Overview: Instant feedback to students on their research writing (using Swales CARS)

In my last job, I was an Academic Language & Learning Educator at an Australian university. My role involved working with students from the Science, Engineering and IT faculty, from undergraduates and masters coursework students to higher degree research students (HDR). (In Australia HDR includes PhD students and Masters by research students.) While I worked with academics in Masters subjects to develop and facilitate writing workshops, a big part of my job was teaching writing to HDR students, which also included working with HDR students one-on-one to help them develop their writing skills and publish articles. The one question that students would always ask me was how they could become better writers. I gave them lots of different advice according to their writing needs and pointed them to a variety of resources, but there was always one piece of advice that I mostly gave…. “Get feedback on your writing, not just from your supervisors, but from friends and family. And, practise, practise, practise.” Why? Research shows that:

  1. feedback from others helps the writing process and improves your writing;
  2. good writers are constantly thinking, writing, reflecting, revising, rewriting.

But, students, especially international students and students in small research groups, often said that it was difficult to find someone to review their work and receive feedback, albeit timely, immediate feedback. This got me thinking. How can HDR students receive immediate feedback on their writing?  This question troubled me for some time, as resources are limited and people don’t always have the time to review students’ writing. The lack of resources available got me thinking, reading and looking for solutions to this problem. All this exploring led me to Writing Analytics as a possible solution, which eventually led me to my PhD research. Writing Analytics makes use of analytical techniques to provide automated feedback on student writing. I thought, if Writing Analytics can provide automated feedback on writing, could this technology help HDR students with their writing? This idea to help develop HDR students’ research writing is where my research is taking me.

At the Connected Intelligence Centre I am modifying AcaWriter to meet the needs of HDR writing, and starting with the most fundamental part of HDR research writing –  how to craft a compelling abstract and introduction to a research paper. I’ve been working with ideas from Swales (1990) who analysed loads of articles from a from a variety of disciplines and discovered structural patterns that authors make in their writing. He then developed the Create A Research Space (CARS) model to explain these patterns, which Swales calls ‘moves’. I’ve incorporated the CARS model into AcaWriter. In the Introduction and Abstract section Swales identified three moves that authors make when they’re explaining their research. The three moves are:

  • Move 1: Establishing a research territory
  • Move 2: Establishing a niche
  • Move 3: Occupying the niche

Swales’ CARS model is widely used in universities to teach writing abstracts and introductions. I’ve integrated CARS in AcaWriter to help students learn how to make these hallmark moves in their own writing. The process is quite simple. Once students write their draft abstract or introduction they can submit it to AcaWriter for feedback. AcaWriter then generates an analytical report and highlights the moves that the student has made, see image below.

And importantly, I have customised AcaWriter to also provide feedback (with examples) that explains to students when they have missed a move, or made them in a different order. An example of the feedback is seen here.

I am excited about the progress of my research and am currently piloting workshops with PhD students using AcaWriter to teach these moves. I am investigating to what extent the immediate feedback that AcaWriter provides helps students learn the moves and helps them in the writing process. Especially, if AcaWriter’s feedback helps them to think and reflect about their writing. Because, as I mentioned above, good writers are constantly thinking, writing, reflecting, revising, and rewriting. And, Roald Dahl agrees, “By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

For more information on AcaWriter head to CIC .

Interested in using AcaWriter in my UTS training sessions? email me at sophie.abel@student.uts.edu.au

If you want to learn more about Swales and CARS check out these resources:

Swales, J. M. & Feak, C.B. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.





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