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Academic Writing Analytics (AWA) Project

Students learn that critical, reflective, academic writing must make their thinking visible. This is conveyed through particular linguistic forms, which are hallmarks of academic writing. AcaWriter can identify some of these patterns, and provide instant feedback to help students improve their drafts.

Strategic focus on academic writing

Making your thinking visible in writing is a critical competence. The ability to communicate and debate ideas coherently and critically is a core graduate attribute. In many disciplines, writing provides a significant window into the mind of the student, evidencing mastery of the curriculum and the ability to reflect on one’s own learning. Arguably, in the humanities and social sciences, writing is the primary source of evidence. Moreover, as dialogue and debate move from face-to-face to online in a variety of genres and digital channels, discourse shifts from being ephemeral to persistent, providing a new evidence base.

Learning to do this is tough, and feedback is expensive to give. However, while all the evidence shows that timely, personalised feedback is one of the key factors impacting learning, and students consistently request quicker, better feedback, assessing writing is extremely time-consuming — whether a brief first assignment, a draft essay, a thesis chapter, or a research article in preparation for peer review. Moreover, no academic can provide detailed feedback on draft after draft, 24/7, to hundreds of students. This is the niche that automated feedback can fill, to complement the expert assessment that only skilled academics can provide.

The niche for automated feedback. This is the focus of the long-term Academic Writing Analytics (AWA) project. CIC is evolving a formative feedback app for academic writing which we call AcaWriter, working in close partnership with academics from diverse faculties, HELPS and IML. This Natural Language Processing (NLP) tool identifies the metadiscourse corresponding to rhetorical moves. These moves use linguistic cues to signal to the reader that a scholarly, knowledge-level claim is being made, but UTS practice and the wider research literature evidence how difficult this is for students to learn, and indeed, for some educators to teach and grade with confidence.

Genres of writing. There is quite a diverse range of writing at university. AcaWriter handles 2 broad classes, which we call analytical and reflective. All the examples so far illustrate analytical writing, so here’s what reflective feedback looks like, which you can see has completely different moves:

These are all explained in the orientation website for students and staff.

This is not automated grading, but rapid formative feedback on drafts. A few countries use technology for automated grading at primary and high school level, especially for high stakes exams, but this is not what we’re talking about here. AcaWriter is designed to make visible to learners the ways in which they are using (or failing to use) language to ‘make their thinking visible’, so that they gradually internalise this. A series of pilots has been conducted since 2015, and you can learn about staff and student reactions to it, and its impact on writing, in the peer reviewed research papers below.

Access to AcaWriter

AcaWriter was announced to all students in May 2020, and is available to all UTS staff [login now!].

There’s a free demo site for you to experiment (stripped down features, no documents saved, no educator tools for creating assignments).We are receiving regular enquiries from other universities about the possibility of UTS hosting AcaWriter for them. This is something we are considering, so please email cic@uts.edu.au to express your interest, to help us gauge demand.

AcaWriter and its underlying text analytics platform has been released open source. This enables other universities to deploy AcaWriter in their own intranets, to facilitate research collaborations around common interests (e.g. teaching Pharmacy Masters students to reflect on their work placements; teaching undergraduate Law students to argue more clearly), and to share evidence and software improvements.


We strongly recommend the free tutorial on UTS Open by CIC doctoral researcher Sophie Abel, on Writing an Abstract. In just an hour, with lots of multimedia examples, you learn about the key moves you have to make when writing a good research abstract (which translates well to the executive summary for many kinds of analytical report). Once you complete this tutorial, there’s a link through to the full version of AcaWriter.

The ATN Higher Education Text Analytics consortium developed educator resources for coherently embedding AcaWriter into the student experience, plus technical training for researchers to understand the underlying NLP.

The CIC team runs regular workshops for educators and writing analytics researchers introducing the pedagogical and technical dimensions. Browse the Events menu on CIC’s Writing Analytics blog.

Research publications

Learn more from the publications and replays below, visit our Writing Analytics blog, and browse the Events menu to see the workshops we convene, where many of the world’s leading researchers meet to reflect on the state of the art and future of automated writing assessment.

Key paper (overview of 5 years research, joint with academics from Law, Accounting and Pharmacy): Knight, S., Shibani, A., Abel, S., Gibson, A., Ryan, P., Sutton, N., Wight, R., Lucas, C., Sándor, Á., Kitto, K., Liu, M., Mogarkar, R. & Buckingham Shum, S. (2020). AcaWriter: A learning analytics tool for formative feedback on academic writing. Journal of Writing Research, 12, (1), 141-186.

