Writing Skills Training for Engineering Students in Large Classes

by Christine M Robinson, Department of English Language
and Gerard M Blair, Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Edinburgh


Employers and teachers have long been concerned about students whose poor written English prevents them from reaching their full potential either at university or in their professional lives. Students are aware of their own difficulty in writing but their efforts to improve their writing skills are often thwarted by the gap between their own and their tutors' understanding of what the criteria for writing assessment should be (Branthwaite et al 1980; Hounsell 1987; Benson et al 1993). It is therefore imperative that students be offered help with writing and that the criteria for writing assessment, which may differ from one department to another, be made explicit. Furthermore, the recent emphasis on the acquisition of professional skills (Blair 1993; Keenan 1993; Waldgrave 1993) has added urgency to the need to teach writing skills within specialist subject areas.

First year chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering students at Edinburgh University are offered help with written English in a Professional Engineering module taught by members of all four departments. In this way, writing skills can be introduced into the curriculum in a way which makes their relevance clear to the students.

Although there are advantages in writing skills being taught by subject teachers rather than English specialists, the subject teachers are faced with a vast quantity of information on language teaching, much of it conflicting and not all of it relevant to the writing requirements of their discipline. In providing instruction in writing skills to first year engineering students at Edinburgh University, different theories on composition teaching and assessment were considered and modified to take into account the particular needs of engineering students, large classes and limited teaching time. This description and evaluation of the writing skills component of the Professional Engineering module may be helpful to others who are faced with the challenge of teaching non-Arts students in large classes.


Altered perceptions of the role of language account for a series of changing preoccupations in the teaching of writing (Nystrand et al 1993). Since the prescriptive 1950s, when "correct" spelling, punctuation and grammar were rigourously enforced, the changing fashions have focused variously on writer, genre and reader.

Writer-oriented composition teaching flourished in America in the 1970s. It aims to improve writing skills through the personal development of the writer. Teaching is concentrated on the writing process which, so far as academic discourse is concerned, entails a movement from personal and expressive writing to expository, analytic writing through a process of drafting and reviewing which enables the student to make sense of the topic he is writing about. This makes the writing process a vital part of learning (White 1985, 1989).

The study of languages for specific purposes gained ground with linguists in the mid 1960s and became increasingly important in the next two decades. (Halliday 1973, 1975; Sager et al 1980) Such linguistic studies provided a wealth of data on genre or functional varieties.

Since a functional view of language must to some extent measure success in terms of the effect language has on the target audience or reader, it is not surprising that a reader-oriented view of writing gained ground (Medway 1991; Black and Moore 1994).

There is general agreement that the teaching of formal grammar is not useful and may even be counter-productive (White 1989), but the relative importance of writer, genre and reader is still hotly debated. However, the pragmatist will agree that each approach has its own contribution to make; most of the "How to" books differ only in the emphasis which they place on one or the other. Our task was to extract what was of most value to first year engineering students and, in doing so, we found that writer-centred, genre-centred and reader-centred learning provided answers to different problems and achieved different, but necessary goals.


The Writers

Engineering students are, for the most part, less skilled than their counterparts in the Arts and Social Science faculties where much of the research into student writing has been carried out. Most studies on student writing assume that the students have mastered the basic mechanical skills. This assumption cannot be made in the case of engineering students. Although a few are already skilled communicators, many have a very poor ability to spell and punctuate, far less to construct a logical argument. Therefore, teaching must address two separate areas. On the one hand, the students have to be introduced to the process of writing as engineers. With initial guidance, a carefully chosen variety of written assignments and sensitive feedback, most students can be expected to master the stylistic demands of the discipline over the four years of the degree course. On the other hand, some students need to be brought up rapidly to the point where this process can begin. In the context of subject learning, the writer-centred approach takes precedence since the writer is still using the writing process to make his own sense of the subject.

The Genres

The genres of written coursework are traditionally the essay and the lab report. Despite much criticism that the essay is a very artificial form of writing and not a "real-world" task (Gibbs 1992), it should be remembered that, for the student and teacher, the university is the real world; the conventions of academic discourse have as much need to be learned as any other form of writing. Also, now that the drawbacks of essays have been identified, better ways of setting essays are being devised and the essay is recognised as a way of promoting active learning (Hounsell and Murray 1992). The lab report is a practical exercise in which the student performs the writer-centred process of converting his personal experience into impersonal analytic writing. It also provides experience in writing to a strict format and in combining accuracy with brevity, both very much "real-world" tasks. In addition, the students were asked to submit "Learning Logs" as a way of introducing writing in a less formal register. These consisted of short (500 word), non-technical accounts of aspects of the course which had appealed to them personally as being of particular importance or interest. It is axiomatic that giving a simple explanation of a complex subject requires deep understanding of the subject. The students therefore had to work through a writer-centred learning task before progressing to the reader-centred communicative phase of writing. It was hoped that undergoing these processes in short pieces of focused writing would prepare the students for essay-writing.

