Navigating the hills of academic writing

Dr Carol Spencely – Faculty of Engineering & Physical Sciences 

In general, most of the students on the Foundation Year courses in Engineering & Physical Sciences or Mathematics find the prospect of writing a 2000-word conference paper based on credible academic sources (referenced using the Harvard style) and then giving an individual presentation summarising the content of their paper … “daunting” (other descriptors have also been used!)  Add into the equation that this assignment happens in the first semester of starting university (so, during the period when our students are navigating new learning environments, expectations, living/travel arrangements, as well as literally navigating their way around the Surrey campus for the first time) and it is easy to see why many students approach the assignment with trepidation, some with huge levels of reluctance, and a few with complete avoidance tactics.  

Person looking at a mountain

Whilst there are always some students that launch straight into the challenge, for others it feels like a completely foreign terrain, a new mountain range to conquer, and they just don’t know how to climb it. 

The Foundation Year programme teaching team understand this terrain, and I have developed a week-by-week process to guide the students through the stages of preparing their paper: Choosing a theme for the paper, forming and refining a title, finding and using credible academic sources of information, writing introductions and conclusions, referencing, presentation preparation …  However, whilst the students may now see the path ahead, for some it can still seem a long hard trek that does not look any easier! 

Person looking at a mountain

Reflecting on this, I could see that the main challenge is for students to really understand the value of this assignment for their future studies.  “What is the point of trekking the hills of academic paper writing when I am studying in the lush valley of maths?” (OK, I am getting a bit carried away with this analogy but, hopefully, you get the gist!)  So, I sought a different perspective to help guide the students. 

People climbing a mountain

When tackling tricky terrain, it is always best to seek the knowledge of those that have travelled the route before.  Therefore, in 2021 I set up a Peer Assisted Learning Scheme (PALS) with some funds provided by FLUOR and expertise from the Academic Skills & Development team.  FLUOR PALS linked student mentors from the Foundation Year alumni with small groups of current Foundation Year students to help the students navigate the academic writing hills of the conference project.  Mentors applied and were interviewed for the paid positions.  Successful applicants attended a training session before meeting with student groups (n= 3-5) three times during the semester. 

The majority of mentees reported the scheme to be valuable: 

“Being able to bounce questions off someone with insight and similar experiences to me” 

“Being able to speak to someone who has been through the same course” 

“They had a lot of experience and could tell me what was best to avoid and what module leaders are expecting from my work” 

“You can ask any reasonable question” 

“I enjoyed the scheme and also helped me meet a new friend at university!” 

Mentors also reported benefits: 

“Trying to engage with other students on their studying required careful consideration of how to ask questions and make criticism constructive which is always useful in a managing role or just a group setting” 

“Being able to offer new students reassurance and helping them build their confidence” 

“Just being able to share my tips and sort of guide people in the right direction” 

“Skills gained and being able to pass on tips I’ve learned over the past couple years” 

“Getting to express my university journey to others which are in a similar position to me” 

From my point of view, there is definitely room for improvement with the scheme.  So, I will keep upgrading the path for future cohorts of students, whilst our Foundation Year community at Surrey continue to conquer the hilly terrain ahead. 

People on a mountain

For more information contact: Carol Spencely, Teaching Fellow, Foundation Year, Programmes,