Too Close for Comfort? A Study of the Perceived Overlap Between FAS1101 (Writing Academically: Arts and Social Sciences) and ES1103 (English for Academic Purposes)

by Lee Ming Cherk and Zhou Ziqian Jan


There exists a perception, often grudgingly expressed, that the module English for Academic Purposes (‘ES1103’) is needlessly similar to Writing Academically: Arts and Social Sciences (‘FAS1101’). This working paper offers a comparison of the two modules; it aims to argue that there is little merit to the complaint of overlap between the two modules—far from being too close for comfort, it will be shown that FAS1101 and ES1103 are distinct in significant respects—e.g. module design and assessments. This paper concludes by making some suggestions as to how best to prevent the formation of some such perception.                

Keywords: Academic Writing; Critical Thinking; Proficiency Modules; Duplication of Modules


The module English for Academic Purposes (‘ES1103’) is essentially a language proficiency module meant for students who have been identified through the Qualifying English Test (‘QET’) as requiring English language instruction in order to meet the language proficiency level required for their other courses. It is offered to students from across the university—so, a typical ES1103 class may have students from different schools and majoring or intending to major in different disciplines.

On the other hand, the module Writing Academically: Arts and Social Sciences (‘FAS1101’) is designed specifically for students from the Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS). FAS1101 is not primarily a language proficiency module because it can be taken only by students who have not been identified by the QET as requiring ES1103 or those who have already spent a semester taking ES1103. The aim of FAS1101, broadly stated, is to secure in students the foundations for the writing of research-argumentative academic papers on topics from or revolving around the arts, humanities and social sciences. This broad aim of FAS1101 is served by the teaching to students of research skills (ones that mirror the skills displayed by seasoned academic writers) and critical analysis or argumentation.

Despite the difference in the primary teaching aims or objectives of FAS1101 and ES1103, there is a noticeable perception—held by students and faculty alike—that the two modules ‘seem to overlap’. The authors of this paper do not wish to challenge the foregoing perception; for, the two modules do have some lesson components that are similar—e.g. deep or critical reading, citation skills, summarizing, paraphrasing and synthesis, structuring an essay—which is an overlap as inevitable as it is not necessarily problematic. The presence of overlap in a broad sense is inevitable because the two modules are essentially academic writing modules. But we contend that no such ‘overlap’ understood in a narrower sense exists, and this is because of a certain writing skill that is taught by the two modules, e.g. writing grammatically, is taught differently and in different levels of difficulty. [1] And clear examples where both modules do not overlap even in the broad sense exists: for instance, argumentation is a cornerstone of FAS1101 but not of ES1103.

The purpose of this working paper is to challenge the more specific perception that the presence of overlap between FAS1101 and ES1103 is problematic in the sense that it is a wasteful use of a student’s modular space that she takes the two modules in seriatim, a wasteful use that betrays a lack of pedagogical foresight and competence on the part of faculty running FAS1101 and ES1103. The aim of this working paper, then, is to overturn the foregoing more specific concern. To that end, this paper is divided into four sections. Section 1 contains a more detailed comparison of the aims or objectives of FAS1101 and ES1103. Section 2 contrasts the distinct ways in which the respective aims or objectives of the two modules are met; this section also compares the assessments adopted in both modules. Section 3, which is the penultimate section of this paper, contains a set of pedagogical recommendations that the main finding of this paper gestures at. To look ahead, it will be suggested that faculty in charge of the designing or delivery of language proficiency modules make more room for the creative teaching of English grammar, while those tasked to design or deliver ‘critical thinking and writing’ modules expand on the teaching and assessment of logical reasoning or argumentation.

Module Aims, General Module Design and Types of Assessments

Module Aims. The aims of ES1103 are to:

  1. develop students’ proficiency in reading and writing in an academic context
  2. enhance students’ discourse ability and audience awareness
  3. prepare students to meet the language requirements in your university programme

In contrast, the aims of FAS1101 are that by the end of the module students should be able to do the following:

  1. select an essay topic or question
  2. paraphrase, summarize and critically report academic material
  3. demonstrate an understanding of the complexity and contested nature of a chosen topic by
    • identifying prominent concepts, positions and ideas
    • analysing and evaluating arguments of others, and defending one’s thesis by constructing convincing arguments of one’s own 4) formulate a debatable, significant and specific thesis
  4. compose an academic essay which is coherent, clear, concise and grammatically sound

A cursory glance at these two sets of module aims reveals what the main difference between FAS1101 and ES1103 is: while ES1103 aims to teach students study skills related to academic discourse[2] and to develop their language proficiency, FAS1101 aims to teach students how it is to write an argumentative research paper (on a topic in the arts and social sciences).

