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Teaching in Higher Education
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Teaching Academic Literacies in international
relations: towards a pedagogy of practice
Elizabeth M. Olsson, Linnéa Gelot, Johan Karlsson Schaffer & Andréas
To cite this article: Elizabeth M. Olsson, Linnéa Gelot, Johan Karlsson Schaffer & Andréas
Litsegård (2021): Teaching Academic Literacies in international relations: towards a pedagogy of
practice, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2021.1992753
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1992753
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Teaching Academic Literacies in international relations:
towards a pedagogy of practice
Elizabeth M. Olsson
, Linnéa Gelot
, Johan Karlsson Schaﬀer
School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden;
Folke Bernadotte Academy,
Academic Literacies elucidates how undergraduate students with
diverse skillsets can eﬀectively engage with socially constructed
and discipline-speciﬁc knowledge(s) through writing. Over the last
two decades, language specialists and education researchers have
developed a robust, student-focused epistemology. However, it
remains unclear how lecturers understand and teach Academic
Literacies in their courses. This article shifts the focus by
exploring how we –a teaching team in International Relations at
a Swedish university –translated the knowledge claims and
ideological commitments of Academic Literacies into an applied
pedagogy. We employ collaborative, reﬂective practice to
investigate how we progressively integrated Academic Literacies
in an introductory, bachelor’s level course from 2010–2019.
Speciﬁcally, we illustrate how we used formative feedback, peer
assessment, and reﬂective journaling to teach International
Relations through academic writing. We conclude with a
discussion of the best practices and unresolved challenges of our
evolving pedagogical design.
Received 2 February 2021
Accepted 4 October 2021
How can university lecturers translate the principles of Academic Literacies (AcLits) into
pedagogical practice? Scholars developed AcLits in response to the ‘massiﬁcation’of
Higher Education (HE) (Lea and Street 1998)–a process resulting in the inclusion of
students with increasingly diverse backgrounds and skillsets. Over the past two
decades, AcLits researchers have argued that academic writing
is power-laden, socially
negotiated, and discipline-speciﬁc (Aiken 2021; Elton 2010; French 2018; Lea 2004; Lea
and Street 1998,2006). Consequently, lecturers must co-opt students as partners in their
learning, explicitly teaching them how to access, understand, and produce disciplinary
knowledge through writing (Dysthe 2003; French 2018; Ingle 2016; Wingate 2006). More-
over, lectures must embed this instruction into disciplinary courses, rather than
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medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Elizabeth M. Olsson firstname.lastname@example.org School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Postal
Address: Box 700, Gothenburg 40530, Sweden
TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION
regulating it to the composition department (Fernsten and Reda 2011) or the writing
centre (French 2018; Ingle 2016; Wingate 2006).
However, integrating AcLits into disciplinary courses presents lecturers with formid-
able challenges. First, the literature is student-focused (see Aiken 2021; Lillis and Scott
2015), providing insuﬃcient guidance for lecturers seeking to translate AcLits into ped-
agogical practice (see Wingate, Andon, and Cogo 2011). Relatedly, the research that
includes lecturers’experiences is predominantly conducted by writing and language
specialists (see Jonsmoen and Greek 2017; Lea and Street 1998) and education research-
ers (see Bergman 2014,2016), obscuring lecturers’subject-speciﬁc positions.
Second, AcLits is primarily researched at universities where English is the medium of
instruction (see Canton, Govan, and Zahn 2018; Clarence, Albertus, and Mwambene
2014; Wingate and Tribble 2012), and students are required to take an introductory
writing course (see Hendricks and Quinn 2000; Jacobs 2007). This particularity raises
questions about how lecturers employ the framework in contexts where instruction is
bilingual (see Bolton and Kuteeva 2012; Kuteeva and Airey 2014), and writing courses
are the exception rather than the rule. In the absence of research written by lecturers
across disciplines and contexts, it is challenging to translate the principles of AcLits
into a pedagogy of practice, leaving lecturers uncertain and ambivalent about incorpor-
ating AcLits into their courses (Bergman 2014,2016).
To address these challenges, we –a teaching team in International Relations (IR) at a
Swedish university –reﬂect on how we progressively embedded AcLits in a bachelor’s
level course with up to 140 students per term from 2010–2019. We demonstrate how
we interpreted and applied AcLits to our context and circumstances, illustrating how
we used formative feedback, peer assessment, and reﬂective journaling to teach IR
through academic writing. Additionally, we reﬂect on the feedback we received from stu-
dents, discussing how we used that feedback in an evolving course design.
Thus, the article makes three contributions. First, we open up our classroom doors to
provide a lecturers’perspective on teaching AcLits. This behind-the-scenes look at our
evolving course design contributes to the burgeoning literature on AcLits as pedagogical
practice (see Lea 2004; Lillis et al. 2015; Wingate, Andon, and Cogo 2011). Second, we
illustrate how writing instruction can support, rather than distract from, disciplinary
content in an introductory course with high enrolment and diverse student needs (see
Clarence, Albertus, and Mwambene 2014). This contribution speaks to the AcLits’com-
mitment to co-opt students as knowledgeable, engaged partners in their learning (see Lea
and Street 1998). Third, we oﬀer the best practices we developed over nine years of pro-
gressively embedding AcLits into our course as a ‘thinking tool’(see Dysthe 2003, 152)
for pedagogical practice across contexts and disciplines.
