Layering methods to analyse the relationship between language use and attainment among Open University undergraduate students

Leedham, Maria; Adinolfi, Lina and Erling, Elizabeth (2010). Layering methods to analyse the relationship between language use and attainment among Open University undergraduate students. In: WDHE (Writing Development in Higher Education), 28-30 Jun 2010, London.



It is increasingly recognised that assessed writing at undergraduate level is a ‘high stakes' activity… If there are ‘problems' in writing, then the student is likely to fail’ (Lillis and Scott, 2007: p.9). However, there has been relatively little work on the correlation between undergraduate students' writing and their academic attainment. This paper reports on a project which employs a layering of research methods to investigate the relationship between the written language and the academic attainment of Open University undergraduate students on a health and social care course.
The initial research process (Erling, 2009) investigated students' writing from courses in three different disciplines. This involved a combination of ethnographic investigation and textual analysis, the latter by means of the Measuring the Academic Skills of University Students (MASUS) procedure, a tool developed to explore the nature of academic writing in the 1990s at the University of Sydney's Language Centre (Bonnano and Jones, 1997). The results of the MASUS textual analysis indicated that students' use of language correlated with their attainment. The analysis also generated descriptions of some of the features of highly valued academic style.
In this paper, we report on a subsequent investigation involving a corpus-based linguistic analysis of the lexical chunks used in students' writing in one of the three disciplines (health and social care). We will compare this with an intuitive analysis of the chunks used in the same data (Adinolfi, forthcoming); this dual procedure for identifying lexical chunks in written corpora follows Leedham (2010). Preliminary analysis of the data suggests that students make more use of longer contiguous chunks as they proceed through the course.
The final stage in this research will be to compare students' use of academic-writing-related chunks, as measured by corpus tools and intuition, against the original MASUS assessments of proficiency to see how far they align. By layering methods in this way, we hope to gain deeper insights into the prestige features of academic language, while developing a range of tools to identify student texts which are not (re-) producing this valued style. The ethnographic data collected in the early stages of the project might then contribute to an understanding of why some students are more successful at producing the type of language that is valued by assessors within a particular discipline.

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