Writing code might be simple for many computer science students, but writing English can be more of a challenge, and a new grant-funded project is aiming to find out why.
By investigating the level of written work by computer science PhD students, an RMIT team are hoping to tackle a long-running problem for universities and employers in Australia.
If students struggle to write English this not only detracts from the quality of their research papers, but also potentially harms future employability.
Leading the project is computer scientist Dr Sandra Uitdenbogerd, from RMIT’s School of Science, whose research looks at how language is learnt and how to improve people's language skills with computer-based tools.
“The English writing skills of students has been an issue that Australian universities have grappled with for years and changes in the student cohort means the issue is becoming more pressing,” she said.
“By carrying out this research we hope to find out how best to support our students and ensure they acquire the writing skills needed to complete a PhD and participate in the wider research community, as a paper author and reviewer, as well as improving their overall employability.”
A student’s academic credentials can count for little if they are unable to perform well in the written component of their studies, according to Dr Daryl D’Souza, a member of the RMIT team.
“A PhD in computer science requires a significant level of English language skill and many students find it difficult to write scientific documents of sufficient quality due to their level of English proficiency,” he said.
“In Australia the graduate employability statistics for 2014 show that lack of communication skills is a major reason why existing positions are not filled, with computer science graduates being the hardest to place.
“And, anecdotally, companies eager to attract high calibre graduates often refrain from doing so because of their poor communication skills.”
To assess proficiency in English for application purposes Australian universities use the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which is the standard English test for migration, study and work in most English-speaking countries.
Consequently, the project will use IELTS tests to gauge the level of student writing skills, with funding for the research provided by IDP:IELTS Australia, a joint owner of IELTS, with the British Council and Cambridge English Language Assessment.
“The aim is to study the relationship between assessed English writing skills (measured by IELTS results) and the quality of research manuscripts in computer science,” D’Souza said.
Methods used in the research will include nation-wide surveys and written tasks, completed in the early and final stages of their degree, assessed by supervisors and an IELTS examiner.
“Key drivers for this research include providing best-practice academic writing support and improving the employability of computer science PhD graduates,” D’Souza said.
“This study represents a significant and important step in the understanding of mechanisms, resources and processes towards improving writing for research among PhD students.”
In addition to Dr D’Souza and Dr Uitdenbogerd, the project’s other members include Dr Charles Thevathayan, Dr Kathleen Lynch, Associate Professor James Harland, and Associate Professor Margaret Hamilton, all from RMIT’s Computer Science Education Research Group.
“I heard of the IELTS grant scheme via an email, which caught my interest as much of my research tends to be related to language, while Kath Lynch had previously researched the effect of entry pathways into our degrees and subsequent academic success,” Uitdenbogerd said.
“The final topic was based on an idea proposed by Kath, as there has been little prior work studying the writing skills of computer science PhD students.”
While the group is very pleased to secure the IELTS funding, Uitdenbogerd believes this research will be beneficial for both the university and students.
“To our knowledge this is the first IELTS grant awarded to RMIT since 2000, so we’re obviously delighted,” she said.
“But apart from the grant success itself, this could really help RMIT to more effectively support PhD students to become better academics.”
Story: Daniel Walder