Victoria Mann is a part time PhD student at the University of Sheffield.  She is an SpLD tutor at the university, responsible for teaching, staff training and regional coordination of AvickymannDSHE. She is particularly interested in co research with students.  Her research interests are maths anxiety; SpLDs and academic literary; dyscalculia; and SpLds and English as an additional language.


Developing academic writing skills is often considered to be a key component of achieving academic success in higher education. Every student entering higher education will need to write assignments using an ‘academic writing style’, for example essays and reports.  This is especially considered to be the case in humanities and social science degrees, with emphasis placed on becoming proficient in developing an academic writing style, for example writing essays that sustain a clear line of argument.  Also, there could be an argument that whilst academic writing skills are needed for university, the acquisition of these skills contributes to students developing post university skills, such as for the workplace.

For students, academic writing at a high level can be a daunting prospect. Surprisingly, academic writing in STEM subjects was identified in my research as feeling more challenging than in a humanities or social science subject. This is because students on say, an English degree, may mostly be assessed using essay based assignments, for example close text analysis.  Once the student has engaged with this discourse, confidence builds, and the student understands what is expected of them, meaning that they are able to improve their performance in future assignments. In contrast my research has found that science subjects often incorporate a multitude of different assignments, each requiring the student to engage with the discourse of the particular practice. Horowtiz (1986) found that there are seven different types of assignments, each having distinct specific requirements and conventions. Therefore the assignment criteria, structure, style, and presentation will vary, according to assignment type chosen.

  • summary of/reaction to a reading
  • annotated bibliography
  • report on a specified participatory experience
  • connection of theory and data
  • case study
  • synthesis of multiple sources
  • research project

Having to get to grips with all these different types of assignment increases the learning load on a student who is already having to meet the challenges of their course.

Using diverse assignments can be beneficial to students, however. By writing in a variety of styles and responding to different assignment criteria, students are broadening their skill development. This diversity provides an opportunity for students to develop literacy skills for different purposes, in order to be prepared for the working environment, for example taking minutes and writing memos.   Due to the need to respond to different literacy needs, the traditional essay based assignment may not equip students for life after education in the same way. A presentation assignment is a good example of this. Students are developing presenting skills, the ability to make an argument orally, and skills to respond to questions.  The use of innovative assignment tasks has also been found to result in more engaged and deeper learning, improving the learning outcomes of the students and can ensure that activities are more culturally diverse. Lastly, many students in my research felt that different assignments benefited them, as they were not confident at writing an academic essay, but were confident about giving a presentation, or creating a poster. Therefore they were getting an opportunity to play to their strengths sometimes.

A key limitation of the use of diverse assignments is that students struggle to determine what is expected of them. One of my participants said that, ‘I get really stressed when I have to do posters or presentations I never know what lecturers are marking for. I also had to write abstracts in a journalistic style; I had no idea what was required their either, I wish I just had to master essay writing, instead of all these other assignments.’

Another limitation is that the rationale for using a diverse practice is often unclear. One example of this is the use of twitter in assignments.  Twitter can be useful in learning activities such as through sharing ideas and combining knowledge. The key drawback is that critical thinking and self-reflection are inhibited, because of the 140 character limit. This limits the usefulness of using twitter in assignments. When twitter based assignments are used it is unclear how they contribute to the student’s academic development or on an assessment of the students according to the course criteria.

How then can we support students who are required to respond to different types of assignments?  My research found that there a number of ways lecturers and support tutors can support students. Firstly, a genre based approach to assignments was found to be useful. This enables to understand the conventions of each specific practice and therefore develop specific strategies for different assignments. For example, reports have very different conventions from a poster and if these conventions are not met, the assignment grade will reflect this. Equally,  clearer marking criteria was cited as very important in helping students to understand what is required of them. Clear feedback can also be a very useful formative tool. Finally the offering of academic writing workshops or one to one to one writing tutorials were found to be very useful in meeting the requirements of diverse assignments,

Diversity of assignments can, therefore, be a positive. There are, however, issues with assessment criteria Issues with mastering diverse skills, such as unclear criteria, lack of rationale for the assignment and lack of support/ teaching to support the student to engage with the practice.  Despite this, students recognised the opportunity for broadening of skills offered by these different practices, if they are supported to get to grips with the assignments. Teachers can play a role in supporting students to develop these skills; by treating presentations and posters as a genre requiring the acquisition of specific skills, teachers can support students in responding effectively to diverse assignments.