Writing competence in the university context Note-taking, term papers and final dissertations

Academic writing is something that can be practised.
Academic writing is something that can be practised. | Photo (detail): © SolisImages - Fotolia.com

Academic writing is an everyday requirement in the university context, and one that is not without its problems, not only for foreign students. However, a seminar portfolio containing different types of texts for different types of writing can help them improve their academic writing competence.

Academic writing is an important skill that is needed to cope with a range of university tasks, for example writing term papers, taking notes during lectures or excerpting/summarizing secondary literature. As well as allowing the (specialist subject) knowledge that has been conveyed to be processed, university writing is also used as a means of building knowledge and gaining access to the discipline in question. It is therefore a key competence that is relevant throughout an individual’s process of educational socialization. It begins with preparatory academic writing activities at school and evolves through various levels of writing aimed at further knowledge acquisition during university education, culminating in research-based writing for a final dissertation.

The academic domain, despite having universal characteristics that span different types of language, such as the use of specific terminology in individual subjects, is also shaped by cultural specificities that within the framework of student or academic exchange can result in confusion or indeed very different assessments of what actually constitutes the academic.

Characteristics of academic language

There is no “recipe book for good academic writing”. There is no “recipe book for good academic writing”. | Photo (detail): © kwanchaichaiudom – Fotolia.com Many German student handbooks on the subject of academic writing deal primarily with the characteristics of German academic language and academic text (type) conventions – including text structuring requirements and quotation rules. In this context, these are also known as the techniques of academic work. The central focus is on stylistic aspects and on aspects relating to specific text types, and they are ultimately approached with examination success in mind. Nonetheless, the kind of “recipe book for good academic writing” that is also mentioned in the preface to the handbook by Moll/Thielmann 2016, that is to say a collection of specimen texts with guidelines that can be applied 1:1 when writing any of the types of texts that need to be produced during a German university degree course, is simply not available. Especially students from abroad, who for cultural reasons are familiar with different types of text and whose linguistic repertoire is more limited – because they are unable to fall back on their native speaker skills in the register of everyday language, which after all provides the basis for everyday academic language – experience this “unfamiliar style” as a double challenge.

One of the main features of what is known as the academic style stems from the requirement for academic discourse to relate specifically to the subject in question, which in turn entails the use of impersonal forms of expressions and a complete ban on the first person singular. “The cultural differences (in a wider sense) in the social systems of academia and higher education can in some cases entail different requirements with respect to speaker identification […]” (Hennig/Niemann 2013: 626). Academic language is also characterized by its aim to present the essential points in a clear manner, as well as by its noun-based syntax and hypotaxis. A culture of debate also prevails in the academic world, for which typical written-language structures of a disputation are available – for example criticism and evaluation. German students may appear superficially to have a head start on their fellow students from other (academic) cultures. However, students whose native language is German also experience problems, including a lack of uncertainty when it comes to the differences in register between verbal and written language.

Writing competence and/or text competence?

Writing is a complex skill (not only in terms of academic language) that needs to be broken down into several sublevels. One of these is the fact that writing has to be regarded as a process in which the revision phase has so far been neglected: text competence thus consists not only of text production competence, genre competence and stylistic competence, but also of text optimization competence (Portmann-Tselikas/Schmölzer-Eibinger 2008). A distinction therefore needs to be made between text competence (the receptive and productive handling of texts) and writing competence (which includes not only text type knowledge but also strategic and pragmatic/communicative competences) coupled with discourse competence. In this context, such discourse competence means that students know that in principle they are writing even while still at university for a (partial) public rather than solely for the seminar tutor: students therefore have to write as if they were taking part in a public expert discourse despite the fact that they are still at a non-expert knowledge level themselves (Adamzik/Pieth 1997: 34). Nonetheless, this gradual acquisition of academic text and writing competence through a kind of term paper at upper secondary school level (Venohr 2009) or through term papers at university (Steinhoff 2007) is a specific of progressive academic socialization in the German education system. Term papers are regarded as a precursor to academic articles and in terms of both structure and academic language are geared towards the latter (Stezano Cotelo 2006).