Buckingham Shum, S. and Lucas, C. (2020). Learning to Reflect on Challenging Experiences: An AI Mirroring Approach. Proceedings of the CHI 2020 Workshop on Detection and Design for Cognitive Biases in People and Computing Systems, April 25, 2020. [slides]

Shibani, A. (2019). Augmenting pedagogic writing practice with contextualizable learning analytics. Doctoral Dissertation, Connected Intelligence Centre, University of Technology Sydney, AUS.

Key paper (alignment with learning design): Shibani, A., Knight, S., Buckingham Shum S. (2019). Contextualizable Learning Analytics Design: A Generic Model and Writing Analytics Evaluations. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK’19). ACM, New York, NY, USA. [PDF]

Key paper (writing research abstracts): Abel, S., Kitto, K., Knight, S., Buckingham Shum, S. (2018). Designing personalised, automated feedback to develop students’ research writing skills. In Proceedings Ascilite 2018

Knight, S., Shibani, A. and Buckingham Shum S.  (2018). Augmenting Formative Writing Assessment with Learning Analytics: A Design Abstraction Approach. London Festival of Learning (Tri-Conference Crossover Track), London (June 2018).

Shibani, A., Knight, S., Buckingham Shum S. (2018). Understanding Revisions in Student Writing through Revision Graphs. Poster presented at the 19th International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education (AIED’18).

Extended version: Antonette Shibani, Simon Knight and Simon Buckingham Shum (2018). Understanding Students’ Revisions in Writing: From Word Counts to the Revision Graph Technical Report CIC-TR-2018-01, Connected Intelligence Centre, University of Technology Sydney.

Shibani, A. (2018). Developing a Learning Analytics Intervention Design and tool for Writing Instruction. In Companion Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Learning Analytics & Knowledge (LAK ’18), Sydney, Australia

Shibani, A. (2018). AWA-Tutor: A Platform to Ground Automated Writing Feedback in Robust Learning Design (Demo). In Companion Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Learning Analytics & Knowledge (LAK ’18), Sydney, Australia.

Lucas, C., Gibson, A. and Buckingham Shum, S. (In Press). Utilization of a novel online reflective learning tool for immediate formative feedback to assist pharmacy students’ reflective writing skills. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Educationhttps://doi.org/10.5688/ajpe6800 

Key paper (analytical writing): Knight, S., Buckingham Shum, S., Ryan, P., Sándor, Á. and Wang, X. (2018). Designing Academic Writing Analytics for Civil Law Student Self-Assessment. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 28, (1), 1-28. (Part of a Special Issue on Multidisciplinary Approaches to AI and Education for Reading and Writing – Parts 1 & 2. Guest Editors: Rebecca J. Passonneau, Danielle McNamara, Smaranda Muresan, and Dolores Perin)

Shibani, A., Knight, S., Buckingham Shum S. and Ryan, P. (2017). Design and Implementation of a Pedagogic Intervention Using Writing Analytics. In Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on Computers in Education. New Zealand: Asia-Pacific Society for Computers in Education

Key paper (reflective writing): Gibson, A., Aitken, A., Sándor, Á., Buckingham Shum, S., Tsingos-Lucas, C. and Knight, S. (2017). Reflective Writing Analytics for Actionable FeedbackProceedings of LAK17: 7th International Conference on Learning Analytics & Knowledge, March 13-17, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. (ACM Press). [Preprint] [Replay]

Buckingham Shum, S., Á. Sándor, R. Goldsmith, R. Bass and M. McWilliams (2017). Towards Reflective Writing Analytics: Rationale, Methodology and Preliminary Results. Journal of Learning Analytics, 4, (1), 58–84.

This is an extended version of: Buckingham Shum, S., Á. Sándor, R. Goldsmith, X. Wang, R. Bass and M. McWilliams (2016). Reflecting on Reflective Writing Analytics: Assessment Challenges and Iterative Evaluation of a Prototype Tool. 6th International Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference (LAK16), Edinburgh, UK, April 25 – 29 2016, ACM, New York, NY.  [Preprint] [Replay]

Summaries from some of the world’s leading teams: Critical Perspective on Writing Analytics. Workshop, 6th International Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference (LAK16), Edinburgh, UK, April 25, 2016. http://wa.utscic.edu.au/events/lak16wa

Simsek, D., Á. Sándor, S. Buckingham Shum, R. Ferguson, A. D. Liddo and D. Whitelock (2015). Correlations between automated rhetorical analysis and tutors’ grades on student essays. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Learning Analytics And Knowledge, Poughkeepsie, New York, ACM.