Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Graduate Writing Assignments across Faculties in a Canadian University

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Graduate Writing Assignments across Faculties in a Canadian University

Article excerpt

Writing skills have been rated important in graduate education (Bridgeman & Carlson, 1984). To contextualize the present study, we reviewed previous studies that explored the particularities and types of university writing assignments. Among these studies, we identified a group of surveys that classified large quantities of cross-discipline writing tasks based on assignment handouts, course syllabi, and/or student writing samples. These studies contribute to our knowledge of a larger picture of university writing assignments compared to studies of university writing based on ethnographic research (e.g., Prior, 1998), writing tasks in a specific discipline like business (Canseco & Byrd, 1989; Zhu, 2004), or a questionnaire survey among faculty members (e.g., Bridgeman & Carlson, 1984). However, only one of the large-scale surveys explored graduate writing tasks across disciplines (Cooper & Bikowski, 2007); the rest all focused on undergraduate (Braine, 1989; Horowitz, 1986) or both graduate and undergraduate writing (Gardener & Nesi, 2013; Hale, Taylor, Bridgeman, Carson, Kroll, & Kantor, 1996; Melzer, 2009; Moore & Morton, 2005). Those focused on either undergraduate or graduate writing were studies of single institutions in the US, whereas those which explored both undergraduate and graduate writing were national studies involving multiple institutions in Australia (Moore & Morton, 2005), Britain (Gardner & Nesi, 2013), the US (Melzer, 2009), and the US and Canada (Hale et al., 1996). Following Cooper and Bikowski (2007), who stress the importance of investigating graduate courses across disciplines, this study analyzes and compares 143 graduate assignments based on handouts or course syllabi across 12 faculties or schools in a Canadian university. The purpose is to fill in the gap in survey studies on graduate writing tasks in order to generate information for EAP writing programs, which help students with graduate writing, and researchers interested in the types of graduate writing assignments.

Previous Classifications of University Writing Assignments

Undergraduate Writing Tasks

In previous research on classifications of university writing assignments, two influential studies focused on undergraduate writing tasks: Horowitz (1986) examined 54 writing assignments from 29 courses (28 undergraduate and one graduate) in 17 departments in a US university, whereas Braine (1989), in another US university, examined 61 nonexamination writing tasks from ten undergraduate science and technology courses, as well as student papers written in response to each type of assignment. Horowitz's data introduced seven categories of writing tasks:

* summary of/reaction to a reading

* annotated bibliography

* report on a specified participatory experience

* connection of theory and data

* case study

* synthesis of multiple sources

* research project

Among these categories, synthesis of multiple sources (15 = 28%) was the most frequently assigned. Of the 54 assignments, 35 required students to find, organize, and present data according to fairly explicit instructions. Following Horowitz's taxonomy of writing tasks, Braine analyzed his data and added a new category: report on a simulated participatory experience, which required no activity to obtain data. Most of the writing tasks (52 out of 61), such as lab or technical reports, fit into the category of report on a specified participatory experience. Many of these tasks also specified an audience beyond the classroom. Because of the large proportion of such writing tasks, Braine indicated the necessity of making a close examination of the skills required in completing such writing tasks. Due to a focus on undergraduate courses in both studies, it is important to find out if the relevant findings apply to graduate courses.

Graduate Writing Tasks

With a focus on graduate assignments to inform the needs of international students at a large American university, Cooper and Bikowski (2007) analyzed 200 course syllabi from 20 departments with high international student enrollment, including electrical engineering, international studies, physics, and educational studies, and did follow-up interviews to help categorize ambiguous assignments. …

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