Jan. 20, 2011

New ISU software aims to boost students' research writing skills

by Diana Pounds

Students often struggle with the task of writing academic papers, such as research reports, theses, or dissertations. They're unfamiliar with the different writing norms in their fields of study and with the strategic rhetorical shifts and functions that are necessary to develop a scientific argument.

An app for that

Fortunately, Iowa State students will be able to receive guidance through their early ventures in academic writing. The Research Writing Tutor (RWT) is web-based software that analyzes students' writing and offers feedback especially tailored to their fields of study. The students plug in their text, and the software compares it with a collection of journal articles in their discipline and responds with suggestions for improvement. For example, RWT feedback might contain comments like this:

"Thirteen percent of your introduction is reviewing previous research, but most article introductions in your field have about 45 percent of review of previous research. You need to add more to your discussion of relevant literature."


"Most introductions in your field highlight a problem to justify current research. You might consider identifying a problem based on your review of previous research. Click to learn more or to see examples of highlighting a problem."

"We developed the software to help both graduate and undergraduate students improve their academic writing. Our goal is to implement the RWT as a core component of a campus-wide, technology-enhanced research writing support system that will enable ISU to help the students excel academically," said Elena Cotos, leader of the RWT project.

Students begin using the RWT

The implementation of the RWT begins from the very first semester of the project. Students in English 101D, a writing course for international graduate students, are using the software this semester. Other ISU students soon will be getting academic writing advice from the RWT.

Later in the semester, the Graduate College will use it in its new Thesis and Dissertation writing seminars. Also, staff in the Writing and Media Help Center and Academic Success Center will begin showing students how to take advantage of the new software when working on research papers. Students will access the RWT website with their university IDs and passwords.

The RWT project is a work in progress, Cotos said. The functionality of the existing prototype of the software is being expanded to include additional modules, and new versions of the software will be rolled out each semester. Iowa State faculty, staff, and students joined efforts to improve and refine the RWT, and a number of units on campus (for example, Graduate College, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, Writing and Media Help Center, Academic Success Center) committed to its implementation as a free-access resource as well as through workshops, writing courses, and individual tutoring.

Funded by student technology fees

A two-year $362,116 grant from the Computation Advisory Committee, the group that oversees spending of student technology fees, will fund continued work on this project.