The article proceeds with section two, where we review existing AcLits literature and
describe the massiﬁcation of HE in Sweden. We outline our methods and ethical con-
siderations in section three, explaining how we employed ‘reﬂection-in-practice’and
‘reﬂection-on-practice’(see Pereira 1999; Schön 1983) to progressively understand,
apply, and reﬁne our pedagogical approach. Section four introduces our IR course, dis-
cussing how we deployed formative feedback, peer review, and reﬂective journaling to
teach disciplinary content. In section ﬁve, we discuss the best practices we developed
over nine years of course evolution and the challenges we have yet to address. Finally,
2E. M. OLSSON ET AL.
we summarise our arguments and contributions in section six, concluding with sugges-
tions for future research.
2. Academic Literacies: obstacles and opportunities
This section discusses the obstacles and opportunities of (1) teaching AcLits based on
existing literature and (2) the contextual features of Swedish HE aﬀecting how we under-
stood and applied the framework. In doing so, we situate our contributions in the litera-
ture and describe the pedagogical challenges that AcLits helped us address.
2.1. Academic Literacies in theory and practice
AcLits suggests that knowledge is mediated and constructed through discipline-speciﬁc
assumptions, practices, and interactions (Lea and Street 1998,2006; Lillis and Scott
2015), challenging the notion that reading and writing skills are ‘generic and transferable
across the university’(Lea and Street 1998, 164). Over the last two decades, a consensus
has emerged that lecturers can and should incorporate AcLits –helping students read,
understand, write about, and produce knowledge –into disciplinary coursework
(Elton 2010; French 2018; Lea 2004; Lea and Street 1998,2006; Wingate 2007). The
AcLits approach has also highlighted contemporary students’diverse needs as univer-
sities transition from elite institutions to schools for the masses (Goldingay et al. 2016).
While AcLits research has clariﬁed the epistemological principles of teaching increas-
ingly diverse student populations how to engage with disciplinary content through
writing (see Lillis and Scott 2015), this literature has inadequately elucidated how lec-
turers translate these principles into pedagogical practice (Wingate, Andon, and Cogo
2011). Existing practice-based literature is predominantly written by language specialists
and education researchers based on interviews or collaborations with lecturers (see Jons-
moen and Greek 2017; Lillis et al. 2015) rather than lecturers themselves. While this
research is useful, the positionality of its authors is ‘integral not only to (the) research
(itself) but also to the interpretive process of analysis and representation’(Sangarasivam
2001, 95). In the absence of contributions by lecturers, it is challenging to develop a peda-
gogy for lecturers. We contend existing contributions to AcLits pedagogies (see Lea 2004;
Wingate, Andon, and Cogo 2011) can be strengthened and extended by lecturers who
have received training in the approach or experimented with AcLits independently.
We count ourselves among the framework’s self-taught adherents.
Furthermore, the AcLits literature suﬀers from a language bias (see Bergman 2014,
2016). Once lauded as ‘the most inﬂuential conceptual framework for writing prac-
titioners at UK universities’(Canton, Govan, and Zahn 2018,668), AcLits is increasingly
studied in other contexts where English is the medium of instruction, such as Australia
(see Murray and Nallaya 2016) and South Africa (see Clarence, Albertus, and Mwambene
2014; Jacobs 2007). Just as disciplinary standards beguile a one-size-ﬁts-all approach to
literacies, so does the language of instruction. As we argue below, Swedish lecturers
engage in bilingual instruction (see Bolton and Kuteeva 2012; Kuteeva and Airey
2014) and thus face unique obstacles and opportunities in teaching AcLits.
Finally, there is an instructional bias in the AcLits literature. Many authors refer to and
problematise the introductory writing courses students take when they enter university
TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION 3
but do not reﬂect on the challenges of embedding AcLits into contexts where students do
not complete compulsory writing courses. We maintain that scholars can and should
extend AcLits to include more diverse HE systems (see Bergman 2014,2016). We con-
tribute to expanding AcLits by considering the contextual features inﬂuencing our
understanding and use of the approach in Sweden. In doing so, we provide a ‘thinking
tool’(see Dysthe 2003, 152) for other lecturers who must also consider the opportunities
and challenges aﬀecting their abilities to embed AcLits in their courses.
2.2. Teaching Academic Literacies in Swedish Higher Education
The university sector’s transition from elite to mass education is a global trend following
diﬀerent trajectories in diﬀerent contexts (Guri-Rosenblit, Šebková, and Teichler 2007).
Swedish HE experienced profound structural transformations in recent decades. Succes-
sive governments expanded HE, and from the 1990s to 2010s, the number of students
more than doubled (Haikola 2015). Mirroring demographic shifts in the population,
the number of students with an immigrant background increased from 17 to 26%
between 2009 and 2018. As universities enrolled an increasing number of diverse stu-
dents, many lecturers struggled to adapt their teaching to students with diﬀerent expec-
tations, knowledge, and skillsets than earlier generations. Concurrently, the Swedish
school system has been decreasingly eﬀective in providing students with equitable edu-
cation, and Swedish secondary school results have long deteriorated (Böhlmark et al.
