Teaching research writing at exit-level undergraduate programmes in South Africa


Not enough writing support is being provided to Baccalaureus Technologiae (BTech) students in vocational-intensive universities in South Africa. Even worse, not enough research is being done to investigate the writing attitudes of BTech students or how their lecturers support them in writing-intensive subjects. This view represents an unfair and a discriminatory approach to providing learning support to BTech students. This paper explores the use of dialogical formative feedback in the teaching of research writing to BTech students in a health sciences department at a university of technology in South Africa. The paper uses Engeström’s (1987) concept of an activity system in cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) and Boud and Molloy’s (2013a, 2013b) dialogical feedback approach to examine how formative feedback is being negotiated in a class of 14 Dental Technology students at a university of technology. Qualitative data was collected through focus group interviews, and from the written feedback in the students’ assignment drafts. This data is read diffractively using Activity theory, and dialogical feedback approach. This diffractive approach enables one to use theories to challenge hegemonic, discriminatory, and often unproductive models of feedback support in the teaching of research writing to students in difficult and uneven conditions. By diffractively reading practitioners’ thoughts and actions iteratively over time through the relational ontological frameworks of activity theory and dialogical feedback, this paper proposes a breakaway from the formal, prosaic, linear, and bureaucratic approach of giving feedback to students’ writing which often does not impact student learning.

Author Biography

E.E. Esambe, Cape Peninsula University of Technology
I lecture on Academic Development and Communication at Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development, CPUT.


Archer, M.S. 1995. Realist social theory: The morphogenetic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum Physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Boud, D. and E. Molloy. 2013a. What is the problem with feedback? In Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and Doing it Well, eds. D. Boud, and E. Molloy, 1 – 10. London: Routledge.

Boud, D. & E. Molloy. 2013b. Rethinking models of feedback for learning: The challenge of design. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 38(6): 698 – 712.

Bozalek, V., V. Mitchell, A. Dison and M. Alperstein. 2016. A diffractive reading dialogical feedback through the political ethics of care. Teaching in Higher Education DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2016.1183612.

Carless, D. 2013. Trust and its role in facilitating dialogic feedback. In Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and Doing it Well, eds. D. Boud, and E. Molloy, 90 – 10. London: Routledge.

CHE (Council on Higher Education). 2009. Postgraduate studies in South Africa: A statistical profile. Higher Education Monitor, 7. http://www.che.ac.za/sites/default/files/publications/CHE_MonitorProjectV7.pdf. [13 May 2017].

Christensen, G.J. 2009. Improving dentist-technician interaction and communication. The Journal of the American Dental Association 140: 475 – 478.

Clarence, S. 2017. A relational approach to building knowledge through academic writing: facilitating and reflecting on peer writing tutorials. In Writing Centre in Higher Education: Working In and Across the Disciplines, eds. S. Clarence, and L. Dison, 49 – 68. Stellenbosch: SUN Press.

Clarence, S. and S. McKenna. 2017. Developing academic literacies through understanding the nature of disciplinary knowledge. London Review of Education 15(1): 38-48.

Dall’Alba, G. and R. Barnacle. 2007. An ontological turn for higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 32(6): 679 – 691.

Dolphijn, R. and I. Van Der Tuin. 2012. New materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Library.

Engeström, Y. 2009. The future of activity theory: A rough draft. In Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory, eds. A. Sannino et al., 303 – 328. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. 1999a. Activity theory and individual and social transformation. In Perspectives on Activity Theory, eds. Y. Engeström et al., 19 – 38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. 1999b. Innovative learning in work teams: Analysing cycles of knowledge creation in practice. In Perspectives on Activity Theory, eds. Y. Engeström et al., 377 – 404. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y. 1987. Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.

English, F. 2015. Genre as a pedagogical resource at university. In Working with Academic Literacies: Case Studies Towards Transformative Practices, eds. T. Lillis et al., 245 – 255. Colorado: WAC Clearing House/ Parlour Press.

AUTHOR. 2016. XXX.

Evans, J., A. Henderson and N. Johnson. 2010. The future of education and training in dental technology: Designing a dental curriculum that facilitates teamwork across oral health professionals. British Dental Journal 208(5): 227 – 230.

Falchikov, N. 2005. Improving assessment through student involvement: Practical solutions for aiding learning in higher and further education. New York: Routledge.

Fraser, W. and R. Killen. 2005. The perceptions of students and lecturers of some factors influencing academic performance at two South African universities. Perspectives in Education 23(1): 25 – 40.

Gándara, P., R. Rumberger, J. Maxwell-Jolly and R. Callahan. 2003. English learners in California schools: Unequal resources, unequal outcomes. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(36). http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v11n36/. [26/05/2018].

Gardner, S.K. 2009. Student and faculty attributions of attrition in high and low-completing doctoral programmes in the United States. Higher Education 58(1): 97 – 112.