The Readers

Reader expectations were made as clear as possible to the students through handouts, lectures and the assessment format (See Fig 1). In writing the learning logs the students were asked to imagine a different kind of reader. It was suggested that they target a school friend or a local newspaper readership. They had to take into account the knowledge that their target reader might be expected to have, what technical terms would be unacceptable without explanation, etc. The markers were expected to read "in role", not only as the school friend or newspaper reader but also as the future employer asking "Is this writing acceptable in a professional setting?" In the context of communicative writing, where the writer already has knowledge and understanding of his subject and wishes to inform or persuade the reader, a reader-centred attitude to writing is the obvious choice.

The Limits

The object of an engineering course is to produce engineers, not writers, and what is appropriate to a composition class for creative writers may be a complete waste of time for first year engineers. First of all, they are differently motivated: our students need to see writing as a professional engineering skill. Secondly, although, in general, their initial skill level is lower, the demands made on their writing skills are narrower. Although an elegant style is encouraged, literary creativity and originality are not required. The primary objective in writing is to produce clear, effective communication, free from the presentational errors which might prejudice the reader. Finally, the teaching of writing skills has to be made an integral part of a crowded curriculum, although this must be done without it being swamped and disappearing from sight.


The range of student ability and the nature of the subject are most suited to small group teaching but, with a class of 230 students, there is neither enough staff, time nor accommodation. Alternative strategies have to be sought which retain, as far as possible, such advantages of teaching in small groups as individual attention, active participation on the part of the student and the maintenance of a high profile for the subject. The strategies available include lectures, handouts, library facilities, surgery hours and feedback on the coursework. Feedback is seen as the key to providing individual attention, promoting active learning and giving the topic continuing prominence. The effectiveness of all the strategies was assessed by means of a questionnaire, analysis of assessment attachments and student interviews.


In spite of the fact that only two and a half lectures were devoted to writing skills, students found them very effective as regards planning and presentation. On all aspects of writing, students felt that they had been given valuable guidelines along which they could begin to work for themselves. In addition to instruction on specific writing skills the students were given

1. A heightened awareness of the demand for professional engineers with professional writing skills.

2. An appreciation that improving writing skills is an on-going self-development process, together with an introduction to some self-development strategies.

3. Clear instructions on written coursework requirements.

The questionnaire and student interviews testified to the success of the lectures. Tips on notetaking were singled out for praise. There was a strong positive response from the students to the lectures relating to their written coursework; clearly, lectures were their primary source of information, rather than handouts or the Course Guide.


A very large number of students start the course without having mastered the most basic mechanical skills such as spelling and punctuation. These are the areas most criticised by employers. Therefore, some positive action has to be taken to improve these skills. It was hoped that the provision of a handout for students to refer to during the writing process would help to improve these skills without distracting the student from the higher communicative issues. The handout consisted of very brief, fail-safe notes on punctuation, the commonest spelling rules and a few hints on paragraphing and sentence structure. Student interviews showed that few students gave it more than a cursory glance. The handout has been reprinted on brightly coloured, folded card as a Quick Reference Guide like the handy instructions familiar to computer users in the hope that it will be used as such. Markers have been advised to refer to the guide to maximise consistency in feedback.


The surgery hours were used mainly by non-native speakers of English and by students sent along by members of staff. The timing of the course detracted from the usefulness of the surgery hour because the essay, which gave the truest picture of which students were most in need of help, was not marked until the end of the course. Since the task of writing can be approached in so many different ways, surgery hours can be very helpful in helping the individual students find personal solutions. Written feedback, in contrast, cannot provide a dialogue, and general hints on drawing up a plan or using topic sentences may not fit the way a particular student writes. Surgeries are also very useful in showing students how to read their own work critically and how to set about improving it. Some of the students interviewed were strongly in favour of improving the writing skills of engineers but did not think the lectures applied particularly to themselves until a few minutes had been spent going over their work with them privately, querying how various points might have been better expressed. Students nearly always recognised and spontaneously corrected grammatical errors when asked what a particular sentence meant. Tips like reading over one's work aloud or getting a friend to proof-read seemed to come alive to the students when it was seen how dramatically they could improve their work.


