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Developing Writing in STEM Disciplines

Lead Institution: University of Bath
Collaborating with: University of Limerick, University College London, Coventry University, University of the West of England, Oxford Brookes University, Plymouth University, University of Exeter

Summary of Research Findings

Some highlights of the project’s Strand 1 research findings and recommendations

A detailed questionnaire survey of 59 engineering placement students and 43 industrial supervisors of placement students yielded the following findings:

Students and industrial supervisors agreed:      

  • That students’oral skills were rated slightly more important than writing abilities, which were of similar importance to information technology skills.
  • In terms of writing skills, the ability to write clear and concise reports, whether for internal or external readerships, was regarded as most important.
  • The following writing-related elements were rated in decreasing order of importance:
  1. correct spelling, punctuation and grammar
  2. writing style and content being well matched to the document’s readership
  3. the document’s visual appearance 
  4. integration of text with visual elements

 Student and industrial supervisors differed:

In their perception of the degree to which placement students communicated with clients, and the range of writing activities they engaged in, in comparison to graduate employees:

  • Students thought they engaged in a similar range of writing activities compared to graduate employees and that their engagement with clients was also at a similar level 
  • Supervisors considered that placement students’ engagement in both was significantly less than that of graduate employees.

These findings have implications for the development of graduates’ writing abilities, since the final year of undergraduate degree programmes focus more on academic requirements, and rather less on non-academic employability.

Students and supervisors agree:

  • That schools and universities should play the major role in preparing students for the writing they do on placement
  • In addition, employers of engineering graduates regard schools and universities as playing the major role in preparing graduates for employment

Overall, the findings of the questionnaire surveys of students and industrial supervisors, and the interviews with university staff, suggest that most people have an instrumental, skills-focused view of writing.


  1. Review assignments within undergraduate programmes for their writing content, making the invisible visible, the implicit explicit e.g. highlighting elements from: purpose, voice, viewpoint, readership, code (format, structure and style). Doing so does not necessarily involve markedly redesigning assignments, but may well involve providing explicit guidance in setting up a task, and explicit writing-related assessment criteria.
  2. Actively support students’ development of writing abilities, values, attitudes and identities across all years of the undergraduate programme (to lay a firm foundation for the final year dissertation and employment beyond)
  3. Adopt good practice for formative and summative feedback about writing, including peer review
  4. Continue to explore ways in which employers’ views and practice might inform undergraduate programmes e.g. their presence on teaching advisory boards, providing exemplars of the kinds of publications their organization produces, making explicit their expectations for the writing standards of placement students and graduate employees 

Take home messages:

  • Use a writing development model (e.g. IPACE) to make more explicit the requirements for a given assignment or module
  • Scaffold development of identity and appropriate abilities, values and attitudes across the undergraduate programme, so that when students emerge as graduates, they are more confident, more well-rounded writers, able to meet the demands within their discipline and of a wide variety of employers
  • And along the way writing will have served as a powerful vehicle for helping students develop a deep understanding of, and an identity within, their discipline


Trevor Day, 31 October 2011

Staff involved

Dr Trevor Day
Project lead, University of Bath

Dr Íde O'Sullivan
University of Limerick

Dr Karen Bultitude
University College London

Dr Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams
Coventry University

Dr Margarida Sardo
University of the West of England

Dr Mary Deane
Oxford Brookes University

John Hilsdon
Plymouth University

Lawrence Cleary
University of Limerick

Rachel Canter
University of Exeter