Combining methods to analyse the relationship between language and attainment among Open University students

Erling, Elizabeth; Leedham, Maria and Adinolfi, Lina (2010). Combining methods to analyse the relationship between language and attainment among Open University students. In: Ethnographies of Academic Writing in a Global Context: the Politics of Style, 16 Jul 2010, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.


National policies aimed at widening participation in higher education, together with financial pressures on universities and colleges to recruit internationally, have led to an increasingly diverse student population. However, the students at whom such policies tend to be aimed (often those from ethnic minorities) tend to achieve poorer results in UK universities both generally (Richardson, 2008) and specifically at the Open University (Richardson, 2009). This paper reports on a research project designed to investigate whether variations in students’ writing skills might be responsible for the attainment gap between White and ethnic minority students (Erling, 2009).
Through this research, we aim to create a space where language and subject specialists collaborate to identify the type of language that is valued by assessors in a particular discipline and then to identify together to what extent students produce this language. The initial research process combined textual analysis with ethnographic investigation and was carried out by means of the MASUS procedure (Measuring the Academic Skills of University Students) (Bonnano and Jones 1997). The ethnographic dimension of the research involved the researchers familiarising themselves with course materials, attending tutorials, discussing texts with subject specialists and conducting interviews with students.
The results of the textual analysis indicate that students’ use of language correlates with attainment. They also indicate that ethnic minority students are more likely to be deemed as needing academic writing support in producing the genres expected in the OU’s assignment criteria. The analysis generated detailed descriptions of the features of highly valued academic style.
The ethnographic methods give insight into the complex range of factors that contribute to students’ success and feelings of belonging within the university as well as other (non-academic) interests and goals which students may have.

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