In the absence of small group or individual teaching, feedback on written assignments is, without doubt, the most powerful learning tool available to students who wish to improve their writing skills. An assignment attachment was devised with the intention of providing feedback in a form which was useful to the students. By breaking down the writing task into a set of component skills, we hoped to make it easier for them to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to take appropriate action. Because the attachments were completed for every piece of written course work, the high profile of writing skills was maintained throughout the course. It would be all too easy for the students to write off the communication skills content of the lectures as interesting but non-examinable and therefore forgettable. The assessment attachments worked in conjunction with the lectures. They also provided us with information on the performance of students, as individuals and as a class, and on the quality of feedback.

The design of the attachment was dictated by the demands of clear presentation and ease of completion (fig 1). These limited the number of headings which could be used. A review of work from previous years showed that the areas needing improvement fell into two categories: PRESENTATION and COMMUNICATION. The final choice of headings deliberately included some, like LAYOUT and SPELLING where a conscientious but less able student could show improvement in a reasonably short period. Care was taken to ensure that the aspects of writing most criticised by employers and members of the engineering teaching staff were represented. The form, as first designed, did not include a CONTENT heading and this was added at the suggestion of markers who felt that the ability to identify appropriate content was essentially a communicative skill. The resulting form was not entirely satisfactory as the space allotted to CONTENT appeared to underrate its importance. Expanding CONTENT into subheadings to bring it into line with PRESENTATION and COMMUNICATION would have defeated the purpose of focusing the attention of the students onto one or two target areas. It would also have complicated the markers' task. So, although CONTENT is relevant to writing skills, it was difficult to break it down without merging into engineering skills and losing the emphasis on writing. The use of assessment attachments with Lab Reports was particularly useful in demonstrating the application of good writing skills to a task which the students perceive as primarily an engineering one.

A copy of the assessment attachment and a full explanation of the headings and assessment system were circulated to students and staff. In particular, the potential of the assessment attachment as an aid to active learning was stressed. The column headed ACTION TO BE TAKEN meant precisely that. We suggested that the students target the one or two areas most in need of attention and seek help if future assessment attachments recorded no improvement.

The hidden agenda of the questionnaire was to remind students of the applications of the assessment attachment to active learning by itemising these as questions. Only three out of 113 intended to ignore the assessment attachments. 22 thought about the headings as they wrote. 83 looked at each one to see how they could improve. 39 compared successive attachments to monitor their progress. The questionnaire was completed early in the course and student interviews suggested that the attention paid to the attachments may have increased as the course progressed.


The quality of feedback came in for some criticism from students. Complaints were received about delays in returning written work so that they did not have the feedback from one assignment before tackling the next. They objected to vague, non-existent or illegible comments and inconsistency in marking. They also asked for errors to be indicated on the scripts.

To ascertain the degree of consistency in marking, scripts from a cross-section of markers were assessed independently. While small variations were found, the degree of consistency was remarkably good. However, there were occasional aberrations where assessment had been rather impressionistic. For example, a few scripts with no spelling errors were given a "3" for spelling, presumably by analogy with the deplorable state of the other features of these scripts. Certain markers seemed more committed to and knowledgeable about good writing skills than others, but this was reflected in the quality of the comments rather than in the assessment.

Comparison of successive assignment attachments for individual students confirmed what might be regarded as self-evident: students are more likely to act upon clear instructions backed up with examples. They cannot and will not respond to vague remarks; it is very time-consuming to explain to a student how to structure a piece of writing, particularly since the problem of structuring can be approached in several ways, but "Unstructured!" means very little to the student and does not tell the student how to improve.

The students' comments regarding the indicating of errors on scripts seemed to be justified. Lab reports were often marked by post graduate demonstrators who very obviously had neither the knowledge not the motivation to teach writing skills. Furthermore, although members of staff were invariably helpful and enthusiastic, their marking of the essays and the Learning Logs indicated that some staff training would be beneficial. The following spellings taken from Lab Reports, some of them repeated several times within the one script, went without comment from the markers: effecienty, oscilliscope, ossiliscope, guage, corossion, ethenol, propelle, similtaneously, enevitablely, accross, excercise, finnished, jugement, prooved, necassery, emitts, wether, was'nt, it's. Spellings like these are seen by employers as symptomatic of a less than professional level of education. Such an opinion may be unjustified in that it has no bearing on the technical ability of the graduate, but the employer is in a sense the consumer of the end product of a degree course and his requirements must be taken into consideration. In Lab Reports and, to a lesser extent, in Learning Logs, errors in punctuation were seldom corrected and badly formed sentences, if marked, were rarely noted by more than an underline. Rather more care was taken in the marking of essays.

