Scholarly article on topic 'The Academic Writing of Arab Postgraduate Students: Discussing the Main Language Issues'

The Academic Writing of Arab Postgraduate Students: Discussing the Main Language Issues Academic research paper on "Educational sciences"

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Abstract of research paper on Educational sciences, author of scientific article — Khairi Obaid Al-Zubaidi

Abstract This discussion paper will report on an inquiry conducted with large cohorts of Arab postgraduate students undertaking study and research at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) International Campus Kuala Lumpur. It will identify and address the main language problems faced by Arab postgraduate students in their academic writing in English. Such students need assistance with developing their understanding and application of the links between language skills and academic knowledge- building. The paper will therefore discuss ways in which language teachers might more effectively assist Arab postgraduate students to adjust to and be more successful in an academic context writing and language-use.

Academic research paper on topic "The Academic Writing of Arab Postgraduate Students: Discussing the Main Language Issues"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 66 (2012) 46 - 52

The 8th International Language for Specific Purposes (LSP) Seminar - Aligning Theoretical

Knowledge with Professional Practice

The Academic Writing of Arab Postgraduate Students: Discussing

the Main Language Issues

Khairi Obaid Al-Zubaidi

_Language Academy, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) International Campus, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia_


This discussion paper will report on an inquiry conducted with large cohorts of Arab postgraduate students undertaking study and research at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) International Campus Kuala Lumpur. It will identify and address the main language problems faced by Arab postgraduate students in their academic writing in English. Such students need assistance with developing their understanding and application of the links between language skills and academic knowledgebuilding. The paper will therefore discuss ways in which language teachers might more effectively assist Arab postgraduate students to adjust to and be more successful in an academic context writing and language-use.

© 2012 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer-review under responsibility of the LS P 2012 Co mmittee, Language Acadcmy, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

Keywords: Academic writing; language problems; Arab postgraduate students

1. Introduction

Academic writing courses and seminars which are organized in the last few years at many Malaysian colleges and universities might seem a reasonable solution for many international student writing deficiencies. However the question needs to be asked whether these courses and seminars really resolve the dilemmas of academic writing for increasing numbers of international postgraduate students? This is a 'little' discussion paper about a large and important topic given that Malaysia is planning to be a competitive international hub for higher education in the region of the South East Asia. It explores the challenge of improving the academic writing in

* Corresponding author: Tel.: +6-019-244-3134 E-mail address:

1877-0428 © 2012 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer-review under responsibility of the LSP 2012 Committee, Language Academy, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.11.246

Arab postgraduate international students who make up a significant proportion of the international students in Malaysia.

In recent decades most colleges and universities in the United States and the West have identified the most important student competencies and related learning outcomes to cope with new requirements of digital literacy and lifelong learning as well as academic literacy. Most universities in the US have adapted some form of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program in which all students are obliged to write term papers to pass the courses (Galvan [11]). Such programs revolve around eight categories of core skills required: communication skills, computation skills, community skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills, information management skills, interpersonal skills, personal skills, and technology skills [21]. In contrast most universities in Middle East have not updated their programs to face the new challenges and demands of an international environment. Therefore, most of the Arab international postgraduate students in Malaysia lack these skills. There is a strong need to bridge information gaps and new trends in higher education which are crucial for international post graduate students to ensure that they are well prepared to complete their degrees and adapt to new situations with which they will be confronted in their future careers. As Foster and Russell [10] point out future jobs in the global economy "increasingly depend on specialized written communication in a global environment".

Writing is often the factor which decides whether a student is successful at university or not. On the other hand, as Foster [10] explains, "the ability of students to meet the demands of different genres and rhetorical settings in the workforce depends in large part on whether and how they have developed their writing at university". Writing is an essential skill that everyone will need at some point in their lives. According to Glazier [12] a successful foreign language learner in English writing will have better chances and benefits in their life-long careers.

Academic writing includes essential skills to develop the necessary academic norms to enable international graduate students to deal with new postgraduate requirements and deliver high-quality performance and achievements. Writing is one of the most important language skills that show how much postgraduate students master the process of his/her research. As Marfulius [20] puts it, "writing involves perhaps more sub skills than any other academic task". On the other hand Scott [20] points out, to write well requires the combining of multiple physical and mental processes in one concerted effort to communicate information and ideas. Additionally academic writing requires students to incorporate and synthesize diverse sources of knowledge into an authoritative viewpoint [10]. Chanderasegaran [6] argues that writing in classroom is a core academic requirement. He also believes and writing outside the classroom can be a good opportunity for students to practice what they learn in the classroom in order to enhance writing skills.

Many educators (e.g. Warschauer, [24]; O'Sullivan, [22]) are enthusiastic to use both process and product approaches to academic writing to give students opportunities to write multiple drafts and receive feedback. On the contrary in Arab states writing courses in general and academic writing courses in particular have not improved and have not received enough attention to become core parts of the regular curriculum. Ismail's [14] investigation shows that Arab international students who have taken writing courses are not sure about their ability and tend to have "misconceptions about their ability ... they still need to pay tremendous attention to this particular skill". Irvin [13] suggests there is a need to "clean up some of those wild misconceptions".