2019; Gustafsson et al. 2014; Svensson 2018). Expanded enrolment and school decline
mean that students’qualiﬁcations are, on average, lower and more stratiﬁed today
than a generation ago (Sonnerby 2012).
Unfortunately, Swedish universities have failed to match expanding enrolment with
increased funding (Gribbe and Skog 2019) and this failture has had deleterious eﬀects
on teaching. Lecturers have a higher teaching load than their colleagues in other Scandi-
navian countries (Brommesson et al. 2016), yet students receive fewer teaching hours in
Sweden than any other European country (Bender 2013; Kolm et al. 2018). Moreover,
from 2010 to 2020, the number of students with dyslexia, neuropsychiatric disorders,
and disabilities tripled. While lecturers are required to accommodate students with
special needs, they are neither trained nor compensated for the extra workload that
special pedagogical support entails (see Universitetskanslerämbetet 2021, 42; Thurfjell
When it comes to writing instruction, many lecturers feel overwhelmed and uncertain.
Like academic staﬀin other HE systems transitioning to mass education, many Swedish
lecturers complain that students lack basic literacy skills (e.g. Enefalk et al. 2012; Josefs-
son and Santesson 2017). According to a recent survey, 46% of lecturers believe that their
students have poor writing skills and 69% think that students’writing skills are insuﬃ-
cient to meet the requirements of university education (Utbildningsradion 2020). While
such complaints are neither new (Malmström 2017) nor unique to Sweden (Nightingale
1988, 263), they denote lecturers’increasing frustration with the deterioration of literacy
skills developed in Swedish upper secondary schools.
Besides the challenges resulting from expanded enrolment, declining school results,
and insuﬃcient funding, implementing an AcLits approach in Swedish HE faces
context-speciﬁc obstacles. Few students take an academic writing course, although
4E. M. OLSSON ET AL.
most enrolled in social science programmes must produce written texts throughout their
coursework. While writing centres and writing tutors are increasingly standard at
Swedish universities (see Rienecker and Jörgensen 2003, 101), their services often
target international students and students with special needs. Moreover, Swedish lec-
turers typically teach courses in more than one language, using English-language texts
and conducting lectures and seminars in Swedish. Bilingual instruction is challenging
because academic writing conventions diﬀer by language (see Bolton and Kuteeva
2012; Kuteeva and Airey 2014). In the absence of training and support, many lecturers
leave their students to navigate these challenges independently, forcing students to
develop bilingual AcLits.
Fortunately, there are constructive ways of addressing these structural challenges.
Rather than blaming students or schools or baulking at the sheer scale of the challenges,
lecturers can address them, and AcLits suggests a promising way forward. We contend
that lecturers can integrate writing instruction into their courses by explicitly communi-
cating the tacit knowledge and underlying assumptions shrouding writing in their disci-
plines (see Elton 2010). Lecturers can also reﬂect on the types of feedback they provide
and its eﬀects on students’abilities to learn course content and employ disciplinary stan-
dards to express that content in writing (Lea 2004; Lea and Street 1998). Moreover, lec-
turers can –and, arguably, should –facilitate disciplinary learning through writing
(Rienecker and Jörgensen 2003). In the proceeding sections, we discuss how we trans-
lated AcLits principles into pedagogical practice.
3. Methods and ethical considerations
The article results from extensive collaborative, reﬂective practice (see Pereira 1999;
Schön 1983) between four members of an IR teaching team. Like Lea and Street (1998,
160), who conducted ‘ethnographic-style research’, we do not claim to fulﬁl the rigorous
protocols of reﬂective practice described by Pereira (1999, 342). Instead, we employ a
looser, more collaborative reﬂection approach to studying our teaching practices,
course modules, and student evaluations. Speciﬁcally, we consider how we understood
AcLits as social scientists untrained in literacy, linguistics, and writing pedagogies. We
also reﬂect on our best practices and unresolved challenges of integrating AcLits into a
bachelor’s level IR course over nine years.
The analytical process that yielded this article began in 2017 when the teaching team
received a pedagogical prize for integrating academic writing into the course under
investigation. Buoyed by this recognition, the analysis emerged through a series of
meetings, email exchanges, literature searches, blog posts, conference papers, and spir-
ited debates. While this analytical process was undeniably ad hoc, it revolved around
three questions: 1) How do we teach IR through writing? 2) How do we support our
students in this process? 3) How can we use student evaluations to improve writing
We began writing this article in 2018 when three of us were still teaching the course,
allowing us to engage in ‘reﬂection-in-practice’and ‘reﬂection-on-practice’(see Pereira
1999; Schön 1983). Concurrently, we reviewed the course material we developed over
the years, using course guides and the reports we authored after each term to trace
course development, the problems we encountered, and the solutions we facilitated.
TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION 5
One of the most signiﬁcant sources of our analysis was student course evaluations written
from 2010 to 2019. After noting themes and typical student appraisals, we selected for-
mative feedback, peer assessment, and reﬂective journaling as the three modules that stu-
dents found most valuable in learning IR through academic writing.
Throughout our study, we followed the ethical guidelines outlined by the Swedish
Research Council (2017). To mitigate harm to our students, we only quote anonymised
course evaluations where all identifying details were removed when students completed
the evaluation online. We further obscure students’identities by omitting the year and
language in which they provided their feedback. We quote anonymised course evalu-
ations based on the ethical principle that the value of including this material outweighs
potential risks (Swedish Research Council 2017, 31). We contend that since AcLits is a
student-focused approach, we needed to consider how our students interpreted and
inﬂuenced our pedagogical practice.
4. Reﬂections on an evolving pedagogical design
We progressively embedded AcLits into an introductory, bachelor’s level course in IR
between 2010 and 2019. The course is the ﬁrst of four ten-week modules and is taught
twice a year. The course has high student enrolment and, from 2013, when the intake
drastically increased, enrolment varied between 156 and 219 annually, peaking in
2019. As an introductory course, most of our students are newcomers to academic
writing in HE and IR. Additionally, many students speak Swedish as their second or
third language and often struggle to understand course content as quickly as students
who speak Swedish as a native language. Adding to the group’s diversity, between
one-ﬁfth and one-third of students enrol in the course as part of a bachelor’s programme.
These students have typically taken university courses before, putting them ahead of their
less experienced peers.
Substantively, the course aims to introduce students to world politics and the disci-
pline of IR. We teach our students key concepts and a broad range of IR theories, includ-
ing how these theories developed with major global events and processes. We rely on
several teaching methods, including debates, lectures, seminars, informal discussions,
and an ‘IR Café’where guest lecturers present current events in international politics.
We assess our students’knowledge through mandatory seminars, three reﬂective
journal entries, and four written examinations.
High student enrolment, rigorous course content, and the sheer number of course
assignments place signiﬁcant responsibility on lecturers to support each student’s
diverse needs, skills, and interests (see Clarence, Albertus, and Mwambene 2014).
When we began our reﬂections on nine years of progressively integrating writing instruc-
tion into the course, it became clear that we initially struggled. In 2010, we inherited a
course designed to teach a ‘critical’and historical understanding of IR through a pot-
pourri of pedagogies and modules. Notably, academic writing was not embedded in
the course, and students complained that modules did not adequately prepare them
for the in-class written examination administered at the end of the term.
It became clear that the course needed a signiﬁcant overhaul when the Swedish Higher
Education Authority (Universitetskanslerämbetet, UKÄ) evaluated it from 2011–2012.
After examining all bachelor’s level IR courses taught in our department, UKÄ found
6E. M. OLSSON ET AL.
the courses ‘lacked quality’. UKÄ issued their most damning critique after reviewing
student essays, saying students demonstrated insuﬃcient knowledge of the classic and
predominant research questions explored in IR and struggled to make sound connections
between theories and concepts in their essays. The UKÄ evaluation resulted in revisions
across the bachelor’s level IR course package, including the introductory course discussed
in this text.
Based on student evaluations and an added pressure to rectify the challenges identiﬁed
by UKÄ, we found it essential to develop practical strategies to teach students how aca-
demic writing simultaneously helps them learn course content and present it in evaluated
essays. We did not know about AcLits at this time, but we were motivated to ﬁnd a
student-centered approach emphasising disciplinary learning through writing. Two
authors explored the academic writing literature while taking a mandatory pedagogical
course oﬀered at the University of Gothenburg in 2012. This course (HPE102) required
participants to develop an independent pedagogical project, and the authors chose to
explore student-centered learning through writing and various forms of feedback.
Course coordinators subsequently began an intense reﬂection process in collaboration
with the university’s Unit for Academic Language (ASK). This collaboration ushered
in experimentation and incremental modiﬁcations grounded in the epistemological prin-
ciples of AcLits. In recognition of our eﬀorts to successively reform our course by teach-
ing IR through academic writing, the Social Science Faculty at our university awarded us
its annual pedagogical prize in 2017.
From critical student evaluations (2010–2012) to the UKÄ report (2012) to pedagogi-
cal training (2012) to collaboration with our university’s writing centre (2013–2019) to
the Pedagogical Prize (2017), our journey has been both intense and rewarding. The fol-
lowing sections trace our collaborative, reﬂective practice by anchoring it in the AcLits
literature and analysing how it evolved over nine years of course development. In
doing so, we highlight how we translated the AcLits framework into a pedagogy of prac-
tice through formative feedback, peer assessment, and reﬂective journaling.
