Elizabeth Olsson | 22 May 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced university instructors to adapt their courses for distance learning. While most have successfully transitioned to lecturing and holding seminars in virtual spaces, there is still much to learn. In this post, I describe an online module designed to help students improve their academic writing. While I designed the module long before the current crisis, I hope that it can help other university instructors foster a sense of community and reflection among students they may never meet in person.
For the last two years, I have worked as a writing coach in one of the largest introductory courses offered by the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. The course is Introduction to International Relations, a BA level course that draws 75-140 students each term. While some of these students have taken university courses before, most have not. My job is to provide each of my students with the support they need to develop university-level writing skills. This job is daunting since every student enrols with different knowledge and expectations both what good writing entails and how it is accomplished.
To make the situation more challenging, students are not required to complete either a writing or a study skills course when they enter university, leaving the lessons they gleaned in secondary school as their only point of reference. Add international students and their diverse expectations and skills into the mix, and you have a recipe for writing disaster. While there is no clear and effective approach to providing these students with the skills and support they need to develop their academic writing, there is one activity that comes close: log books. In this post, I describe this activity and explain how I use it to help each of my students become better academic writers.
Log book assignment directions are straightforward. It requires students to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses, and needs as academic writers by formulating a question and sending that question to me, their writing coach, via our online learning platform. Depending on the size of the class, the students do this either twice or three times during the term with due dates following essay submissions. This submission schedule means that students turn in an essay and then have 1-2 days to think about what they did well, what they need to improve, and the skills they need to develop in order to produce an even better essay the next time around. This submission schedule enables students to reflect on their writing in relation to the essay they just submitted. While I ask them not to cut and paste excerpts from their essays into their log books, I do encourage students to use their most recently submitted essay as the foundation for their reflections.
Students are free to ask anything related to academic writing in their log books. Despite the diversity of their writing skills, student questions tend to speak to five common writing dilemmas: 1) time management, 2) performance anxiety, 3) academic language and conventions, 4) referencing, and 5) analysis. Since this is a pass/fail assignment, I don’t evaluate the content of what the students write. Instead, I do my best to listen to their writing struggles, validate their concerns, assure them that many academic writers experience similar challenges, and point them towards relevant resources.
Table 1. Examples of student questions
“The hardest thing for me about writing and every other sort of schoolwork is to not procrastinate. It feels like I do not find that “inner peace” that I need to let everything around me disappear for a while. Do you have any tips for me that maybe could help?”
“My friends always tell me to relax because they read my essays and say that I have done a really good job. So how would you suggest that I work with my performance anxiety, so I do not have to feel so bad about my own work anymore?”
“The essays I wrote in high school were different from the essays I’m asked to write at university. How can I make my writing more academic so that I get good grades and feel good about what I write?”
Many university teachers have asked me how I find the time to respond to hundreds of log book entries every term. While I freely admit that it is time-consuming, I also point out that since students tend to ask the same questions, it takes a lot less time and energy than most teachers anticipate. Over the last two years, I have developed a repertoire of responses that I use and alter in response to each student’s writing challenges. These standard answers allow me to provide similar advice to similar questions but also gives me the time to really listen to and address each student’s individual needs. This combination of standard responses altered to accommodate each student means that it typically takes me only 5 to 10 minutes to read and respond to each log book entry. While this accumulates into a lot of time every term, the students remind me that it was time well spent. Their enthusiastic reviews of the assignment continuously help me see that my time commitment is insignificant when compared to the immense learning that most students experience because of the assignment.
Table 2. Example response
Thanks for submitting log book #1, and thanks especially for asking such a thoughtful question. I absolutely agree that academic writing is different from other forms of writing. If you are not familiar with the terms and conventions used in academic writing, it is challenging to know what counts as “academic” and what does not. One strategy that you can use to get a better sense of this writing genre is emulation. Identify an IR text that you enjoy reading and come up with strategies to emulate it. Ask yourself: What is the author doing? How is he or she expressing him or herself? What sorts of words and phrases is he or she using? How is he or she using them? If you can dig into and identify the writing strategies used by an author whose writing you enjoy reading, you'll put yourself in an excellent position to understand how “academic” writing is done.
Give emulation a try as you prepare to write your next essay, and let me know how it works in your next log book,
Ultimately, the log book assignment has taught me the importance of reflection— an invaluable pedagogical tool that few university teachers actively employ in their courses. Reflection is an excellent opportunity for students to take stock of what they know and what they don’t, and to look for the resources they need to develop their writing skills further. Most importantly, it is a personal learning process that helps me address the individual and varied learning needs of my students. Even if this is a monumental task, it is my job, and log books are how I do it.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She previously worked as a classroom teacher in the United States, Japan, Sweden, and the Occupied West Bank. Elizabeth’s research interests include constructive classroom conflict and the school’s democratic mission.