Tag Archives: Academic Writing

You Write Really Well for Someone Who Studied Math

writing-828911_1280A few years ago, I had written an email to a teacher at my child’s school. The response I got was quite unexpected: you write really well for someone who studied math. When I first read the response, I chuckled. Over time, I became more and more aware of the same reaction from others.

What does it mean to write “well” anyway? As a person who is a self-proclaimed math geek, do people expect me to make grammatical errors or use simple sentence structure? Do we have different expectations of writing competency for those who are strong in the maths or sciences? Should I expect gifted writers to have trouble with basic calculations?

There is a big difference between writing well and being a creative writer, in my mind. I am not sure that I would ever be able to weave a story togetheronce-upon-a-time-719174_1280 like some of my favourite authors. Robertson Davies could paint a picture with the details in his stories. John Irving captured my imagination with A Prayer for Owen Meany. If you haven’t had a chance to read that novel, I recommend that you do. He truly weaves together an amazing story. While I can put sentences together and communicate ideas, I don’t have the gift of storytelling. However, according to some, I can still write well.

I always credit my ability to write with my love of reading. Yes, I love to solve a math problem and I still find calculus exciting and fascinating (I am sure there are those of you who shuddered at my reference to calculus), but I also love good writing. I was the kid who had the flashlight under the blankets because I HAD to finish the novel. I would become so immersed in the stories that I would forget about everything around me. I would laugcrying-146425_1280h. I would cry. I would finish the story and then read it again. I loved new words, and I tried to write like some of the authors I read.

Just as with most math skills, I think writing (especially good writing) takes practice. In high school, I took an English credit that focused on grammar and writing. At the time, I hated it. There was no reading in the course. We had to learn grammar rules. We had to edit. We had to share our writing. Looking back now, I know that I learned a lot in that class, but at the time it seemed like torture. I wonder if I should thank Mr. Winterkorn for his patience with me. Probably.

So go and write. I hope that I can continue to write “well”, even though I don’t consider myself a writer (or a mathematician for that matter).   I will also try not to hold any preconceptions about writing ability based on math skills. How about you?

Sue Guesuenther
Special Projects Coordinator, Academic Zone Resource Developer and “Math Guru”
A-Z Learning Services, Student Development Centre, Brock University

Teaching the Science of Writing

eis-01Figure 1. How scientists see writing a paragraph.

I teach a mandatory Scientific Writing course for Chemistry and Physics PhD graduate students to help them write their thesis or dissertation, and hopefully publications.   The funny thing is that I don’t have a PhD, and when I first started teaching the course, I didn’t even have a Masters!

Surprisingly, in the 7 years I’ve taught the course, my lack of a PhD has never been an issue. The problem has been getting students to believe that they can work on their writing while in grad school. I’m not saying that they don’t recognize or value good writing, but with their courses, TA work, lab demonstrating, supervising undergrads in the lab, group meetings, seminar presentations, let alone their research, adding one more task seems overwhelming, even if they know that it’s something that they need to work on.

horses-01Although we can lead horses to water, how do we make them drink? Or in my case, although academic regulations lead them to my writing class, how can I make them think (that it’s worthwhile)?

What do I do? I try as much as possible, to talk their talk. Every example is scientific. Use non-science examples and the class tunes out. Show the same example with chemicals or lab terms and I get buy in. These students need to see the direct relationship between the examples and their writing. It’s a simple thing, but surprisingly effective.

I also try to show that writing is like any lab skill. There are specific steps and rules to follow, but at the same time they can improve with practice and reflection!

Finally, I tell them that I’m their litmus test. I know about as much as a new Masters student who might pick up their thesis for background reading. I might not understand their research, but if I can follow their thinking and believe their argument based on the evidence- their writing is clear! I might not know if the science is correct, but at least their ideas are clear.

How do you inspire your science students to “drink”?

eis photoElizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, MSc (Chem), BSc, BEd, OCT
Academic-Zone Resource Developer
Instructor, A-Z Learning Services
Brock University, Student Development Centre

*Figure 1. Formula for a good paragraph. Elizabeth Ilnicki-Stone, A-Z Learning Services, 2015.