4.1. Formative feedback
Formative feedback is a method of ‘embedded writing support, in which the subject lec-
turer, peers or the writers themselves provide critical feedback on pieces of course-
speciﬁc or course-related writing that can be used to enhance the next piece of
writing’(Wingate 2010, 520). The goal of formative feedback is to help students appreci-
ate the ‘gap between their current and desired performance’(Wingate 2010, 520). Hence,
formative feedback is not simply about ﬂagging errors or arriving at a grade but also
giving suggestions on text development. Thus, formative feedback supports students in
their development as writers, thinkers, and scholars more generally, ‘feed[ing] forward
into future assignments, and beyond’(Van Heerden 2020, 360). Many researchers
have lauded formative feedback as a valuable means to promote student engagement
because it requires students to read, consider, and employ the feedback they receive to
improve their writing (see Harlen and James 1997; Wingate 2010; Van Heerden 2020).
Consequently, we moved away from summative feedback –or feedback on completed
texts (see Boud and Molloy 2013; Harlen and James 1997)–introducing formative feed-
back in 2013.
TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION 7
Formative feedback bolstered our work with AcLits for three reasons. First, it demon-
strated that academic writing is an ongoing, socially negotiated process (Lea 2004; Lea
and Street 1998) rather than a transcription of disciplinary knowledge. Formative feed-
back gave students both an inside view of this process and an active role in it. Second,
formative feedback helped students appreciate how knowledge is drafted, negotiated,
reﬁned, and progressively produced through written work, helping them become more
eﬀective IR scholars (e.g. Boud and Molloy 2013). Third, formative feedback was a rela-
tively straightforward way for our teaching team to incorporate academic writing into
our introductory IR course because it required us to engage our students in the
It took us several years to ﬁnesse our approach to formative feedback. Along the way,
we learned two important lessons: First, tone matters. We realised early on that the more
we recognised our students’successes and encouraged them to keep going, the better
their texts became. Thus, we avoided criticism and embraced support. Second, like
Bean (2011, 316–336), who advocates a feedback ‘hierarchy’, we found that strategic feed-
back, targeting diﬀerent levels of text development, provided students with a solid foun-
dation for improvement. Inspired by Bean (2011) and the text triangle (Dysthe,
Hertzberg, and Hoel 2011) explained in section 4.2, we developed three levels of strategic
feedback: (Level 1) basic writing skills and the assignment, (Level 2) structure and
engagement with the literature, including how to employ English-language literature
in Swedish-language texts, and (Level 3) argument and style. In practice, we only com-
mented on one level at a time. Thus, if the text did not address the assignment (Level 1),
we focused on that. Likewise, if the text addressed the assignment but was poorly struc-
tured (Level 2), we limited our feedback to the composition of a clear introduction, body,
and conclusion. Providing strategic rather than general feedback was an invaluable time-
saving technique that allowed us to home in on a limited number of issues that students
needed to address in the next round of revisions.
Students generally engaged with and appreciated the feedback they received, as evi-
denced in course evaluations and the gradual improvement we saw in their texts. Speciﬁ-
cally, students found the progressive writing process facilitated in the course exciting.
Asking students to write and then rewrite their assignments enabled them to experiment
with IR issues without being evaluated in the initial stages. This academic writing practice
helped students take risks, experiment, and develop over time. While some students
found the process overwhelming initially, most found it invaluable when the course con-
cluded. As one student wrote, ‘the academic writing exercise is the most rewarding
element in the course. […] In the beginning, it felt unnecessary, but eventually, I discov-
ered that it is a fantastic way […] of working constructively with a text. I am pleasantly
surprised [by] how helpful I found it!’
Other students commented that formative feedback made writing easier because they
did not have to worry about producing the perfect text the ﬁrst time around. Instead,
they experienced writing as a learning process that included a variety of steps. When
they engaged in the iterative process of drafting, presenting, reading, discussing, listening,
revising, and resubmitting, they developed the conﬁdence they needed to learn IR through
writing. In the words of one student, ‘Now, with several submissions behind me, it’s gotten
much easier to sit down and write instead of staring at a blank screen. I now feel more pre-
pared and ready for the task, it is much easier to write, and that is fantastic’.
8E. M. OLSSON ET AL.
4.2. Peer assessment
A signiﬁcant feature of our formative feedback module is peer assessment. Students read
and comment on each other’s texts in small groups throughout the course, forming peer
review communities. Peer assessment –also called peer feedback (see Huisman et al.
2018; Liu and Carless 2006) or peer review (Mulder, Pearce, and Baik 2014)–allows stu-
dents to receive comments on their work from their classmates and use those comments
to improve their texts. During peer assessment, ‘students learn with and from each other
without the immediate intervention of a teacher’(Boud, Cohen, and Sampson 1999, 413)
and ‘take an active role in the management of their own learning’(Liu and Carless 2006,
280). A side eﬀect of peer evaluation is self-reﬂection (Boud, Cohen, and Sampson 1999;
Liu and Carless 2006), as students evaluate their writing against texts produced by their
We introduced peer assessment in 2013, dividing students into groups of four to six
members and instructing groups to meet three times during the course to discuss each
other’s written work. Each student was encouraged to read and comment on all
papers but only required to produce a written evaluation of one classmate’s text before
each seminar. In doing so, we asked students to engage with the text triangle (Dysthe,
Hertzberg, and Hoel 2011), moving from the text’s macro- to micro- levels. Conse-
quently, we instructed students to provide feedback on the focus, aim, and research ques-
tion in session one; the text’s structure and argument in session two; and style, syntax,
and referencing in session three. These instructions helped students avoid nitpicking
on details in their assessment and provided a framework for evaluation. In addition,
peer assessment seminars were supervised by course lecturers, writing tutors from
ASK, and the students’writing coach (described in section 4.3). Thus, while students
were in charge of peer assessment, a lecturer or writing expert from ASK was always
on hand to answer questions and help students develop the skills and conﬁdence they
needed to read and respond to their classmates’texts constructively.