Gee, J.P. 2008. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London: Routledge.

Hardman, J. and A. Amory. 2015. Introduction to cultural-historical activity theory and tool mediation. In Activity Theory, Authentic Learning and Emerging Technologies: Towards a Transformative Higher Education Pedagogy, eds. V. Bozalek et al., 9 – 21. New York: Routledge.

Hassan, S. 2011. The needs and perceptions of academics regarding their professional development in an era of educational transformation. South African Journal of Higher Education 25(3): 476 – 490.

Herman, C. 2011. Obstacles to success – doctoral student attrition in South Africa. Perspectives in Education: The Changing Face of Doctoral Education in South Africa (Special Issue) 3: 40 – 52.

Hultman, K. and H. Lenz Taguchi. 2010. Challenging anthropocentric analysis of visual data: A relational materialist methodological approach to educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 23: 525 – 542.

Jacobs, C. 2013. Academic literacies and the question of knowledge. Journal for Language Teaching 47(2): 127 – 140.

Jolly, B. and D. Boud. 2013. Written feedback: What it is good for and how can we do it well. In: Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and Doing it Well, eds. D. Boud and E. Molloy, 104 – 124. London: Routledge.

Koen, C. 2007. Postraduate student retention and success: A South African case study. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Lea, M. 2016. Academic literacies: looking back in order to look forward. CriSTaL: Critical Studies in Teaching and Learning, 4(2): 88 – 101. DOI: http://10.14426/cristal.v4i2.91.

Lillis, T. and M. Scott. 2007. Defining academic literacies research: Issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics 4(1): 5 – 32.

Lillis, T. 2011. Legitimizing dialogue as textual and ideological goal in academic writing for assessment and publication. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 10(4): 401 – 432.

Linder, A., J. Airey, N. Mayaba and P. Webb. 2014. Fostering disciplinary literacy? South African Physics lecturers’ educational responses to their students’ lack of representational competence. African Journal of Research in Mathematics Science and Technology Education 18(3): 242 – 252.

Maclure, M. (2013). Researching without representation? Language and materiality in post-qualitative methodology. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26(6): 658 – 667.

Motshoane, P. and S. McKenna. 2014. More than agency: The multiple mechanisms affecting postgraduate education. In Pushing Boundaries in Postgraduate Supervision, eds. E. Bitzer, R. Albertyn, L. Frick, B. Grant and F. Kelly. 199 – 214. Stellenbosch: SUN Media.

Nicol, D. 2013. Resituating feedback from the reactive to the proactive. In Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and Doing it Well, eds. D. Boud and E. Molloy, 34 – 49. London: Routledge.

North, S.M. 1984. The idea of a writing centre. College English 46(5): 433-446.

Prinsloo, P. 2016. A socio-critical model for understanding and predicting postgraduate student success. In Postgraduate Supervision: Future Foci for the Knowledge Society, eds. M. Fourie-Malherbe et al., 85 – 98. Stellenbosch: SUN Press.

Robinson, H.M. 2009. Writing centre philosophy and the end of basic writing: motivation at the site of remediation and discovery. Journal of Basic Writing 28(2): 70-92.

Rowe, M., V. Bozalek and J. Frantz. 2013. Using Google Drive to facilitate a blended approach to authentic learning. British Journal of Educational Technology 44(4): 594 – 606.

South African Dental Technicians Council (SADTC). 2017. Scope of profession. Available: https://www.sadtc.org.za/the-profession/scope-of-profession.html. [20 June 2017].

The Lancet Commissions. 2010. Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world. The Lancet 376(9756): 1923 – 1958. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61854-5.

Thompson, I. 2009. Scaffolding in the writing centre: a microanalysis of an experienced tutor’s verbal and nonverbal strategies. Written Communication 26(4): 417-446.

Tinto, V. 2014. Tinto’s South Africa lectures. Journal of Student Affairs in Africa 2(2): 5 – 28. DOI: 10.14426/jsaa.v2i2.66.

Vorster, J. and L. Quinn. 2015. Towards shaping the field: Theorising the knowledge in a formal course for academic developers. Higher Education Research and Development, 53(5): 1031 – 1044.

Vorster, J. and L. Quinn. 2017. The “decolonial turn”: What does it mean for academic staff development? Education as Change 21(1): 31 – 49. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/1947-9417/2017/853.

Winberg, C. and J. Garraway. 2016. ‘It takes a villlage’: Attaining teaching excellence in a challenging context. South African Journal of Higher Education, 30(6): 161 – 175.

Yamagata-Lynch, L.C. 2010. Activity systems analysis methods: Understanding complex learning environments. New York: Springer.

How to Cite
Esambe, E.E. 2018. “Teaching Research Writing at Exit-Level Undergraduate Programmes in South Africa”. South African Journal of Higher Education 32 (6), 382-400. https://doi.org/10.20853/32-6-2988.