Integrity is . . .

explosionI talk about academic misconduct a lot. I mean, A LOT. I talk about the underlying issues like anxiety, time management, research skills, etc. I define plagiarism. I talk about the “letter of the law” (AKA university regulations regarding academic misconduct) and about best practices for how to avoid academic misconduct. And it’s all so damn depressing. So negative. So deflating. It’s a mantra of doom and gloom, and I feel the clouds gathering over myself and my students every time the topic comes up.

Just recently, though, the skies cleared and the sun beamed down. Or, to toss cheesy metaphors aside, I had a very good day, and I have students to thank for it.

Our team has been working on a module on academic integrity. (Note that the topic is academic integrity, not academic misconduct.) The module covers all the underlying issues previously mentioned—has to be done—but they’re housed under the larger umbrella of personal integrity. Personal, as in internal, as in not defined by institutional policy. Our goal was/is to help students see academic integrity as a natural extension of personal integrity, which is something that lives and breathes in all of us in one form or another.

The trick with this approach, though, is that personal integrity is wrapped up in personal values, which are wrapped up in family values, which are wrapped up in cultural values ad infinitum. So we struggled a bit with how we could talk about personal integrity without explicitly or implicitly imposing our values onto students. Then we had an epiphany: Let the students speak for themselves. We decided on a video.

That’s where things started getting fun. We invited a bunch of students, set up a fancy camera and mic, got some swag to pass out as a thank you, and started filming. The students were asked to complete the prompt: “Integrity is…” however they wanted as long as it had NOTHING to do with academics or academic integrity.

Devon, Undergraduate Accounting Student

Devon, Undergraduate Accounting Student

The students were a little taken aback by the anti-academic approach, and at first they seemed perplexed at how to respond. (A jaded spectator might attribute this to the downfall of students today. “Academic” and “integrity” are linked so often in post-secondary education, that they’re practically a compound word. Outside of academics, integrity is, what? ) But the students were, as they often are, funny, creative, thoughtful, and intelligent, and before long they had a whole slew of responses ranging from,

Integrity is being true to yourself.
Integrity is not ditching your friends to watch Netflix.

Indeed, they had more responses than we had time to film, and we had actual fun as they came up with more and more.

I hope it was a great experience for everyone. I KNOW it was a great experience for me. It was the first time (ever?!) that I talked with students about integrity where we ALL smiled and laughed, as opposed to the usual scenario where I’m in front of the students, desperately trying to dispel the clouds hanging over the room, while the students stare back at me either frightened, slack-jawed, or insulted by the underlying assumptions behind the conversation.

ally1So thanks to all those students who came out to play. I had a blast, and I’ll carry the experience with me as I finish up my part in developing this module!

Allyson Miller, Learning Skills Instructor and eLearning Developer, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Writing Woes and Maintaining Perspective

Write about what you know. . .

Good advice. Right now, I feel the familiar tug of despair, but I have hope! Working with first-year university students in our transition program has its joys and challenges.  At the moment, I’m reviewing their writing (challenge) and I’m planning the editing sessions for January (oh, the joy).

First steps? We’ll be tearing through the writing methodically: identifying claims, evidence, analysis and transitions. Rip it up and then glue it back together. We use the acronym PERT to identify points, evidence, relevance (how the evidence supports the point) and transitions (words and phrases that make connections). The Where’s Waldo of academic research writing. The answers to “what is the point?” and “how do you know?” and “how do these ideas relate?” that are often missing in student writing.

The approach may be mechanical, but I find that it increases students’ awareness of their role in the academic writing process. It’s not about sounding smart and throwing some fancy terms and long sentences together. It’s about communicating their thinking clearly, synthesizing existing research, presenting well-researched arguments, creating meaning from existing research and questioning current understanding.

In our Essay-Zone module, we’ve placed an emphasis on analysis so that students can analyze their own writing–to see what they’re doing well and what they can do better. It’s about empowerment.

(Writing this post inspired me.  I needed a little inspiration!)