In general, students have been positive about engaging in peer assessment, especially
academic beginners and students who struggle with their studies. As one student wrote,
‘It has been very rewarding to do this exercise, especially considering that this is the ﬁrst
time I study at the university […] It feels very nice to get inspiration and ideas from other
texts and [receive] comments on my own piece […] To review other texts is a good tool
to improve as a writer, and it opens up a whole new ‘world’’. This reﬂection echoes
Mulder, Pearce, and Baik (2014), who argue that peer review primarily beneﬁts students
performing below average. In our experience, peer assessment seminars also guided stu-
dents in comprehending the course literature and taking active roles in engaging with
course content. Many students commented that peer assessment seminars were decisive
in learning IR because it immersed them in their peers’multiple and diverse interpret-
ations of the same disciplinary content and helped them read IR in English and write
about it in Swedish.
Of course, not all students appreciated peer assessment, and we used their feedback to
improve this module. The most signiﬁcant change we made responded to the common
complaint that peer assessment was a waste of time because students did not know how
to provide good feedback. Students who raised this complaint wanted a more lecturer-
driven education in which the lecturer carefully monitored and facilitated the assessment
TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION 9
process. We addressed this complaint by scaﬀolding peer assessment seminars. In other
words, we moved away from a hands-oﬀapproach where we told students to read and
comment on each other’s texts and, instead, told them how to read and comment on
each other’s texts. Thus, we used the text triangle (Dysthe, Hertzberg, and Hoel 2011)
to provide topics for each seminar. As the course developed, we also oﬀered guiding ques-
tions to assist students in the assessment process. These questions included, Does the
author follow the directions for the assignment? How well does the author engage
with IR theory? How well does the author utilise course literature?
Once students felt more knowledgeable about reading and responding to their class-
mate’s texts, they also appeared to better appreciate the feedback they received. As the
course developed, more and more students told us that peer assessment helped them
take ownership of their learning. These students saw academic writing and peer assess-
ment more as a process, supported by lecturers and peers, than a ‘thing’to be taught
‘from above.’Moreover, they appreciated lecturer-light, peer assessment seminars
where students were more relaxed and dared to speak without fear of a lecturer’s
4.3. Reﬂective journaling
Finally, we used reﬂective journaling as a learning strategy (see Boud 2001) to help stu-
dents develop self-awareness (see Fernsten and Reda 2011) by actively engage with their
strengths, weaknesses, and needs as academic writers in IR. In doing so, our goal was to
facilitate a transformative process where students ‘describe[d] and explore[d] their own
[academic writing] practices’(Watson 2010, 11), actively considering the support and
information that they needed to improve their skills. Thus, reﬂective journaling
allowed us to ‘take account of [our] students’present and previous literacy practices’
(Lea 2004, 744) and nudge our students toward explicit engagement with their academic
We introduced reﬂective journaling through a logbook exercise in the spring of 2014.
From 2014 to 2017, logbooks were a recommended opportunity for students to reﬂect on
their learning. Since the assignment was not mandatory, lecturers responded to entries
with encouragement but did not critically engage with students’learning needs.
Notably, students did not seek advice on how to improve their academic literacies,
and lecturers did not provide it. Instead, students used logbooks to assess their perform-
ance or criticise the course. At this stage, students gave the logbook module mixed
reviews. Some saw logbooks as a great way to communicate with lecturers. Others
found the exercise ‘completely meaningless’since they could not appreciate the connec-
tion between reﬂection and learning.
We made the logbook module mandatory in 2017, requiring students to reﬂect on
their academic writing skills three times during the course. Additionally, we required stu-
dents to ask one question in each of their entries. The question format provided a plat-
form for a conversation between students and the responding lecturer. It also saved time
as the responding lecturer no longer had to search through lengthy and unstructured
reﬂective texts to determine the kinds of help each student required. We also reduced
the response time from ten to ﬁve days, keeping exchanges timely and relevant.
Finally, and most importantly, we decided that the lecturer who responded to logbooks
10 E. M. OLSSON ET AL.
would serve exclusively as the students’‘writing coach’and refrain from evaluating their
essays. This alteration helped the newly designated writing coach develop a relationship
with students based on empathy and encouragement.
