Jan-Mikael Rybicki, Lecturer of English, Aalto University School of Science and Technology / Language Centre
Ken Pennington, Lecturer of English, Aalto University School of Science and Technology / Language Centre
Juhana Nieminen, Amanuensis, Aalto University School of Science and Technology / Language Centre
Each engineering student at Aalto University is required to demonstrate their proficiency in a foreign language. Currently, English is the most popular language chosen by students.
This case study focuses on an English writing course offered by the Language Centre at Aalto University School of Science and Technology: Kie-98.1112 Writing in Technology. The course was launched in autumn 2008 and has been offered as the main English writing course at the undergraduate level. The participants of the course come from various fields of engineering.
This introductory writing course aims to help students produce well-structured, reader-friendly texts. In the working life as well as in this course, engineers need to communicate with non-experts (e.g. other specialists, designers, managers, and customers). In order to communicate effectively, engineers need to employ proper strategies for communicating their expert knowledge to non-experts. Therefore, this writing course focuses on teaching the engineering students a set of general principles that facilitate communication across disciplines.
Upon successful completion of the course, students will be able to:
• recognize and apply patterns for organizing information to form reader-friendly texts
• use the comma, colon and hyphen to avoid ambiguity and group information
• apply appropriate strategies for revising ineffective sentences
• distinguish between formal and informal vocabulary, language structures and stylistic conventions.
This introductory writing course is recommended for students who have already acquired some knowledge in their field of study. In addition, students should have a fairly good command of English (B2 or higher on the CEFR scale) to cope with the writing assignments.
The course consists of 11 small group sessions (11 x 135 mins, total 33 hours), independent study (19 hours), a midterm exam, and the final exam (two hours). The length of a standard course is approximately 12 weeks, and the intensive courses last six weeks.
The course contents consist of the following main topics:
• Readability principles: Given-new and light-before-heavy principle, topicalization
• Paragraph structure and patterns: topic sentences, extended definition, comparison/contrast, enumeration, problem-solution
• Style: formalizing vocabulary, expressions and grammar
• Punctuation in formal writing
Each lesson focuses on a certain topic or theme. Typically, in-class activities cover text analysis, exercises, group work, and lecturing. At home, each student writes a total of seven short writing assignments, including rewritten assignments. The assignments are introduced either weekly or every second week. A typical writing assignment has a length of 100-250 words. The writing assignments allow students to focus on their own field of study. The writing assignments are always related to the topics discussed during lessons, and students then apply the learned strategies in their writing.
At least two writing assignments are rewritten according to the feedback provided by the teacher using the mComment software program. In some cases, students also receive peer feedback from other students.
Students are required to attend lessons regularly and complete all the writing assignments. Students are graded according to the following criteria: seven written assignments (total 50% of the final grade), a midterm exam (15%), and the final exam (35%).
The seven writing assignments are graded pass or fail. A future aim is to establish detailed evaluation criteria for these writing assignments, allowing systematic grading using a set scale. The mComment software includes functions that allow the teacher to comment and grade texts systematically.
Both the midterm and final exams aim to test students’ ability to apply the principles of readability covered during the course. Most of the exam assignments are controlled and easily testable. Assignments include
• rewriting of ineffective sentences and paragraphs
• filling in blanks
• replacing informal expression with formal ones
• punctuating sentences
This blended course has been running for a relatively short period of time. This discussion focuses on benefits and drawbacks of the mComment software program used for providing students with feedback on their writing.
The decision to use and develop mComment text commenting arose from the assumption that students would benefit from personal, detailed and pertinent feedback, and clear explanations for improvement. The writing teachers conducted a survey in December 2009 of the students in the course. The questionnaire was used to gather students’ perceptions of mComment software for providing feedback on writing. The results suggest students were overall pleased with the feedback they received and felt it helped them to improve their writing. The survey also indicated that students had not previously had such feedback in their other classes.
Areas for improvement
• The learning achievements need to be assessed: Do students learn better with these blended teaching methods? When is it most effective and when would other methods be more appropriate?
• The course needs more credits. Particularly, the weaker students would need more time for learning than the current 2 ECTS (52 hrs) allocated for the course.
• Providing feedback still is a time-consuming process for educators.
• Learning goals need to be refined and assessment methods for writing assignments need to be more developed.
• The usability of mComment needs to be investigated and researchers should be hired to study its effectiveness.
Overall, the new writing course seems to have aroused the interest of the engineering community at Aalto University on the importance of good writing skills. The demand for writing has been constantly increasing especially at the Master’s and post-graduate levels. This could indicate that the efforts invested in these courses have managed to convince the local scientific community of the advantages of clear writing.