Sally Mitchell

  • Making writing visible in curriculum and assessment

    Sally Mitchell, Queen Mary, University of London

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: course and programme design, learning and teaching methods, assessment

    This paper will argue that writing is typically under-recognised and underused as a means of what Barnett (2005) calls ‘engaging the curriculum’ and conversely that it is typically overused, but undertaught, as a means of assessment. The conflation of writing with assessment in mainstream educational practice results in the invisibility of, and inattention to writing, language and discourse, conceptions of which are typically constructed as marginal, remedial and outside the responsibility of mainstream staff (Mitchell, 2000). However, recent work by ‘academic literacies’ researchers has drawn attention to the centrality of writing forms and practices in the operation of the university and in the student’s struggle for identity and authority in relation to academic knowledge and discourse (e.g. Lea & Street, 1998; Ivanic 1998; Jones et al.1999; Lillis 2001)

    The invisibility of writing and of theoretically-based understandings of the role of language in learning, creates, this paper will argue, a significant obstacle to the project of improving student learning. If the potential of writing is to be exploited then a first move is to break apart the unspoken conflation of writing with assessment. With this move, it becomes possible to explore the multiple functions of writing and alternative rhetorical relations, including writing for oneself as well as for others. In short, it becomes possible to think about ‘writing for learning’ as well as ‘learning to write’, and this has implications for the design of pedagogy, learning objectives and courses, as examples will show. A related move is then to rethink the assessment of writing. This will entail more than simply, say, assessing by portfolio rather than by essay; it will entail explicit awareness of writing processes and forms, and an acknowledgement of the material significance of these in the setting of tasks and criteria.

    The paper will relate its argument to the work of Britton and others at the Institute of Education in London mainly in the 1970s and to subsequent developments in US Writing across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines programmes (Russell, 2002). It will note that ‘writing-intensive’ work is beginning to receive serious attention in the UK partly as the critical attention of academic literacies researchers turns to the search for new pedagogies, partly as the circumstances and constituencies of UK HE change, and partly as new generations of academic staff become more attuned to the problems of teaching and learning in their disciplines.