two cohorts of students, both enrolled in a pre-service primary education programme at a New Zealand university: those who were enrolled in the on-campus programme and those who studied via distance. Ethnography was used both as a methodology and as a method. The methodology both guided the process of collecting evidence and the style of the writing of my thesis. Methods of evidence collection included observation, unstructured in-depth interviews and documentary evidence (course outlines and students’ written assignments). I also set up a Facebook closed group as a means for enabling students to engage in an asynchronous online focus group, where they could discuss and reflect on aspects of, or the process of, academic writing they were engaged in. In short, the research design enabled me to conduct an in-depth study of student and staff perspectives and understandings of academic writing induction. I found there were a number of similarities and differences in the academic writing learning experiences of students, where one cohort predominantly attended class on campus, and the other cohort were distance students. Both cohorts had lectures, prescribed readings, and access to university services, such as the library. One contrast between the two cohorts was that on-campus students took part on a regular basis in tutorial discussion, which occurred face-to-face, whereas distance students took part in asynchronous online discussions. It appeared staff attempted to provide a similar course and similar services to both cohorts, via the two modes of delivery. There were a number of divergences and convergences between staff and student understandings of academic writing. In the first year, both staff and students, tended to have a bigger focus on word- and sentence-level aspects of writing than on social or macro-level categories. A very significant divergence was that a number of staff in interviews remarked that an aspect of a well-written assignment was that it contained an argument. In contrast, students, unprompted, did not comment on argumentation. Overall, it appeared that divergences in understanding between students and staff lessened in the second year. The study found that students and staff reported more helpful than unhelpful practices in respect of students writing assignments. Almost all first- and second-year students commented that writing instruction in tutorials was helpful. Staff, especially in the first year, also identified a number of practices as helpful. Many of these practices took place in tutorials. Staff tended to identify practices as helpful that involved academic staff input, rather than that of students’ peers, family members and friends. Students identified practices that took place both within and outside of the institution. A surprising find was the Facebook sites set up and facilitated entirely by students. This appears to be an area that warrants further ethnographic investigation. Based on the findings generated, I conclude that it would be beneficial for students if writing instruction were embedded into their courses. In order to reduce student confusion and possible misunderstandings about what is expected from teachers, explicit instruction on components of writing would also be beneficial. Employing both a rhetorical and academic literacies approach to teaching students writing and about writing is warranted. For this to occur, staff will need assistance and/or professional development on aspects of academic writing pedagogy. Finally, for staff to incorporate academic writing instruction effectively into their practice, I would recommend a faculty-wide approach to writing.
Type of thesis
Gera, C. M. (2017). The writing of assignments in a pre-service primary education programme: Student and staff perspectives (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/11372
The University of Waikato
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