Supporting academic transition: a focus on academic essay writing

This guidance was written by postgraduate students participating in the Centre for Teaching and Learning’s Student Experience Internship Scheme 2021, and is based on interviews they undertook with Oxford students.

Each interviewee was asked to reflect on an early academic experience at Oxford (or their expectations of Oxford), and invited to share what would have improved this experience. While these interviews clearly do not represent all Oxford students, the themes that emerged across these interviews form the basis of this guidance and are further supported by evidence from educational research.

Communicating expectations and providing clear guidelines 

My very first essay was an incredibly broad question, which was about the emergence of agriculture; it was something like ‘How and when did agriculture emerge?’. We were given a reading list that had maybe about 12 readings on it. There wasn't a lot of indication in terms of what we should read, or how much. We did have a few sub questions to think about, but there were a lot of questions and not really a lot of guidance given on how long the essay should be. So, we were just thrown into the deep end.

- Undergraduate Student in Archaeology  

Some practical suggestions for supporting first year students’ essay writing skills:

  • When setting essays, it is helpful to consider how the topics and questions you are assigning may be unclear or overwhelming for first year students, particularly if your students are accustomed to a more structured approach to assignments, and/or are less familiar with the conventions associated with writing in your academic discipline.  
  • Consider providing your students with brief guides to academic writing in your discipline at the start of Michaelmas term. You can then signpost students to these in your feedback on their work throughout the year. This is a relatively efficient way to provide in-demand writing support at the start of term and can be shared with all students via email, Canvas and/or as hard copies at introductory meetings. Once produced, these writing support resources can be used for multiple cohorts, with only minimal editing required and are an effective way to communicate, and reiterate, your expectations. There are also general guides for academic writing that are available on the University’s Study skills and training webpages
  • Your writing support documents for students should adhere to the University’s accessibility guidelines. Advice that students frequently seek, and could be incorporated into a writing support document, include:
    • Essential content for introductions. 
    • Basic pointers on structuring paragraphs and developing academic arguments. 
    • Examples of different writing styles.
    • How to reference in your discipline.

For each piece of academic writing that you set your students, clarify your expectations about:

  • How long the piece of writing should be.
  • How you would like the writing to be structured and formatted.  
  • What style of academic referencing conventions should be used. 
  • How and when the essay should be submitted.
  • You could also ask students to demonstrate how they have used any of your previous feedback to enhance their academic writing in subsequent work.

The Centre for Teaching and Learning has developed some practical teaching ideas for supporting students to understand what makes excellent examined work, and the criteria by which they will be assessed. The collection includes examples of teaching from academics around the university, as well as activities specifically designed for the Oxford context. 

Acknowledging challenges and developing students’ confidence  

Many students starting University as either under- or postgraduates, lack confidence in their academic writing abilities. For students’ first attempts at writing try to make sure you are clear in letting them know you are not expecting perfection!

Just receiving verbal confirmation that, you know, ‘don't worry, this is your first essay. We don't expect it to be amazing. This is just the starting point. Just give it a go’ is reassuring. 

- Undergraduate student in Archaeology and Anthropology


What I found after I started collaborating with my friend on the essay was that I'm more similar to my peers than I realise and everyone else is just as anxious and just as nervous as I am. In that sense, I wish I didn't kind of panic so much and that I wasn’t so isolated. 

- Undergraduate student in English

Encouraging students to use the university libraries  

All new students are usually invited, and expected, to attend library inductions at their college and department/faculty libraries. For postgraduate students new to Oxford, additional guidance to the university’s libraries may be necessary, as they are more often expected to incorporate their own research into essays rather than working from a set of readings provided by their tutor/supervisor.  

  • You could draw your students’ attention to the guidance provided by The Bodleian Libraries on using libraries, locating sources, and developing research skills through their Bodleian iSkills workshops.  

Providing opportunities for peer review

I thought that the structure of critiquing each other's essays, while it was a little bit daunting, was a very useful task for us to do, a useful skill for us to develop. Thinking as scholars, critiquing work, noticing the strengths and weaknesses in other people's essays, helps you notice the strengths and weaknesses in your own work as well. 

- Undergraduate student in English

  • Where appropriate, you may wish to provide students with the opportunity to read and critique one another’s writing. Academic peer networks take time to form organically, so by implementing them in your teaching, you can provide students with opportunities to learn the skills of providing constructive feedback and critique, as well as learning how to respond to feedback. For more information on utilising peer feedback, see the Oxford Teaching Idea on peer feedback.  


There are many resources for students that explain how to write academically in different disciplines. The following are some examples of Oxford-specific writing resources:  


Oxford Teaching Ideas © 2024 by Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Oxford are licensed under Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International .

We encourage you to adapt and build upon the material in any medium or format to suit your individual teaching purposes (for non-commercial purposes only). If distributing your adapted material, we ask that you credit the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

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