There were occasional examples of misinformation being disseminated by markers. Students were told to "Use the passive tense." Even if this misuse of terminology were corrected to "Use the passive voice", it is debatable whether the comment is of any real value. "Write impersonally", accompanied by an example rewritten from the student's work might be more helpful. Quite often, markers failed to diagnose what was actually wrong with badly formed sentences. Comments like "Long sentence" were commonly applied to what were in fact several run-on sentences.

A number of markers seemed indifferent to the point of assignment attachments as a means of encouraging students to do something positive about their shortcomings. Many attachments were devoid of any comment whatsoever.

In assessing the Learning Logs, markers had as much difficulty as the students in coping with an informal style.

Although much of the student criticism of markers was justified, the majority of markers did provide good feedback. It should be remembered that 96 out of 113 students found comments helpful. The best markers provided a lot of positive feedback such as "A good essay which I enjoyed reading." It comes as a surprise to some students that their essay is read by a real person who might actually enjoy reading it. The idea of writing with a definite readership in mind was brought out very strongly in lectures but the sense of readership can often seem very artificial to the essay-writing student. Therefore, a personal response can be very encouraging. A few markers showed great sensitivity in adjusting the wording of their comments to the abilities and personality of the individual student, using humour with able and confident students and finding something encouraging to say to students whose efforts exceeded their achievements. Where classes are large and each assignment is read by a different marker, it takes a bit of extra effort on the part of the marker to establish a relationship of mutual respect within which the student is more likely to be motivated and receptive to advice. Even the apparently small gesture of a marker signing the assignment attachment was appreciated by students. (See fig 1)


The assessment attachments had the additional function of providing information on the state of the students' writing skills at different points in the course, and in the performance of various tasks. This information has been summarised in tables I-III. Comparison between the early and late Lab Report and between the early and late Learning Logs show that improvements are taking place, if slowly.


The assignment attachment had a number of disadvantages, not least the fact that it required time and thought to complete it adequately, causing resistance on the part of some markers. It was unfortunate that, for the sake of clarity and ease of marking, headings had to be restricted in a somewhat arbitrary fashion. A further difficulty is the student obsession with "marks"; it is difficult to persuade students that assessment attachments are "indicators of performance" intended for their own guidance.

On the credit side, the assessment attachments were undoubtedly highly successful in directing the attention of staff and students to the importance of communicative skills within the Professional Engineering module, an importance which perhaps they will transfer to other written coursework and beyond. Without the re-enforcement of the assessment attachment, the writing skills aspect of the course would almost certainly have been overwhelmed by the engineering content. The attachments were very useful in drawing the attention of students to their weakest points and directing them to action in a way which could not have been achieved by a less formal method of feedback. They facilitated the continuing development of each student at his own pace and according to his own abilities, directing his efforts to the needs of engineering writing as seen by teaching staff and future employers.


Assessment was not all one way. The students had the opportunity to give their opinions. According to the 113 responses to the questionnaire, all but two students appreciated the need for good writing skills and 51 had been convinced of this by the lectures. 74 students felt their skills were in need of improvement. Semi-structured interviews of 14 students in the middle and lower ranges of writing ability confirmed these findings. The second part of the questionnaire dealt with assessment attachments. Only three intended to ignore them. 22 thought about the headings as they wrote. 83 looked at each one to see how they could improve. 39 compared successive attachments to monitor their progress. These questions were so worded to remind the students of the uses of the assessment attachments. We were very pleased at the positive response to lectures and assessment attachments. There was also some constructive criticism which we welcomed and learned from.


The response of students and staff confirmed that students need, want and benefit from the teaching of written communicative skills within the context of their own specialist department.

The lectures and the assessment attachments worked well. Handouts were less successful and have been modified. It was clear that students are unlikely to seek out information on writing skills for themselves. The role of good feedback is therefore paramount. For the purpose of improving writing, the essay and the lab reports were undoubtedly useful. The Learning Logs were not a complete success. The students were given a certain amount of freedom in selecting their target reader and for most students and, indeed, markers this caused problems. Future assignments will consist of much more clearly defined tasks.

The range of written course work gave students plenty of opportunity to experience writing as a way of developing their engineering skills (writer-centred writing). The assessment attachments and comments on scripts showed that students were making steady progress in learning the conventions of academic discourse as required in the engineering profession (genre-centred writing). The hard part of teaching writing was to develop communicative skills. The course was successful in raising the students' awareness of good written communicative skills as a professional requirement and in giving them some indication of how to improve. The eventual outcome depends on a continuing high quality of feedback throughout the four-year degree course.

The authors would be interested to hear from anyone who has experience of teaching writing skills to engineering or science students or to large classes.


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Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email (gerard@ee.ed.ac.uk) or by any other method found here

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