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.

May 082014

TurnitinTurnitin is the bane of many student’s and lecturer’s existence. But I am in the camp where Turnitin is one of the best advances in technology in academia since I became a University student. I am all for using technology to assist with writing. And used correctly, Turnitin is an extremely useful tool for improving the standard of written work. Turnitin is extremely useful as a teaching, correction and writing coaching tool. Primarily, Turnitin is a plagiarism detection tool and method for assigning marks and correcting work. However, it is most effective in its instruction and self correction abilities.

Turnitin does have its flaws which do irritate students and those marking – the classic being the assignment cover sheet reading as a plagiarised section. The similarity report (the overall “plagiarism” percentage) will also depend upon the order in which the assessment was submitted. Students submitting their work last will read higher in their similarity index as references and so on will be found as a false positive in colluding work between students.

What is more important than these overall numbers is the way in which these statistics appear within the student’s assignment. If a quote is not properly referenced, it will be picked up and highlighted by Turnitin. Incorrect paraphrasing will also be picked up by Turnitin. And it is this feature that highlights incorrectly paraphrased and quoted material, which is the best use of the Turnitin technology. It is the easiest and most effective way for improving a student’s writing standards.

Paraphrasing is a notoriously hard skill to teach and for students to master. Using Turnitin, it is the first thing I look for when assessing a student’s work. It is the easiest way for me to decide whether a student has fully grasped and understood the concepts and context at hand. How Turnitin highlights sentences within the document shows me whether or not a student is able to use their own voice in relation to the topic and questions at hand.

Turnitin makes it easy for a marker to identify consistent faults in paraphrasing, referencing and quoting work in the assignment. Once you have identified consistencies in the problems, it is simple to provide quick, effective feedback that is instructive to the student, and will have a lasting impact on their future submissions. The feedback is not vague or general – it is tangible. The student is able to see the highlighted portion, and the marker’s feedback in relation to it.

That is the instructional use and value of Turnitin. Students can also get value in learning to self correct work before the submit it. Turnitin is a great tool for students to use to check first drafts before submission. My advice to students is to submit their draft to Turnitin before the due date (Turnitin allows multiple submissions before the due date) to make basic error corrections, to check for referencing errors and to make sure paraphrasing mistakes have not been made. These will show up to students as they would for the markers, allowing the student to correct and change incorrectly paraphrased sentences.

The visual nature of the feedback given by Turnitin also assists students in understanding when they are relying too heavily on quotes, or on one particular source. If they are continually quoting from one author or source, the colours will show up in their work as similar. This is a great way of being able to evaluate one’s own work when submitting. You can quickly assess whether there is a good spread of references, or if you are relying for your argument on only one or few sources.

Turnitin has become so valuable for my students and my own marking that I’ve actually begun to use it to alter, edit and revise some of my own work. Not only is it useful for the student and lecturer/ marker, but I think it also provides potential value for the academic and author. Often when you are reading on one topic, referencing can become sloppy and paraphrasing problematic. Turnitin offers a way to deal with this before any unintended surprises through innocent mistakes. As technology improves and no doubt journals begin to use basic electronic scanning software to pick up mistakes, I think it is probably wise to use software and programmes like Turnitin to help analyse first drafts and pick up basic mistakes that might otherwise be missed.

As an experiment I decided to put a draft of the main chapter in my thesis through the Turnitin check (you can see this in the image for this article). Surprisingly, it did very well. I was actually expecting it to pick up my thesis somewhere on the internet, but it did not. It came out at 22% similar, a little high for my liking. However, this is largely due to it picking up a rather large reference list. Some 122 sources were identified, with five at 1% and the rest at <1%. And that is more important than the overall figure. Scanning the document reveals to me that the five sources at 1% are due to the same direct quotes being picked up in other assessments around the world. I am happy with this. There are no paraphrasing mistakes and no one source is standing out to me as overused.

Plagiarism prevention, marking and assessment organisation is really the backbone of the Turnitin software. But, it is actually most effective when used in conjunction with instructional and coaching assistance. The marker is able to focus on a student’s consistent errors in structure, referencing and paraphrasing mistakes. But the student also gets a visual representation and visual feedback that can be used in conjunction with assessment feedback, in order to self correct and improve writing into the future. I am convinced that software like Turnitin can also be effectively used for improving the standard and reduce the risk of potential problems for academics and researchers alike.

Apr 232014

Tess Lea’s Darwin is an approachable cultural critique and explanation of Darwin’s history and present. Entwined in the Darwin narrative is Lea’s own cultural heritage and with it, some of the ‘frontier’ history of the Northern Territory.