Previous studies (Al-Zubaidi [1]; Canagarajah [5]; & Knight [16]) indicate the rapid growth in the number of post graduate students writing in English. As their academic problems become more pronounced, researchers have noticed the need to study advanced levels of disciplinary literacy, discourse conventions and knowledge content particularly in graduate schools. My academic experience in teaching and supervision of postgraduate students in different countries in the Middle East and Malaysia, as well as other places, gives me a clear vision that a correct academic English writing style is the one of the most difficult parts of the postgraduate programs facing international students.

Most countries and regions all around the world have witnessed increased growth in numbers of not only new universities but also degree options (in various forms such as twin degrees, franchise programs, open learning,

and extensive campuses) in the last two decades due to both forces of globalization and internalization. These universities and colleges are trying very hard to comply and cope with international qualification and accreditation. But the reality is that commercial and financial factors have played a crucial role in the acceptance by some universities of large numbers of students who are very poorly versed in their academic skills and even in their majors. The low level of academic standardization has led some governments in the Middle East for example to take some measures to stop sending their students to some of these universities. For instance, the government of Saudi Arabia has recently taken a decision to stop sending their students to twenty-five universities in Australia, two in Malaysia, seven in Pakistan and nine in Jordan. (Arab News [2] ).

2. Discussion: The main challenges faced by Arab postgraduate students

Different academic culture

As we have already explored elsewhere, the cultural and academic background of postgraduate students plays a crucial factor in academic writing [1]. There are a number of academic barriers which students need to get adjusted to. Students may have difficulty adjusting to the various accents of instructors along with their different teaching styles. They may have difficulty understanding class lecturers, making them feel reluctant to participate in class discussions. Moreover, students may find test instructions difficult to comprehend, and they may be unfamiliar with testing and grading systems of the university. Academic culture consists of a shared experience and outlook with regard to the educational system, the subject to be studied, and the conventions associated with it. If a student enters this culture from a different one, there will inevitably be some false expectations or misunderstandings. These may relate to the organization and system of the university or college, or the specific discipline that is being studied. Differences in learning styles are closely linked with some of the students' difficulties in academic writing.

As Arab students belong to different academic culture, so their habits of mind tend to be different. As we have regularly observed, this is reflected in their different oral as well as writing activities in the classroom. Yet most current English academic course generally ignores the fact that Arab students have a different background in academic literacy. English courses for post graduate students designed for Western students may not be adequately supporting the needs of Arab students and even local Malaysian students. Arab students are not familiar with the measure of responsibility for their own learning in the new values of academic community and challenges of writing their thesis or other research papers for publications. These students often have serious difficulties about how to deal with academic citations or references as well as generic writing formats. In addition to a dissertation, most universities in Malaysia ask postgraduate students to publish at least two papers in refereed journals during the period of their study. We have found out that most of Arab students are not prepared for these tasks and are not familiar with rules and the requirements of such publications.

Poor attitude towards writing

According to Foreman [9] students with academic writing learning difficulties tend to have a lack of confidence as well as motivation which together encourages low levels of achievement. From our observations in the classroom, Arab postgraduate students generally find it difficult to absorb and understand the new academic writing culture. They struggle to acquire the required writing styles structures, and referencing formats. They need time and help to cope and deal with required standards of academic writing. The traditional educational systems of Arab countries typically focus on exam-based education which influence study activities in this direction. Thus, these educational systems tend to ignore the importance of team work activities, oral presentations, and term papers simply because these are not included in exams. We have also observed that most Arab postgraduate students have negative attitudes towards the requirements of academic writing as reflected in

the quality of the output of the writing assignments, type of ideas, and ways of discussions. Arab students need support to learn how to deal with new international academic requirements and the ethics of academic writing and to overcome some related issues:

• Fear their work will be criticized.

• Feeling the pressure to adapt to the needs of academic writing on their own.

• A student's culture has a significant influence on how well he/she will achieve.

• They were not able to differentiate between the genres involved in the academic writing.


1. Academic faculties and departments should take the initative to encourage, provide and create suitable opportunities for international students to integrate into departmental community. According to Lovitts [19] there are two types of integrations; academic and social integration: "Academic integration develops through task integration, working together on the intellectual and professional tasks of graduate education: learning, teaching, researching, and publishing....Social integration is brought about through socio emotional integration, supportive interactions inside and outside the department with members of the departmental community".

2. Academic supervisor and support networks could play a significant role: (a) to "...mediate cultural, institutional and disciplinary rules, conventions and mores in order to support the doctoral researcher to produce an acceptable text" [15]; and (b) to provide "advanced academic training" and express their _ideas through their feedback [18]._

Academic writing conventions

Academic writing is always influenced by the degree conventions of the particular disciplines [15]. Therefore, most Arab postgradmte students don't have enough knowledge to use these new regulations which are different from their own old one in their home countries. Academic writing involves more than grammar and syntax [24]. It involves familiarity with the writing conventions of the university culture in which the foreign language learner participates. Although language proficiency is at the heart of academic writing, the real problem for postgraduate students is not the language related errors, but the fact that students have not met the expectation of academic readers in the target language. This challenge involves familiarity with the writing conventions of the university culture and disciplinary subcultures in which the second /foreign language learner participates. Academic writing requirements then are one of the greatest challenges to students [17].