Quotations play an important role in academic texts. Quotations play an important role in academic texts. | Photo (detail): © TIMDAVIDCOLLECTION – Fotolia.com

Writing didactic consequences for higher education

Writing begins with the reception of secondary literature from expert discourse such as monographs, handbook articles or journal essays. Students document what they have read by excerpting and summarizing the content in a new text of their own composition. In the process, they set what they have read into the context of other texts and the (specialist) knowledge they already have (Kruse 2010). Incorporating phrases they have read into their own texts – quoting, in other words – is a fundamental academic activity that serves to pinpoint their (own) position within the expert discourse. This is where the most frequent misunderstandings arise on the part of the (as yet) unpractised writers –  and not only of international students – because it is not a question of copying something that has already been said but of critically engaging with various approaches and thus also of gaining multiple-perspective access to the extra-verbal reality. 

In this context, a seminar portfolio containing various types of text can make an important contribution because it allows the student’s own writing process to be documented and also evaluated, for example by other seminar participants, on a peer review basis (this can also take the form of an e-portfolio from Kursiša 2012). When teaching writing competence at university, a didactic approach to writing based consistently on text (types) should be used, also supported by electronic media. This allows discourse competence – also from a culture-contrasting perspective – to be increased. Teachers should observe the following aspects when teaching writing competence at university:
  1. A link must be consistently established between academic reading and writing (imitation function).
  2. Texts with different degrees of specialization must be offered (journalistic texts vs. academic texts).
  3. Stylistic differences must be identified according to text types within the discipline in question.
  4. The knowledge of genre conventions and writing competence in L1 must be utilized.
  5. Differences to (academic) text types in the target culture (L2 or L3) must be identified and made the subject of writing advice and writing workshops.
 The need for (academic) writing guidance is still an issue that is neglected in teaching at German universities because many university tutors continue to assume that students will automatically come equipped with the requisite knowledge of academic standards. Nonetheless, studies of writing advice oriented towards higher education didactics reveal that the subject has meanwhile acquired practical and research relevance (Brandl et al. 2010).


Adamzik, Kirsten/Pieth, Christa (1997): Anleitung zum Schreiben universitärer Texte in kontrastiver Perspektive. In: Adamzik, Kirsten/Antos, Gerd/Jakobs, Eva-Maria (Ed.): Domänen- und kulturspezifisches Schreiben (= Textproduktion und Medium; 3). Frankfurt am Main u.a.: Lang, p. 30-69.

Brandl, Heike/Riemer, Claudia/Duxa, Susanne/Leder, Gabriela (2010): Ansätze zur Förderung akademischer Schreibkompetenz an der Hochschule: Fachtagung 2.-3. März 2009 an der Universität Bielefeld (= Materialien Deutsch als Fremdsprache; 83). Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen.
Hennig, Mathilde/Niemann, Roman (2013): Unpersönliches Schreiben in der Wissenschaft. Kompetenzunterschiede im interkulturellen Vergleich. In: InfoDaF Volume 40, Issue 6, p. 622-645.

Kruse, Otto (2010): Lesen und Schreiben. Der richtige Umgang mit Texten im Studium (= UTB 3355). Wien: UVK.

Kursiša, Anta (2012): Aneignung wissenschaftlicher Arbeits- und Präsentationstechniken Welche Möglichkeiten bietet der ePortfolio-Einsatz in der Lehre? In: InfoDaF Volume 39, Issue 4, p. 465-477.
Moll, Melanie/Thielmann, Winfried (2017): Wissenschaftliches Deutsch. Wie es geht und worauf es ankommt (= UTB 4650). Konstanz: UVK.

Portmann-Tselikas, Paul R./Schmölzer-Eibinger, Sabine (2008): Textkompetenz. In: Fremdsprache Deutsch Issue 39, p. 5-16.

Steinhoff, Torsten (2007): Wissenschaftliche Textkompetenz. Sprachgebrauch und Sprachentwicklung in wissenschaftlichen Texten von Studenten und Experten. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Stezano Cotelo, Kristin (2006): Die studentische Seminararbeit – studentische Wissensverarbeitung zwischen Alltagswissen und wissenschaftlichem Wissen. In: Ehlich, Konrad/Heller, Dorothee (Ed.): Die Wissenschaft und ihre Sprachen (= Linguistic Insights. Studies in Language and Communication; 52). Frankfurt am Main u.a.: Lang, p. 87-114. 

Venohr, Elisabeth (2009): Textsorten an deutschen Schulen und Hochschulen. In: Dalmas, Martine/Foschi, Marina/Neuland, Eva (Ed.): Wissenschaftliche Textsorten im Germanistikstudium deutsch-italienisch-französisch kontrastiv. Trilaterales Forschungsprojekt in der Villa Vigoni 2007-2008, Band 1. Villa Vigoni: Centro Italo-Tedesco Villa Vigoni, p. 305-322.