Maintaining the intellectual complexity of many of her previous works, Darwin is the most accessible of her publications to date, retaining the charm of depth and pointedness which are so apparent in her more academic works but freighting theory within narratives and old fashioned yarns. To me, it seemed the first third of the book was hardest to write, in the fashion it often is when something is clearly close to your heart. But the second half opens up into an easily readable and entertaining if challenging exposition of Darwin which will inform and be of interest to both who know Darwin and those to whom it remains an unknown place.

While it claims to be focussed on Darwin since the Second World War, Lea weaves the narrative of selected histories of Darwin to give context and justification and an explanatory power for current events and issues in Darwin. Sometimes challenging, sometimes apologetic, it is an honest appraisal of Darwin’s culture and its distinctiveness on the Australian continent.

Darwin demonstrates the indelible mark that immigration and racial conflict has had on Darwin, and the sometimes paradoxical relationships between racial groups that confound intruders or other Australians coming to live in Darwin. Yet, although this a major theme that Lea extracts from the many contributors she spoke to for the work, it is perhaps not followed through as much as it could be in certain parts.

Darwin is an incredibly metropolitan city, which is surprising to a lot of visitors and those who have not visited Darwin. With this comes the physical characteristics of multiple cultures. It also dominates the politics of space in Darwin, a fact of policing and racial confrontations which is alluded to but not fully expressed. A shame given this is a part of Lea’s own academic work.

What is expressed and emphasised is the “social amnesia” and “numbed indifference” which runs as a consistent line from foundation to the present day in Darwin and the Northern Territory. Such a social and cultural phenomenon is one anecdotal reason given for the flux and constant movement of the Darwin population. Priests, nurses, teachers, doctors and others working on the frontline of social problems in Darwin are frequently cited in the local rag, the NT News, as fleeing Darwin for various reasons such as burnout. But as Darwin residents are likely to already know, this is more of a code word for combat fatigue. Those who stay learn to deal with the myriad of social problems in a number of ways, which weaves a path through the history of Darwin, as it does in Lea’s book.

Military build up is a constant point of discussion in Darwin, and is a feature in the book. The perceived necessity of the military, the history of Darwin as a military town, and the current and future decisions in relation to the military provide the sign posts for an analysis of the wider numbed indifference and social amnesia that abounds in Darwin. The inevitable cases of sexual assault and aggression are presented as a narrative for the possible future of the city, as it has marked the recent past, given the way Darwin features one of the highest sexual assault rates against women in the country. Against this, the economic case for military expansion  and reliance of the Darwin economy on the military – provide the basis of the kind of bind that so many polarising policy issues in Darwin also encounter.

The bind that Darwin faces itself – between the military and the negative consequences and the inevitability and helplessness of Darwin is almost a metaphor for how Darwin and the Northern Territory views itself: somehow fiercely independent, different, unique and set aside from the rest of Australia – yet wholly dependent on the outside for its sustenance, continuance and direction in almost all areas.

The duality of Darwin, between opposing policy options, and opposing social groups is a feature of many of the stories explored in the book. In some of these stories there are examples of mutual understandings, and truces, particularly between kids. I am left wondering if this is somehow an epithet for potential future ways forward in Darwin’s social sphere.

There is much that is missed in this book, particularly in regard to the sporting organisation of Darwin, and with it, the Northern Territory. Australian Rules Football has shaped Darwin both physically and socially. However, in this work only the socio-political aspects of AFL are brushed upon. The fact that the Esplanade – as Lea notes, Darwin’s only public space in the CBD – was once reserved for and had Football played there, is I think quite an important historic and cultural point. The entire geography and cultural history of the city is shaped by Football.

With this, the other important cultural point is the football season itself. Once played exclusively in the ‘Dry’ season in indigenous communities, football has gradually been moved to the ‘Wet’ season. Indigenous communities once only played Football in the Dry season – and some still do. As Lea does note, the change of Aussie Rules Football to the Wet season could be seen as another case of organised sport (by whitefellas) asserting power over unorganised sport (by blackfellas), and inserting a colonial sport in cricket (amongst others), in its place.

It could equally be argued that Football is one of the few sports that could be played in the Wet season, and thus, it allows other sport and recreation activities – so much loved by Territorians – to be enjoyed to their maximum extent.

Despite the various interpretations that the history of football in Darwin might elicit, it does give rise to one of the most elegant descriptions of Australian Rules Football in the Northern Territory, or anywhere as a matter of fact:

The season starts in the build-up, before the monsoon breaks, when the air is so saturated with moisture, the body’s own secretions give no relief at all. Under the football guernsey, the body glows. Tiny beads of sweat form miniature bubble-wraps on the forehead, above the lip, below the eyelashes, on the sternum, between legs and toes. […] But everyone sweats, the heat remaining the great equaliser. The game rewards agility, sprightliness, accuracy, the ability to catch a ball on the tip of a finger. It’s the guy who scrambles up the back of another, arms outstretched, snatching the ball out of air; the player who spins the ball end over end, high and long, the crowd’s breath held… it’s there.

