• August 9th, 2020

First year students – master academic writing skills to succeed at university

One of the most difficult tasks first year students encounter in higher education institutions is how to present their academic work in terms of writing assignments and research projects. Students face this problem mainly because they will be encountering a scientific way of presenting their academic work for the first time in their different programmes. At the beginning, they lack academic writing skills, which are the bedrock of effective communication of their ideas and arguments. All first year students enter university as amateur academic writers although some may have very high points or symbols A or B in English at high school level. Cognisant of this writing skill deficiency and incompetence, universities across the world mount different academic writing and communication skills courses for first-year students that range from a semester to a year depending on the needs of the students. Weaker students will obviously take longer periods on these courses than those who learn faster. Some universities have even started offering academic writing courses to their master’s and doctoral students. The reason often given for this is that most of these postgraduate students would have been out of touch with academic work for long periods of time. It follows that they would require some refresher course in academic writing, this time at advanced levels. This underscores the crucial role academic writing plays in the creation and communication of knowledge in various fields in higher education, whether it is at undergraduate level or postgraduate level.

What students should appreciate from the onset of their studies is that academic writing is completely different from ordinary writing. An example of ordinary writing is when students write messages and send them to friends or relatives using e-mails, WhatsApp or other forms of communication like letters. Students are not bound by any strict rule or rules in communicating their messages of information in the above scenarios. There is no strict style to follow in these scenarios. Writing here is largely informal or colloquial.
 However, when communicating their ideas and arguments to their lecturers and professors, students need to have acquired enough academic writing skills in order to succeed in their studies. Hence, students should always be aware of characteristics of academic writing every time they sit down to write their assignments and research papers.  Besides being formal, academic writing follows a strict style that forces students to present their ideas and arguments in writing in a coherent manner. As they articulate their points in written form, students must do so in a logical manner. This is usually achieved by using well- structured paragraphs in the presentation of points in an essay. The paragraphs must be logically linked to each other by cohesive devices or connectors. The common mistake students make about paragraphs is to arbitrarily begin another paragraph by just thinking that the last paragraph is long enough, so they need to have another one. This is wrong. Adopt the practice of a point or idea being discussed in a paragraph. Another ingredient of academic writing is clarity. One achieves clarity by defining and explaining terms used in the essay, making it easy for the reader to follow arguments presented in the assignment. If definitions are more than one, it is imperative that the writer makes it clear which definition he or she is going to use in the assignment and why. In other words, terms must be linked to the assignment topic or the research. 

As students present their academic work, they should show that they have read some literature in the subject or field they are studying. Referring to sources on the topic under investigation is a crucial practice in academic writing. The sources consulted must be properly refenced both in the text and at the end of the assignment. From the beginning of their studies, students must familiarize themselves with which referencing styles used in their disciplines. Some of the styles include the American Psychological Association (APA) style, Chicago, Harvard and Modern Languages Association (MLA) style. There are handbooks for these and other referencing styles. It is advisable to have a copy of the relevant manual for easy referencing when writing an assignment or research project. The guidelines indicate how in-text and general refences are done in order to avoid plagiarism. An appropriately referenced piece of work shows that the student has taken time to consult sources. Lectures and supervisors will be highly impressed with such kind of work.

Students are also advised to study how knowledge is created and communicated in their disciplines.  The style of communication in humanities and social sciences is different from the style used in pure sciences, for example.  Styles may also be different in disciplines in humanities and social sciences. Likewise, in different fields in pure sciences or management sciences. So, it is advisable for students to study how books, journals and other literature communicate knowledge in their different areas of specialisations and follow the styles. This explains why some universities have academic writing courses for different fields they offer. Despite the differences, the bottom line is acquiring academic writing skills are crucial for the success of students in higher education institutions. 

Take your academic and communication skills courses seriously. They will make you a better academic communicator.
- Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Please send your comments to: kjairos@gmail.com

Staff Reporter
2020-02-14 08:01:25 | 5 months ago

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