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Supporting achievement and progress in English academic writing courses through exemplars

Written by: Patrick Leung
4 min read

Much has been written regarding how classroom teachers can support students’ educational achievement and progress. Numerous pedagogic practices, strategies and approaches have been put forward – for instance, cooperative learning, differentiated instruction and inquiry-based learning. While many of these seem innovative and student-centred, and can arouse students’ interests, when it comes to the end of the teaching and learning cycle, there are questions about the extent to which they actually support students’ learning.

One issue that receives recurring attention concerns a mechanism that can support achievement and progress, such as developing sustainable feedback practices that promote uptake (see Carless and Bound, 2018; Carless et al., 2011). Drawing on my experience as a teacher and curriculum designer of two academic writing courses (albeit targeting undergraduate students), this case study shares my reflection on, outlines the principles of and illustrates how I deploy exemplars throughout the course as a strategy to support students’ learning. I define exemplars here as any texts (either well-written or poorly-written) employed to illustrate features of desirable or undesirable writing.

I began incorporating exemplars into my lessons when I noticed that providing students with feedback on their assignments at the end of a course was not very effective, as this usually left students with no opportunities to act on the feedback to demonstrate improvement.  Many students stated that they only realised the assessment standards after their work was graded, despite the assessment criteria having been made available to them at the beginning of the course. This caused me to think deeply about how I could support their learning better at an earlier stage in my teaching, so that my students had enough time to understand and digest what was expected of them. Upon reflection, when I learned to write as a beginner I was exposed to plenty of samples and models. By reading and analysing them and experimenting with the language, I gradually developed my writing style. Therefore, instead of considering assessment as distinct from teaching, I redesigned the curriculum of two academic writing courses that I had been teaching so that teaching and assessment formed a nexus: exemplars are employed as the major learning and teaching materials, with plenty of in-class activities designed around them throughout the entire course to simultaneously explore language and writing as well as assessment standards and criteria.

The two courses focus on the writing of an academic research report, so the exemplars employed are authentic research reports written by either researchers or previous students of the courses. Adopting a developmental approach in the curriculum, the courses teach students one section of a report at a time – for example, ‘introduction’ followed by ‘methodology’. All learning and teaching activities are structured and based on exemplar texts of a range of complexity and quality, in the hope of enabling students to discover inductively the linguistic, rhetorical and structural features of each section of a research report. When devising the tasks, a key principle is to enable students to notice the essential features and raise their awareness (e.g. ‘What are the tenses used in this section?’ and ‘How are the ideas organised in the paragraph?’). There are also tasks that enable students to unpack the assessment criteria (e.g. ‘What makes this literature review critical?’ and ‘Identify instances where there is meaningful discussion of major findings.’).

Whenever possible, four texts are examined for each section of a research report: two are usually relatively well-written, while the other two contain problems that students typically have. Using multiple texts for exploration prevents students from seeing any single text as a model, which stifles their creativity; rather, this shows to students that variations in texts exist and, in fact, are common (see Hawe et al., 2019). Instead of merely showing high-quality texts, exposing students to mediocre texts enables them to engage with the texts critically and suggest suitable changes and possible improvement. Students are never told in advance whether they are going to read a good or poor text, so the order in which the texts are presented matters too. To avoid having a predictable pattern or sequence, well-written texts are sometimes presented first and sometimes last.

In addition to conducting textual analysis of the features of the different sections of a research report, and raising students’ awareness of what makes the exemplar text effective or ineffective, classroom time is also devoted to discussing the texts in relation to the assessment criteria so that students can be better informed of the assessment standards during the teaching process. They are asked to contextualise their discussion on why a text is awarded a Grade C, for example, and hence examine the features of a Grade C text. They also need to discuss what can be done to improve the text such that it can be awarded a better grade. This discussion, which aims to support learning progress and achievement, can usually draw students’ attention, as grades are of concern to the majority of students.

Comments from students on this exemplar approach have been rather positive across the years. They appreciate the fact that they are given several examples to learn from, and they can discuss how the quality of a text can be further enhanced. They consider this a process very similar to that of writing their own research report, as they need to constantly identify areas for improvement in their work and make necessary revisions accordingly. In other words, the critical analysis and close examination of exemplar texts support educational achievement and progress by offering students an avenue to develop and sharpen their capability to make informed evaluative judgement on the quality of a piece of work (see Tai et al., 2018), which might be difficult to achieve using other approaches. Exemplars are beneficial not only in writing classrooms but also in virtually any classrooms, as long as students need to produce a piece of work to showcase their learning.

References

Carless D and Boud D (2018) The development of student feedback literacy: Enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 43(8): 1315–1325.

Carless D, Salter D, Yang M et al. (2011) Developing sustainable feedback practices. Studies in Higher Education 36(4): 395–407.

Hawe E, Lightfoot U and Dixon H (2019) First-year students working with exemplars: Promoting self-efficacy, self-monitoring and self-regulation. Journal of Further and Higher Education 43(1): 30–44.

Tai J, Ajjawi R, Boud D et al. (2018) Developing evaluative judgement: Enabling students to make decisions about the quality of work. Higher Education 76(4): 467–481.

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