Of course, football is just one of the many confounding elements of Darwin; one of the many paradoxes that could be interpreted multiple ways. There are decisions and actions in the social-political sphere that appear to have good intentions, but lead to unintended consequences, or look retrospectively like harsh and inappropriate decisions and actions.

Darwin largely sets aside the role of social pressures and sports as a planning instrument in shaping Darwin – rather the physical elements of tidal marshes, mosquitoes, drainage and political/ bureaucratic decisions such as military acquisition of land – are given the predominant weighting. And with this, the social distinctions are analysed through the placement of and contents of suburbs adjacent to these areas.

The physical distinctions are apparent to the keen observer in Darwin. And this exposition is one of the strengths of the book. The history of the division in social advantage and disadvantage is made apparent for the reader. What may appear to be a perfectly legitimate place for development in southern Australia, becomes a cesspool of festering disease and sickness. The battle lines are drawn, the community splits like tectonic plates that can’t be seen by the untrained observer, and Darwin is a place where nothing is as it seems – or should seem. But such is Darwin, and such is Darwin.

It is a book people should read, not just to find out about Darwin, but to think on the policy issues that are being worked out in this still-frontier town, on Australia’s behalf. Darwin, and Darwin, is good to think with.


Apr 152014

2 Apps For Helping You WritePreviously I have explained the importance of routine to help with productivity for improving your writing output. In this post, I’m going to introduce you to 2 Apps for Helping You Write.

Both Apps are free, and both apps I use as a way of utilising the pomodoro technique. The pomodoro technique is popular amongst the #acwri crowd and you’ll find this pop up quite a bit during the #acwrimo and #nanomo.

The pomodoro technique works by excluding other activities whilst you are focussed on one. Usually, this period of time is a period of 30 minutes. At the end of the 30 minutes you can then take a break – read that text message, respond to that email, go for a walk or grab another coffee.

It is a technique that is now a part of my morning routine. I find it maximises the most productive time of my day. And you should do the same with these 2 Apps for Helping You Write.

My Minutes2 Apps For Helping You Write

My Minutes is a scheduling and timer app combined into one. I used My Minutes to great benefit when writing my thesis. It ensured that I wrote for a minimum of 30 minutes each day, and edited/ revised for 30 minutes during my lunch break. It also gave me a tracking of how I had gone over the last week towards achieving my goals. My Minutes displays red circles for an unachieved daily goal and a green circle for an achieved goal. Each circle represents a day of the week, so you can get a visual representation of what you might have been avoiding during the week, or what you might need to concentrate on for the remainder of the week.

You can also set up a daily reminder to tell you how many tasks you have on a given day. As you can see, I’ve been pretty slack. But thanks to this app, I don’t actually need it anymore because it has become habitual for me to have a routine. I had it set up for my daily knee rehabilitation exercises after having an arthroscope last year. So it isn’t just useful for writing, but anything that requires a time based routine.

Perhaps you want to stretch or do another pre-writing activity that you find helpful? This is one of the perfect 2 Apps for Helping You Write.


Since using My Minutes and using time based routine techniques, I now need less of that app. Now I use @Timer and prioritise my daily tasks on a day to day basis.

2 Apps For Helping You WriteI use @Timer for my daily reading and editing/ revision tasks to keep me on track. I also use it for when I have completed my daily tasks and am studying my Spanish. It keeps me from doing too much of one thing and not moving onto the next task whilst I have the time. As with My minutes, such a simple thing as a timer can keep you focused on one thing at a time, without being distracted. It also gives you a simple goal.

Of course, you don’t need an app if you are disciplined and just want to set a stop watch or keep an eye on the time or what have you. But the technology is there for you to use, so why not make it work for you? If you are struggling to write, it can also contain that without giving you the awful feeling like you’ve sat down to write and achieved nothing all day. It helps to contain that feeling of uselessness which can blow up your writing if you are not careful.

Technology has many potential uses, especially as a procrastination tool. Many apps seem destined to interrupt with your writing and daily tasks. These 2 Apps for Helping You Write will hopefully improve your writing productivity and increase your output. I’m sure there are many others that people find helpful, but these are two that I’ve found helpful in my own work.

Are there any other apps that you have found that help you write? If there are, let me know below and I will check them out.