Image meLead Designer, Academic-Zone and Coordinator Skills Instruction, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

Helping Students Think About and Engage in their Learning

By post-secondary, students often have a “fixed” idea of who they are as learners. Maryellen Weimer’s article in Faculty Focus, “Prompts to Help Students Reflect on How They Approach Learning” explores ways to “motivate students to consider their beliefs about learning”.  She provides a list of prompts to encourage students to reflect on their current strategies and beliefs.

I found Weimer’s prompts useful and use similar ones when working with students individually; however, many students….well, I just don’t see them. Why? Well, we know that struggling students–the ones who really need to see us– are less likely to seek help.

Do you find it even more challenging to engage male students to ask questions or seek support? Research out of Penn State University and University of Akron by Wimer and Levant (2011) explored the relationship between masculinity and help-seeking behaviour (1). They found that males with strong dominance and self-reliance characteristics were less likely to seek help.

Makes sense, but what can we do?

We created out Academic-Zone modules to provide a safe, risk-free way for students to develop their writing and numeracy skills. The online medium seems like a great fit for those self-reliant males. However, we still need to ENGAGE them in the skill development process.

I attended a conference a couple of weeks ago,  Conference on Peer Educators, Nov. 7-9, 2014 at University of South Carolina, by National Resource Center First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.  Ever since the conference, my mind has been spinning. We recruit male and female undergraduate students to deliver our on-campus skills programming, and we’ve been fortunate to always have a mix.

–but I know we can do more….

Please share your challenges, strategies, and thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

Margaret Groombridge

Image me

Lead Designer, Academic-Zone and Coordinator Skills Instruction, A-Z Learning Services, Brock University

(1) Wimer, D. J., & Levant, R. F. (2011). The relation of masculinity and help-seeking style with the academic help-seeking behavior of college men. Journal Of Men’s Studies, 19 (3), 256-274.


Why Do Students Have Academic Writing Assignments?

Why Do Students Have Academic Writing Assignments

Students become very familiar with academic assignments in post-secondary education. Whether it’s in the form of an essay, research, term, argumentative, or analytical paper, educators often assign this type of activity. Although some students may not enjoy academic writing, there are several beneficial traits they develop that contribute to academic success.

1. Critical Thinking

Students have an opportunity to enhance their critical thinking skills. Students are encouraged to critically analyze an assignment and logically come up with a solution to achieve the highest mark. Over time, their skills and strategies are refined to enable them to critically think outside of school.

2. Memory

Physically writing information acts as a great memory aid for students. Often, when a student writes a paper in their own words, they will remember the information more efficiently. In addition, students who complete academic papers are more likely to remember the content in future tests/exams.

3. Decision Making

Working on assignments further improves students’ decision making skills. Students have to understand assignment requirements, plan their time, and submit the completed assigned before the deadline. These are all transferable skills significant in succeeding in the workplace.

4. Creative/Analytical Thinking

Various assignments, for example, argumentative papers, require a justification of a point or position. This develops creative thinking and analytical skills by evaluating information and developing a well-structured argument. Students learn how to express themselves in writing which is useful during interviews and job applications.

Are you convinced?

Did you realize how many skills were developed by completing academic assignments? Hopefully I have instilled greater appreciation and motivation for your academic writing.

Thanks for reading!

5 Tips to Improve Your Writing

Academic writing is a challenge for most students entering post-secondary education. In response, most institutions developed their own resources to assist students struggling with academic writing. Still, some students prefer the convenience of online resources. For example, a short 12-minute YouTube video with over 500,000 views, posted by the YouTube account “Learn English with Emma [engVid]”, recommends 5 simple tips to improve academic writing skills.

Emma, an English teacher who primarily works with ESL students, outlines 5 ways to improve academic writing with the use of simple sentences, stronger words, and active voice. Emma’s energetic voice, a white board, and several great examples make this video enjoyable and educational.

After investigating “engVid,” I realized Emma is only one of 8 teachers who have posted a collective 550+ lessons online. I would recommend exploring some of their videos if you are an international student, learning the English language, or would like some comedic relief (I would recommend Ronnie’s videos). Similar to “Khan Academy,” in my post a couple weeks ago, Emma and her colleagues have adapted to the fast-growing technology age.

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Let me know if you have topics you would like to discuss in future blog posts in the comments below.
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Have a great day!