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Developing writing competence in IT-engineering

students
Aletta Nylén
Department of Information Technology
Uppsala University
Uppsala, Sweden
aletta.nylen@it.uu.se

Abstract—The ability to present technical material and results In this work, we share our experiences from the first two
in writing is a necessary competence for professional engineers. years of running the writing program. Some of these
In this work, we present a three-year program aiming at observations are specific to writing skills development while
developing writing competence in IT-engineering students at a others can potentially apply to any program for professional
Swedish university and preliminary results from running the skills development. In particular, most of this work is
program for two years. The program is a writing across the applicable to oral communication skills development.
curriculum program where writing is practiced in the discipline,
i.e., in regular information technology courses spread throughout
the education. It has affected the attitude towards writing in both II. BACKGROUND
faculty and students resulting in students having a better The IT engineering program at Uppsala University, in
understanding of how to write and why it matters. likeness with other engineering programs, aim at educating
students to become competent professionals. This means that
Keywords— engineering education; professional competences; the students do not only have to learn their core subject, they
WAC;
also have to develop a number of competencies that are
essential to professionals. We refer to OECD [6] for a
I. INTRODUCTION definition of a competency:
A professional engineer needs to be proficient in writing to “A competency is more than just knowledge and skills. It
be able to successfully e.g., pitch ideas, describe solutions and involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on
report results. Engineering students need to acquire the and mobilizing psychosocial resources (including skills and
necessary writing skills and become acquainted with different attitudes) in a particular context.”
types of texts during their education. The American Computing
and Accreditation Commission (ABET) acknowledges this, In this work, we focus on written communication ability for
e.g., in their general criteria for accrediting engineering IT engineers, which OECD describes by
technology programs [1] where “an ability to apply written, “the ability to communicate effectively is a competency
oral, and graphical communication in both technical and non- that may draw on an individual’s knowledge of language,
technical environments; and an ability to identify and use practical IT skills and attitudes towards those with whom he or
appropriate technical literature;” is listed as a required student she is communicating”.
outcome. The primary focus of this work is development of
writing competency in higher education. To graduate from engineering programs at Uppsala
University, the students must
In the literature, there are two main approaches to teaching
written communication – those where it is taught in dedicated “demonstrate ability in both national and international
courses [2] [3] and those based on writing across the contexts, to, orally and in writing, in dialogue with different
curriculum (WAC) [4], where teaching is done in several groups, clearly present and discuss their conclusions and the
courses throughout the education. Furthermore, writing can be knowledge and arguments that form the basis for these.” 1 [7]
taught in general language courses or in core subject courses,
This requires students to be skilled at writing within their
within the discipline (WID), where it can serve both to enhance
subject, and to be able to adopt their texts to different situations
learning and to practice professional activities [5].
and different audiences.
In 2012, an initiative intended to strengthen the
Study programs at Uppsala University, typically consist of
development of writing skills in IT engineering students was
a collection of courses, most of which are in the program’s core
taken at Uppsala University. The initiative consists of a
subject. Before 2012, isolated efforts of including professional
WAC/WID program and aims at supporting teachers in
skills development in courses in the IT engineering program,
providing students with opportunities and conditions for
writing skills development in computer science courses during
the first three years of studies.
1
Translation from Swedish.

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had been done, but there had been no previous attempt to C. Instructions, feedback and reflection.
structure this development across the education. Moore concludes that without proper instructions, guidance
In early 2012, we explored the students’ view on the and feedback, the only effect of writing assignments is to
writing education in the IT engineering program at that time, reinforce bad writing [9]. He also argues that with proper
by conducting a survey. The results are presented in detail in guidance, students show significant improvements both in
[8]. The survey revealed a number of problem areas which the writing skills and in content knowledge. For oral presentations,
communication program, that was subsequently developed, aim [14] report getting good skill development when using a
at addressing. combination of practice, reflection and peer review. In [15], the
authors report that letting students reflect on their own work, in
The survey showed that writing practice is useful and that addition to formal assessment advances the development of
we need to make sure that the students get more of it. It also professional competencies in general, why it is reasonable to
showed that not all students learn from practice alone, and for assume that this applies to development of writing competence.
that reason, feedback is very important. This result agrees with
what is written about the need for feedback in [9]. D. Progression.
The students expressed a general feeling that writing is We believe that it is not only important that students
important but their image of how it will be used in their future practice writing regularly and that they get feedback. In order
profession was not clear. In order to get through to students for the students to continue progressing over time, it is
with the communication education that is provided, examples important that the level of writing required in assignments
of different kinds of professional communication is presented increases as the students mature. The feedback should also
during the education. meet students at their current level and promote further
The survey revealed a discrepancy between the students’ development.
perception of the quality of their writing and the teachers’ To ensure that IT engineering students at Uppsala
perception, the students rated themselves higher than the University are subject to reoccurring writing practice, writing
teacher. Our interpretation of the result is that students rated proficiency is a prioritized learning outcome for at least two
their general writing skills while teachers rated the students’ core subject courses each of the first three years of studies. To
academic and discipline specific writing skills. This effect is encourage progressive development, learning outcomes for
based in the students’ poor understanding of what writing in writing at different course levels have been defined. A detailed
their subject is and the result showed a need for improved description and an analysis of the learning outcomes in relation
communication education. to competencies that are needed to fulfill them are presented in
[16].
III. BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE WRITING PROGRAM Factors like restricted time, limited access to information
The program aims at improving the written communication and the stressful situation makes assessing professional skills
skills of IT engineering students and primarily targets through traditional exams difficult [17]. In this approach,
communication concerning technical matters. It is implemented writing is therefore practiced and assessed in assignments,
in the first three years of the students’ education, which at where students have time to work on written material. The
Uppsala University corresponds studies up to the level of the students encounter a variety of kinds of writing assignments,
Bachelor thesis. The program builds on the following e.g., paper reviews, project proposals, lab reports, project
principles: reports, etc. A categorization of student writing with particular
examples of assignments in each category is presented in [18].
A. Frequent practice.
Students need reoccurring opportunities to work on TABLE I. COURSES WITH WRITING ASSIGNMENTS.
improving their communication skills. Students that are Year Course
exposed to different writing assignments throughout their 1 Introduction to information technology
studies perceive improvement in writing skills [10]. 1 Program design and datastructures
2 Imperative and object-oriented programming methodology
B. Practice within the subject. 2 Operating systems and multicore programming
3 Database design I
Skills achieved in dedicated courses are not necessarily 3 Independent project in information engineering
transferred to other contexts [11]. This means that general
language courses may not have the desired impact on the
students’ development in professional communication, which
is in their core subject. In addition to being ways of IV. IMPLEMENTATION
communicating, writing, explaining and discussing are also
ways of learning [12] and help to form the professional identity This section describes the current state of the writing
[13]. If the practice is not performed within the discipline, program. It describes assignments in different courses and
these advantages will be lost. initiatives taken to support teachers in this work. TABLE I.
presents the courses that were selected for writing practice and
how they are distributed over the first tree years of studies. In
most of these courses, the teachers were supported in