Many Arab international postgraduate students have serious problems with choosing a topic, developing a research idea, and designing an inquiry or project. There are a large number of Arab students who also have difficult time interacting with their supervisors in different faculties. Some Malaysian universities have noticed this phenomenon and are trying to deal with it through organizing workshops. But unfortunately many such workshops turned out to be more a business and sometime the professors who are running these activities are not sufficiently aware of the real obstacles causing these students' problems.

Critical thinking

Dissertation/thesis or research paper writing is a highly-cognitive task requiring sufficient motivation to persevere. Archer [3] indicates that there are three components which determine student motivation: perceived

probability of success, interest, and choice. According to Coffin [8] academic writing includes "assessing students' content knowledge and improving content knowledge and thinking skills". In addition Irvin [13] believes that "academic writing is always a form of evaluation that asks you to demonstrate knowledge and show proficiency with certain disciplinary skills of thinking, interpreting, and presenting". Furthermore Irvin believes there are important "literacy task" elements which should be considered in academic writing:

1. Knowledge of research skills

2. The ability to read complex texts

3. The understanding of key disciplinary concepts

4. Strategies to synthesizing, analyzing and responding critically to new information

There is some misunderstanding about the phrase "critical thinking" in some cultures. For many of our international students critical thinking is often thought to mean' criticizing others' which may be culturally discouraged. This is a significant way in which habits of mind can impinge on academic cultures. So there is a need to clarify the positive aspect of this concept. As Axelrod [4] explains:

When you think critically, you raise questions about what you have been reading, writing discussing or thinking, and you try to explore answers to questions you and others have raised. Critical reading and writing involve the same skills as critical thinking, along with some additional ones that you need when you are actively reading a passage or when you are writing".

Nevertheless, Arab students must be taught analytical thinking and encouraged to apply this method to their own academic writing assignments and presentations. This does not mean that Arab students are not natural thinkers. They have been taught in traditional schools and universities where the teacher is the center of the classroom and the student is the receiver. Therefore we have found out that some students are not sufficiently prepared for the tasks of analyzing the data or synthesizing the information in research. These are key activities to support academic writing.

Suggestion: Therefore, English courses should develop the students' ability to express themselves clearly in their writing, to encourage them to think independently, to criticize the work of others, and to construct an academic argument._

Plagiarism and Academic Writing

Plagiarism is a serious academic crime that could get you expelled from school. It is also easy to commit by accident or bad habit if you are not careful. Almost all Middle Eastern postgraduate students who studied in other medium of instruction than English at the university level are new to the Western cultural aspects of academic literacy. Therefore, they are often not fully aware about the concept of plagiarism. At the beginning of tertiary levels of education in the West, instructors generally explain the concept of plagiarism and most course handouts indicate warnings to students regarding the dangers of plagiarism.

Cultural Difficulties

Like other internationals, Arab students in Malaysia are exposed to views often different from those in their home countries. Living in a different cultural context requires adaptation to the new cultural environment. Most of the Arab students are Muslims as is the Malaysian population in general. Yet there are still significant other cultural challenges.

Lack of writing skills

Generally most of the Arab postgraduate students who come to Malaysia to study are required to take intensive English courses either at the same universities where they pursue their degrees or at other language centers. Again these students are generally not receiving enough support to prepare them in writing their theses or other research papers. They usually have not met the expectation of academic readers of the target language. They are facing many linguistic difficulties in particular - such as summarizing the papers of other authors, paraphrasing, and grammatical structures. As Richards [23] points out, such students need particular assistance in linking language skills and knowledge to the academic writing conventions and structures expected of them. This is crucial to address what he identifies as the four main stages and ways in which postgraduates often get 'lost' in the academic writing process - that is, in the initial stages of designing an inquiry around a focus question, in organizing a literature review to frame where their own inquiry fits in and is substantial, in the process of meaningfully collecting and analyzing research data, and above all else in the process of organizing and linking the elements of effective academic writing as language-use. Finally, some students also lack the fundamentals of web-based research which include search as well as technological skills.

3. Conclusion

Current academic writing courses for postgraduate students have some useful aspects. However when it comes to the particular needs of Arab international postgraduates, significant improvements are needed which better recognise: (a) the crucial role of cultural differences; (b) how many such students do not have sufficient base of academic literacy habits to build upon, and (c) the crucial link between language and writing skills and knowledge. Therefore we suggest that such courses need to be drastically reframed to address such challenges and to provide the support which international fee-paying students might reasonably expect.

About the author

Prof.Dr. Khairi Obaid Alzubaidi, (Applied Linguistics) University of Northern Colorado, U.S.A. M.A: University of La Verne, California, U.S.A. Taught at University of Baghdad, Sultan Qaboos University, Amman University, he is currently at the Language Academy, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) International Campus Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His research interest is in applied linguistics, cultural studies, media literacy and translation.


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