Student Writing and Assessment Practices: combining corpus linguistics and in-depth interviews to investigate assessment in a distance university context

Leedham, Maria; Tuck, Jackie; Shrestha, Prithvi; Therova, Dana and Ullmann, Thomas (2023). Student Writing and Assessment Practices: combining corpus linguistics and in-depth interviews to investigate assessment in a distance university context. In: Assessment in Higher Education, 22-23 Jun 2023, Manchester, UK.


Distance learning in Higher Education is used increasingly worldwide, particularly post-pandemic, yet little is known about distance students’ assessed written texts or about tutor feedback on their texts. Much recent work in this field is based on general academic writing corpora; for example, the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus which comprises 3000 student assignments (6.5 million words) written between 2000 and 2007 (Nesi and Gardner, 2012). The current project is compiling data from undergraduate assignments written in a distance learning context over a five-year period to 2022 and will provide insights into contemporary academic writing for assessment. The study aims to compile an innovative 4-million-word corpus of contemporary distance university undergraduate writing across four contrasting disciplines (Business, Engineering, History and Childhood Studies). Contextual student data such as disability, carer status, prior education level and socio-economic status are being collected alongside the corpus. Corpus analysis will be combined with in-depth, text-oriented interviews to explore student writing.

In addition to the student writing corpus, a tutor-assessor feedback corpus (comprising both on-script and summary comments) is being created. Corpus analysis will enable comparisons of sections of both the student texts corpus and the assessor feedback corpus by different contextual information points: for example, comparison of student writing in History and in Engineering, comparison of tutor feedback on texts by students who do or do not declare a disability. This ability to cut through the data in multiple ways provides a unique opportunity to generate insights into student writing and marker feedback with respect to assessment genres and disciplines, but also to explore links between writing, achievement and equity in a distance learning university context.

The capacity of corpus analysis to construct a ‘bigger picture’ of the features of distance learning undergraduate writing will be complemented by in-depth exploration of the practices and perspectives of a small number of tutor-assessors. Two tutor-assessors per discipline will be interviewed with a focus on specific student texts, informed by early findings from both student writing and tutor feedback corpora. Investigating tutor feedback practices will contribute to the emerging scholarship on ‘feedback spiral’ (Carless, 2019) and evaluative language in feedback (Shrestha, 2022).

Key References

Carless, D. (2019). Feedback loops and the longer-term: towards feedback spirals. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(5), 705-714.

Nesi, H., and S. Gardner. (2012). Genres across the Disciplines: Student Writing in Higher Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, S., and J. Holmes. (2009). 'Can I use headings in my essay? Section headings, macrostructures and genre families in the BAWE corpus of student writing'. in M. Charles, S. Hunston & D. Pecorari (eds.), At the Interface of Corpus and Discourse: Analysing Academic Discourses. London

Nesi, H. & Gardner, S. (2018) The BAWE Corpus and Genre Families Classification of Assessed Student Writing. Assessing Writing Vol 38, pp 51-55

Shrestha, P. N. (2022). Examining evaluative language used in assessment feedback on business students’ academic writing. Assessing Writing, 54, 100664.

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