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constructing writing assignments. In some, assessment support D. Theoretical content
was provided. In the course Database Design I, writing practice occurs in
the form of a report that describes a computer lab that utilizes a
A. Introduction to academic writing in computer science large part of the theoretical content of the course. The task
Introduction to Information Technology is the very first requires students to define and explain the concepts used,
course in the IT engineering program. In this course, the main describe their database design, using theory to justify their
focus is to provide students with an understanding of what design decisions and describe the implementation. The students
academic writing is and what is specific to writing in computer give each other structured feedback that is commented and
science. Effort is also put into exposing students to different complimented by teachers.
types of texts that they are likely to encounter during their
studies and in their future profession. The following activities E. Support for teachers
were implemented in the course: In cooperation with the university’s writing center, a
• Lectures on academic writing (in collaboration workshop for teachers was organized. Topics that were
with the university’s writing center) and on discussed were the need for writing practice in courses, design
computer science writing of writing assignments, different ways of working with student
writing and support is available for students and teachers.
• Reading technical reports and analyzing them with Teachers were given the opportunity to discuss their writing
regard to structure, content, level of explanations, assignment designs with specialists from the writing center.
definitions, etc. The concept of scientific method
is discussed. In many courses the student groups are large and thus
teachers need assistance in assessing and giving feedback on
• Writing definitions of computer science concepts written assignments. For that purpose, courses where students
and small project proposals. Oral feedback. in year 3-5 are taught to do this have been organized. These
students have then assisted teachers in courses, mainly by
• Writing a report describing a fictive system. In providing written feedback with regard to the text quality and
addition to describing the technique, the report not on the subject content.
should cover societal, usability and ethical aspects.
Written feedback focusing on text structure,
language and referencing. V. RESULTS
We will now discuss some preliminary results and
B. Describing their own work observations from the first two years of the WAC/WID
The next step in the writing training takes place in the program.
course Program Design and Data Structures, a programming
course. The focus of this step is for students to practice A. Changing teahers’ attitudes towards teaching writing
describing their own work and the task is to write a report that An important part of this work has been to discuss writing
describes a programming project undertaken in the course. At and its role and place in the curriculum with teaching staff with
this course level, the students also start giving feedback on the aim of ensuring that every single teacher has the ability and
each other's texts. In this first course, feedback is given using a desire to contribute to developing the students’ writing
fairly simple form where the students provide feedback on a competence. Previously, teaching the main course content was
small number of predetermined aspects of the text. In the only concern for many teachers and they neither taught
preparation, the students are given a short lecture in which the writing nor commented on the quality of the students written
basic principles of computer science academic writing is communication in their courses. Previous literature [18] [19]
repeated and linked to the current task. Objectives and report that IT faculty hesitate to grade writing since they do not
principles for giving and receiving feedback are also presented. have language expertise and since they consider evaluating
writing to be a tedious task.
C. Different types of texts
These discussions have resulted in more teachers being
In the course Operating Systems and Multicore interested in introducing written assignments in their courses.
Programming students undertake programming projects that They have also resulted in an increased demand for support
are larger than in previous courses. They write a project regarding how to construct assignments and give feedback on
proposal at the beginning of the project and a full project report writing.
at the end. One of the texts is written in Swedish and the other
in English and writing is done in groups. The students give B. Quality of student texts
feedback on each other’s reports, but in this course they get a
number of possible aspects, among which they choose a few to It is too early to draw conclusions about how this work has
give feedback on. The university’s writing center contributes affected the quality of student writing since no student group
with a lecture, introducing the writing assignments, and has gone through the whole 3-year program yet. We will
additional feedback on the project proposal. present preliminary observations based on a random selection
of reports by students in year 1 and 3 together with feedback
given to the whole student body in courses in year 1 and, 3. All
student texts and feedback are from courses given in the

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