While students were free to ask anything related to academic writing, their questions
tended to speak to ﬁve common writing dilemmas: 1) time management, 2) disciplinary
conventions, 3) structure and argument, 4) referencing, and 5) word economy (Olsson
2018). As a pass/fail assignment, the writing coach listened to students’struggles, pro-
vided them with recognition and support, and pointed them towards relevant resources
The revised logbook module proved popular among students. Countless students
testiﬁed that logbooks made them feel more engaged with and in control of their learn-
ing. Since 2017, many students have identiﬁed logbooks as the most helpful module in
learning IR through academic writing. For example, one student wrote, ‘In my
opinion, the logbook was the best part of the course. It was invaluable to reﬂect on my
writing process, and the feedback I received was excellent!’Another stated, ‘I think the
logbook has been a great way to think through and write down some thoughts about
the work process. It helped me improve my work and better understand my working
process.’Based on student feedback, we found that reﬂective journaling fostered
student-centred learning and engagement with course content, thus fulﬁlling the
AcLits principle of inviting students to become partners in the learning process (see
Lea and Street 1998).
5. Discussion: best practices and unresolved challenges
This section looks beyond course design to examine three best practices we cultivated as
writing instructors. Employing these best practices in tandem with formative feedback,
peer review, and reﬂective journaling helped us communicate our pedagogical approach,
meet students’needs, and provide instruction students found meaningful in learning IR
through academic writing. We believe lecturers can use these practices to embed AcLits
into their courses. We end the section by reﬂecting on three unresolved challenges we
encountered during our pedagogical journey.
5.1. Empathetic instruction
Empathetic instruction entails setting aside judgment, looking at a problem from the stu-
dents’perspective, appreciating how they are experiencing the situation, and communi-
cating that one understands their experience and feelings (Meyers et al. 2019; Morin
n.d.). Empathetic instruction can help lecturers meet and cultivate students’diverse
needs, providing vital information to reﬁne their teaching practices.
We tapped our own experiences as academic writers when teaching this course to
empathise with our students’struggles (see Meyers et al. 2019). We told the students
about our diverse backgrounds and the strategies we devised to continuously improve
our writing skills: how we develop ‘aims’and ‘research questions’, how we beat procras-
tination and maintain writing discipline, how we revise our prose to promote clarity,
what we do when we get stuck, and so on. By discussing our struggles and strategies
with our students, we helped them see that their experiences are not unique, shameful,
TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION 11
or strange but rather the inevitable challenges academic writers face as they hone their
crafts (see French 2018). Thus, we sought to help our students put their struggles into
perspective and appreciate that academic writing is a craft, not a mysterious art or an
innate talent (Rienecker and Jörgensen 2003).
We also listened to our students’criticisms. Rather than shrugging oﬀstudent com-
ments as unfounded complaints, we saw them as vital clues for updating our teaching
practice. It may not have been what we wanted to hear or packaged in a tone we appreci-
ated, but the critical feedback we received from students was valuable nonetheless. By lis-
tening to how our students understand and struggle with writing, we helped them not
only complete their assignments but also learn from the experience (see Meyers et al.
5.2. Explicit instruction
Instructors tell their students to do an awful lot in their courses but sometimes fail to tell
them how to do it (see Elton 2010; Lea 2004; Lea and Street 1998). We recognised that
assignment instructions often deﬁne the desired result without instructing students on
how to achieve that result. Therefore, we sought to explicitly discuss our assumptions
about essay structure and quality, a key goal of the AcLits framework (see Aiken 2021)
and a vital pedagogical strategy when students–like ours–do not complete mandatory
We found that the best way to make our assumptions explicit was to tell our students
how to accomplish every element of a writing task. Thus, when we asked our students to
reference, we also told them how to do it and pointed them towards resources they could
use to develop their referencing skills. We spoke to our students about structure and
argument. We told them how to conduct a peer review seminar and the kinds of feedback
they should provide. In other words, we strove to make our expectations clear to our stu-
dents. Simultaneously, we gave our students space to try diﬀerent techniques, learn from
their mistakes, and progressively develop as writers.
Of course, that still leaves those perplexing requirements like critical analysis. While
many of us are hard-pressed to describe what this means and how academic writers
accomplish it (see Lea and Street 1998), virtually all of us know it when we see it. It
is instructive to share our implicit knowledge by presenting excerpts from student
essays and explicitly discussing how we evaluated them. Such explicit instruction
puts students in a better position to develop an implicit understanding of what we
mean when we tell them to ‘critically analyse a theory’. It also puts them in a better
position to recognise what critical analysis looks like and, by extension, how they
can do it (Olsson 2019a).
5.3. Reﬂective instruction
Lecturers should also ask students to reﬂect on their approach to coursework since reﬂec-
tion is crucial to any learning process (see Boud and Molloy 2013; Whittock 1997). In our
experience, unless we asked our students to reﬂect on their learning and the skills they
needed to develop, they did not do it.
