Jul 072014

Report WritingReport writing is an area of writing that should be expanded upon in undergraduate courses in academia. I frequently explain to my students that the majority of writing that they are likely to do in their professional careers will be report writing. Yet, universities don’t seem to value this as a skill as much as the professional world does. Report writing, and highly technical writing underpins all other writing types and formats promoted and necessitated and prioritised by universities. Even many purely research oriented journal articles are actually in a report format, so I don’t understand why it has become the black sheep of undergraduate course assessments.

Despite the importance of report writing, and the structured nature of report writing, it is the format that I find my students struggle with the most. Even mature age students who have written reports in the private sector, or for government, tend to fall apart when confronted with writing reports for an undergraduate course.

I understand that essays, critiques and analyses providing summaries and carrying arguments are important and are the backbone of undergraduate assessments. However, these can be present in reports as well. The fact that a report is structured seems to make it seem much more elementary than other writing formats. But for mine, it is the basis for presenting and demonstrating primary evidence – whether this is qualitative or quantitative.

Specificity, accuracy and succinctness are great skills developed and assisted by practice in report writing. Students who hide a lack of understanding with wordiness and vagueness tend to struggle with report writing due to the nature of what is required. Assessing report writing in an undergraduate course would encourage students to learn to focus their writing, and promote a balanced approach to argument.

Report writing is also as varied and adaptable as the other writing formats promoted in undergraduate courses. Reports can be generated for the representation of data, for the documentation of a process, or for providing recommendations and conclusions to an audience.

Being able to demonstrate ability to present primary evidence is something I would like all of my students to be able to achieve. The rise of evaluations for research programmes, community programmes, or projects undertaken by the private sector in my opinion necessitate a greater emphasis on teaching the basic parameters of report writing in greater depth.

Although I studied various science subjects, social sciences and humanities over the course over my studies, it wasn’t until I began working as a research assistant, and writing reports and evaluations for government, that I felt comfortable with writing reports. Apart from publications, I can’t remember writing anything else – which I find strange when I look at what is required in undergraduate courses.

So what do my students struggle with when writing reports?

Abstracts are the biggest problems that students face. Somewhere between an introduction and an executive summary, the abstract is hung out to dry. An executive summary is something that should be promoted as a tool to be used as an assessment piece, in and of itself, but I digress. I find that students haven’t read enough peer reviewed material to be able to write successful abstracts. Writing abstracts for students will be the subject of another post, as it is worthy of more discussion than what I can offer here.

Introductions are also problematic for many students, strangely enough. In reality, an introduction for a report should be no different to an essay or other format – just that it is structured differently. And this is where I believe reports should be used more frequently in higher education, because in the process of writing a report, students are forced to state their hypothesis or what they are attempting to prove/ disprove. The matter of factness of stating the intentions of what is being written and presented is not something that is done well by undergraduate students.

The inability to write in this way has consequences once students become involved in their own research, through further study or as a research assistant. I know that I had problems with this, and it probably took me the entire length of my thesis to realise this flaw.

The presentation of data is also something that students struggle with. It’s quite often lumped in without much thought given to it. There is often no lead in to the results presented, or context provided. Results and data are simply thrown in without much thought as to how they are to be interpreted. It’s perhaps my most common feedback in report writing assessments – that data in tables and figures must be referred to in the text of the document.

Discussions are an area where students really need a lot of guidance to be able to extend the concepts that they are analysing in their report. I don’t understand why this is so difficult for students. It’s essentially a mini essay within the report, which students should already be familiar with. However, it requires dovetailing and being tied into the investigation, experiment or other process which produces the primary evidence.

What are the opportunities for promoting report writing?

A lot is made of the technological savvy of generation y. For mine, the ability to be creative, using new technologies and data tools is an area on which this generation should actually focus. I would like to see new ways of analysis and presentation of data. Using traditional data tools and new tools alike to present and promote data in new and interesting ways. Presentation and explanation of data as a standalone assessment piece, is something I think should be promoted more explicitly in undergraduate courses.

There is a perception that report writing should be formulaic, traditional and ritualised. I think this has led to most reports going left unread and unused in the workplace. But they are an untapped resource, especially for promotional or corporate education purposes. I want to see my students playing around with different data visualisation techniques. I want to see them be able to show potential employers that they can reinterpret “boring” reports and evaluations in new and interesting ways. We live in a world which is data driven, and data is demanded by bosses and management. But we also live in a world where this data is hidden, and underutilised.

Using elements of reports as assessment items that will be required in the workforce is the area of opportunity. Students are going to demand to be provided with relevant skills to what they will require once in the workforce. I can’t think of anytime I have been asked to write an essay. But I have been asked to write evaluations, procedures and policies. All of these are potential ways to integrate report writing as an assessment task within an undergraduate degree course, which will provide long lasting value to students.

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