Charlotte E Taylor

  • Writing in undergraduate science: the influence of student attitudes and previous experiences on their expectations, approaches and subsequent learning.

    Charlotte E Taylor and Helen Drury, The University of Sydney, Australia

    Research paper

    Theme addressed: supporting learners

    The University of Sydney's Writing in Biology Program was established in 1995 to provide an interactive student-centred learning environment for our large and diverse cohort of first year students. The aim was to maximise students' development as independent learners through the use of a structured learning cycle for the explicit teaching of writing within the discipline context. Through modelling and explanation, knowledge about the writing process and products, the scientific genres, is progressively developed while guided group and individual practice with teacher and peer feedback allows for reflective learning (Lea and Street 1998). This curriculum design is informed by a constructivist theory of learning as well as a genre-based literacy pedagogy (Martin 1999), both of which emphasise the need to take into account students' pre-existing concepts of writing in biology. This is the starting point for a learning/teaching dialogue or conversation (Laurillard, 2002) guided by teachers to progressively support students in taking control of their own development and learning (Vermunt 1998, Biggs, 1987a).

    In order to more fully understand the influence of the pre-existing concepts students bring to the process we investigated the effect of prior experience of writing, attitudes to writing and expectations of writing on students' approaches to and success in the writing program. Prior learning as well as student perceptions of their learning environment, rather than the context itself, have a distinct influence on how students learn and on the approach they adopt to learning (Marton and Trigwell 2000, Entwistle 1998). Our hypothesis was that "Students' prior success or failures in writing mould their attitude and expectations which significantly affect their approach to university writing tasks". Quantitative and qualitative data were collected from pre- and post- program questionnaires which incorporated a version of the Study Process Questionnaire (Biggs 1987b) adapted to the context of writing. Although we found significant correlations between factors associated with experience and attitude, students' approaches to learning and their subsequent performance our data were not conclusive. The research outcomes have allowed us to create a profile of the writing attributes of our incoming students, and to identify the characteristics of students who may be initially at a disadvantage in our program. We have also identified specific areas of mismatch, which exist between students and teachers, in expectations of writing in biology. Using these data we can now tailor the learning environment more effectively and better accommodate the needs of individual learners.

    Prior experience thus informs students' approach to their current learning context and we must take into account attitudes and expectations created by these experiences if we are to maximise the development of students' academic writing skills.


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