Differences between Writing in Second-and Third-level Education
Assuming Responsibility for One’s Own Learning
Comments from students transitioning from second- to third-level writing assignments usually focus on their emotional response to the grades and feedback they get on their first written assignments, usually one of shock or disbelief — “What did I do wrong?” would be the question that might emerge in response.
Depending on Secondary School Methods
Early career third-level students often rely on strategies that they learned in secondary education, and many of these strategies will stand them well when writing for the Junior or Leaving Cycle exams. For instance, students report that a strategy they get from their secondary education teachers is ‘point, quote, explain’ (PQE). That is a very useful strategy in higher education as well. Naturally, students who plop a quote into the paper without forecasting it or without explaining its significance—how it demonstrates a point or supports the writer’s assertions—are not going to do as well in third-level assessment as those who give the quote some context in terms of the points that are being made and the argument those points support. Other strategies such as the five-paragraph essay or the use of lots of adjectives to impress the reader with their descriptive abilities, to name just a few, may work in a leaving certification exam, but are not conducive to good grades in third-level performance. And students that rely on these strategies in third-level education are often left bewildered by the response from assessors. If these strategies are not working, what strategies will work here in this new context for writing?
Difficulty of the transition
It is difficult to blame a student transitioning from second- to third-level education for relying on what worked in secondary school. After all, the goal of both educational institutions is to assess student learning and assign grades based on performance, so what is the difference? Here, in part one of a four-part series on what to expect when writing in third level, I am going to talk about one main difference, the level of responsibility assumed by third-level students. In three other parts of this series, I will also speak about differences between second and third level in terms of the way learning is measured, the contextualised nature of academic discourse at third level, and the attitude assumed in third-level scholarly discourse.
Responsibility for your own Learning
Possibly the greatest difference is thought to be that third-level educators perceive their students to be adults and, therefore, responsible for their own learning. If an assignment is unclear to the student, it is the job of the student to seek out the information they need in order to understand the assignment. Writing and learning centres in third-level institutions can give students some strategies for analysing writing assignments (often referred to as ‘titles’). Another strategy that successful third-level writers employ when they don’t understand an assignment is to visit the lecturer who issued the assignment, either by visiting during the lecturer’s office hours or by making an appointment for a teacher/student conference, where they can ask questions about the learning that is being measured and the goal of the assignment in terms of showing engagement with the community who discourse on the problem that is the subject of the paper.
What to focus on
It is important to understand that, in third-level discourse, a topic is not something like ‘women in the military’, about which there are endless things to talk about, but more like ‘Should women in the military engage in combat alongside men?’, where there is an ethical, possibly moral, position to be taken and defended. In third-level writing assignments, it is expected that the student’s paper will address a problem in the field. Topics are problems, questions that need to be answered, positions to be defended or hypotheses that need to be tested in order to affirm or negate them. Problems in third-level academic disciplines either take the form of a gap in the knowledge field or a point about which there is debate. Students either attempt to understand what is going on in that gap, possibly through experiments or case studies or some other form of primary research, or study the various positions taken on a contested issue and develop their own position on the problem, basing their defence on sound reasoning and retrievable, credible evidence.
Director, Regional Writing Centre
University of Limerick,