12 E. M. OLSSON ET AL.
There are several ways lecturers can incorporate reﬂection into disciplinary courses
(see Whittock 1997). As mentioned above, the logbook activity is a simple assignment
requiring students to reﬂect on their strengths, weaknesses, and needs as academic
writers. This assignment is worthwhile not because it assists students with concrete
writing skills such as referencing and word economy but because it gives them a
chance to reﬂect on what they are doing well and what they need to improve. Course lec-
turers can use the logbook exercise to listen to what students have to say, validate their
concerns, and encourage them to keep going. Based on students’feedback in logbook
entries and course evaluations, we found that mandatory reﬂection exercises were invalu-
able to our students’learning (see Quinton and Smallbone 2010; Watson 2010; Whittock
Another important area of reﬂection is providing students with formative feedback
that they can and will use. It is challenging to ensure that students read, consider, and
actively address our input. If we solely provide summative feedback (see Boud and
Molloy 2013; Harlen and James 1997), we ﬁnd that students look for a grade and pay
little attention to everything else we write, especially if they believe our comments are
unfavourable. While lecturers cannot force their students to read and use their com-
ments, they can integrate opportunities for students to reﬂect on the feedback they
receive throughout their coursework. After all, if we want our students to read and
address the problems we identify in their texts, we need to embed ongoing, formative
feedback into our courses.
5.4. Unresolved challenges
While our continual experimentation over nine years helped us teach IR through aca-
demic writing, our collaborative, reﬂective practice made us increasingly aware of the
challenges we have yet to resolve. We identify three of these challenges below.
First, given the diversity of our students’knowledge and skills, a key challenge has
been creating an equitable, fair, and constructive peer response process. We usually
compose peer assessment groups to reﬂect the class’s diversity, which ideally allows
beginner students to learn from their more advanced peers. However, sometimes the
more advanced and motivated students complain that they do not receive the feedback
they need to develop their writing skills.
Likewise, some students with learning diﬃculties and disabilities struggle with our
fast-paced pedagogical design. These students are entitled to special pedagogical
support and typically receive more time to write their essays in other courses. This sol-
ution, however, does not work in our course since writing assignments are tied to a
tightly scheduled group process. Unfortunately, we have not yet found an adequate sol-
ution. Placing students entitled to a time extension in independent peer assessment
groups may solve the scheduling problem but can also make these students feel excluded
from the class.
Second, we struggle to assess and examine student essays consistently. As many stu-
dents note in course evaluations, diﬀerent lecturers provide diﬀerent feedback on student
writing, seemingly subscribing to diﬀerent evaluation standards. Some students argued
TEACHING IN HIGHER EDUCATION 13
that their grades depended more on who evaluated their essays than the quality of their
While we cannot guarantee that diﬀerent lecturers will evaluate student essays consist-
ently, we have made strides in addressing this challenge in several ways. First, we invite
the same lecturers to teach the course every term. In our experience, the teaching team’s
consistency helps lecturers understand course content, student needs, and evaluation
protocols. Additionally, we gather teaching staﬀto discuss evaluation protocols, articu-
lating our expectations of student coursework and appropriate feedback. Moreover, we
promote transparency by circulating exemplary essays from previous terms and provid-
ing students and lecturers with explicit evaluation criteria.
The third and most pernicious challenge is time. Working in a ‘publish or perish’
system where research output is valued above teaching competence (Brommesson
et al. 2016), how can lecturers make time to read, understand, and translate AcLits
into a pedagogy of practice? Like all unresolved challenges, we cannot deﬁnitively
answer this question. Although we were not compensated for the immense amount of
time it took to embed AcLits into our course, we believe this time was well spent.
During this process, we realised that if we ask our students to produce knowledge
through writing, our job is to teach them how to do it. We hope that in reﬂecting on
the practices we developed in our course, we can help others capitalise on the time
they invest in embedding AcLits into their courses.
This article has addressed the obstacles and opportunities of translating the Academic
Literacies approach into pedagogical practice. In doing so, we presented how we
employed formative feedback,peer assessment, and reﬂective journaling to teach Inter-
national Relations through academic writing. We then discussed how we met our stu-
dents’diverse needs through empathetic, explicit, and reﬂective instruction. Finally,
acknowledging that the HE sector’s structural transformations present lecturers with for-
midable challenges in Sweden and beyond, we concluded that lecturers could take prac-
tical steps to embed academic writing into disciplinary courses. We list several of those
steps above, but much work remains. We urge lecturers –especially those working in HE
systems where mandatory writing courses are the exception, and bilingual instruction is
the rule –to help strengthen and extend the AcLits framework through reﬂective practice
and independent research.
1. We focus on academic writing as a key element of AcLits (see Lea and Street 1998), acknowl-
edging that the approach also encompasses interrelated skills such as reading, listening,
note-taking, and debating.
Thank you to everyone who provided invaluable feedback on this text, including Jelena Belic,
Annica Kronsell, Florian Kühn, Hanna Leonardsson, Heidi Maurer, and two anonymous
reviewers. Thank you to the Unit for Academic Writing (ASK), the IR teaching team, and the
14 E. M. OLSSON ET AL.
directors of study at the School of Global Studies for their contributions to course development.
Special thanks to the student oﬃce staﬀwho did tremendous behind-the-scenes work on this
course. Any errors in the text, however, are ours alone.
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author(s).
This article was partially funded by a pedagogical prize awarded to the authors in 2017 by the
Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
Elizabeth M. Olsson http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0020-1764
Linnéa Gelot http://orcid.org/0000-0001-7634-8394
Johan Karlsson Schaﬀer http://orcid.org/0000-0002-0568-7353
Andréas Litsegård http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5255-4465
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