The study will achieve empirically-derived data and analysis which will provide insights into the challenges experienced by a range of traditional and non-traditional learners in engaging with academic writing styles.

It is widely acknowledged that academic styles of writing (in common with many other professions) have a tendency to use complex terminology. This practice would seem to be expected, even regarded as ‘good’ and certainly common practice. This may be appropriate when the writing is aimed at similarly expert peers but has the potential to be very discouraging if it is deployed in publications that are accessed by many learners, especially those who are new to a subject and / or lack confidence in HE environments. A great deal of feedback from students specifically mentions their appreciation of having taught material ‘demystified’ with simple, plain language explanations of concepts. This project is based on the belief that this could result in practice which could discourage many potential students from higher education, due to a lack of confidence in their ability to engage with learning at this level and consequently impact upon some efforts of widening participation.

The work will involve three main phases. Firstly, a student with an expertise in the area of reading comprehension (students of Psychology have been suggested as having the necessary skills and knowledge) will be engaged as a Research Assistant to design and compile a short test / questionnaire and with the subsequent data analysis. It is anticipated that this work will involve approximately 80 hours work to be done with sufficient rigour. This will consist of two short examples of text (say 150-200 words long), each of which contain certain elements of basic factual information. One will be selected for being written in a more complicated, ‘academic’ style, the other selected for its clarity and simple phraseology. The ‘test’ will involve the participants being given a certain period of time to read the passages and then being asked to answer a short series of questions relating to the factual information contained within the text. The participants will also be asked to answer a brief questionnaire designed to investigate the participant’s self-assessment of the ease of understanding, confidence in their responses and clarity of the two pieces. Suitably designed, this should permit the gathering of both quantitative and qualitative data that can be analysed to provide insights into this perceived phenomenon.

The second phase will involve a series of workshops in which the tests will be conducted with a range of different learners, followed by a discussion to explore participants’ experiences of engaging with it. The various programmes of study within WMG and the School of Engineering will be able to provide both traditional (young undergraduates with a mix of gender and domestic / overseas etc.) and non-traditional (post-experience, company-based, mature, those who have not been involved with HE before or for many years etc.) students. The project will collect biographical data from participants to enable the analysis to control for participant characteristics such as gender and age, and to make comparisons between traditional and non-traditional learners. The project will look to engage a range of participants to establish a suitable balance of the various different categories.

The third phase will involve analysis of the gathered data and preparation of the results for dissemination. Both of the grant applicants are experienced in both qualitative and quantitative techniques; this mixed methods approach allows for a robust statistical analysis of the data collected as well as exploration of potential causes through analysis of the qualitative data.