From IELTS to University: Writing the Debate


From IELTS to University: Write the Debate!

This summer I have had a fresh encounter with a perennial problem for international students entering university. It is a common issue which is often absent from the writing component of academic skills and pre-sessional courses. Also, the problem is one of those areas which university teachers and lecturers tend to assume that students already understand; it seems so obvious to them that they do not consider teaching it. This is a problem which occurs in academic essay writing and is a good example of students trying to transfer high-school learning into a university setting.

From IELTS to University: The misunderstanding

So, students on longer pre-sessional courses are usually tasked with writing a 1000 to 1,500 word essay as part of their assessment. One of the top five problems they have with completing this task is that they do not fully recognise what a university essay question requires them to do. Many students think that a university essay question, like a final year of high school question, can be answered by showing their knowledge of a topic. Of course, at university there is a greater research element to an essay task than at high school, so students assume that research + presenting the acquired knowledge = successful essay. Unfortunately, the successful university essay formula is not quite so simple.

From IELTS to University: The right essay formula

In fact, a university essay question expects a student to report on a debate. This is a crucial difference in emphasis from a high school essay question, which is more focused on quantity and quality of topic knowledge. In contrast, a university question is equally interested in the source of the knowledge and the knowledge. It sees knowledge as a product of professional research and thinking – specialised work performed by lecturers and professors in universities who often reach different conclusions and disagree with each other. So, universities expect students to hold a view of knowledge as constructed of arguments which compete for credibility and validity. As a result, when a student presents knowledge in a university essay, the presentation needs to be in terms of the various arguments which are integral to the topic.

This fundamental perspective on the nature of knowledge is what many students do not fully understand when they arrive at university. It is this perspective which makes referencing so important in essays, which is another new and often challenging area for students. It is via referencing that the writer shows their sources of information and thereby the quality and range of the knowledge which their essay presents.

From IELTS to University:  How vs What in research

The focus in research teaching is on how to research. For example, a research skills syllabus will include how to use the university library, both in the physical sense of introducing the students to the range  of learning resources available; and in a digital sense, in terms of introducing students to use search functions to explore various archives and databases.  This focus is necessary and of great value but it doesn’t acknowledge the problem we’re exploring here today.

In fact, students struggle greatly with the issue of what to research. For them, research produces a confusing mix of academic books and journal articles, all of which contain topic-relevant information for their question, but information which is difficult to unify and create an overall level of understanding from. Students, struggling to identify the boundaries of their topic, can become lost here and submit essays which seem full of random points to the academics who mark them.

This problem is particularly acute for international students in the first year of study, and also for international students entering MA courses. In both cases, the reasons why are pretty similar: native students have been introduced to the basic arguments in either their high school A-Level courses, or on their undergraduate courses in the subject. International students, however, may have studied a a final high school curriculum, or undergraduate curriculum, which has not introduced the basic ideas developed in the western university curriculum. So, the problem of acquiring an introductory understanding of a debate becomes more pressing.

From IELTS to University: Finding the Debate

My favourite solution is year one undergraduate coursebooks. Subjects often have coursebooks with titles like ‘Introduction to Marketing’ or ‘Principles of Psychology’. These have hundreds of pages and are designed to be easy to navigate, with section synopses, chapter summaries or abstracts and clearly annotated diagrams. These books invariably outline the standard arguments around each model or theory so providing the necessary context for wider research and any sources already found.

One common pattern in academic studies is the existence of a ‘mothership’ theory. This then prompts others to argue against it, and these critics then generate further theories which seek to correct the limitations of the original theory. For example, in management studies Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is an example of a ‘mothership’ theory, and Alderfer’s ERG theory is a later response to it. The point is that it is this kind of context which students need to understand when researching an essay. Using the above example, if a student was to write an essay about motivation which discussed Alderfer’s ERG theory but not Maslow’s theory, then that would be a significant problem.

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