General Module Design. First, ES1103 runs twice a week, while FAS1101 once a week. As a result of the lower number of contact sessions FAS1101 tutors have with their students, the design of this module adopts the so-called ‘blended-learning’ approach where some components of the module are delivered online. For example, while critical (or ‘deep’) reading is taught in class in ES1103, this skill is dealt with through online platforms in FAS1101. Similarly, while the teaching of skills related to proper citation techniques and accurate reporting of sources are covered in class in ES1103, these skills are, again, dealt with through online platforms in FAS1101. Yet, it must be pointed out that the blended approach does not lead to a more diluted learning experience for the student; for, some of these topics or skills just mentioned are covered in greater depth (as compared to the treatment of the same topic or skill in ES1103), and are delivered with a mix of video lectures and online quizzes. Indeed, the video lectures associated with discipline specific topics in the arts and humanities are entirely online.

Second, the types of assessments differ between the two modules: what the assessments seek to assess and resulting challenge these pose for students are markedly different. In ES1103, students have to synthesize two or more texts (‘Synthesis Essay’), write a critical reflection of the learning outcomes (‘Critical Reflection’) and write a 900-words essay discussing a problem of a general nature (e.g. smartphones) and the possible solutions to it (‘Final Essay’). In FAS1101, students formulate a thesis and write an outline of the main reasons/evidence in support of this thesis (‘Research Proposal’), write an elaboration of some reasons offered for their thesis (‘Overview Essay’), and write an argumentative research paper on the basis of the first two assignments (‘Final Essay’).

There are three main reasons why the assessments of FAS1101 is more demanding or present a greater challenge to students than the assessments of ES1103. First, in FAS1101, students engage in largely independent research on topics that are the subjects of past or contemporary academic discussions (e.g. the historical significance of the Paris Peace Conference); in ES1103, students engage in research with guidance from their tutors on topics that are at the level of ‘general education’ (e.g. the use of smart-phones).

Second, in FAS1101, the three assignments are developments of each other and, by the same token, encourage students to revise or strengthen their existing arguments; in ES1103, by contrast, the assessments are not as closely related. The three assignments of FAS1101 also require students to show an awareness of the complexity or contested nature of their chosen research topic (which, in turn, requires an accurate understanding of the concepts or theories that define the contesting positions), and to defend a favoured position. Again, the need for complexity or contestation is not is explicitly required in the assessments of ES1103.

Third, in FAS1101, students are taught the basics of argumentation or critical reasoning—a good argument requires that a conclusion be supported by reasons or premises that are true or plausible, are relevant and jointly sufficient for the favoured conclusion. In contrast, the 900words essay of ES1103 requires the identification of a ‘problem’ and the offering of a solution to that problem, where this problem is most likely to be one that students would already have fairly accurate opinions about (e.g. ‘that smart-phones can be needlessly distracting’). In FAS1101, the topics or research questions that students work on are not as intuitive—they require that students research into academic material in a manner not altogether different from how graduate students perform this task. Contrastingly, in ES1103, students are required to write a problem-solution essay in which they are required to describe one specific problem or phenomenon (e.g. the presence of smartphone addiction), to evaluate existing solutions to the problem and, finally, to offer a plausible solution(s) to it. In the writing of this ‘problemsolution’ paper, students are offered step-by-step guidance—students are, for instance, assisted by the tutor in understanding the essay question or prompt; students are also offered guidance in the construction of their thesis, the searching of relevant sources and the structuring of the drafts of their essay, amongst other things. In FAS1101, by contrast, these processes are largely engaged in by students without much assistance from the tutor.

Types of Assessments. We now offer a more detailed comparison of some of the main assignments or assessments of FAS1101 and ES1103; this comparison will allow us to show why FAS1101 is the more challenging of the two modules. The difference in the cognitive reasoning or linguistic skills demanded by the assessments of FAS1101 and ES1103 can also be seen in the different emphasis and weight of the various assessment criteria formulated in the two modules. The two tables below compare two assignments from each module which, on the surface, demand of students the same cognitive skills. We begin with a comparison of the Synthesis Essay of ES1103 and the Overview Essay of FAS1101.

Table 1 shows that for the Synthesis Essay of ES1103, language carries a heavier weight than content; whereas for the Overview Essay of FAS1101, content carries a heavier weight than organization and language.

The Synthesis Essay of ES1103 requires students to formulate a thesis (or ‘stand’) and to describe the arguments for and objections to that stand; and students do this by attempting to understand and draw from two pre-selected sources. This task requires students adopt correct citation conventions when drawing from sources.

In the Overview Essay in FAS1101, students are required, in addition to exercising the skills demanded by the ES1103 Synthesis Essay, also required to employ the following tasks:

  1. describing and discussing prominent concepts, positions and ideas
  2. analyzing and evaluating arguments of others, comparing arguments and making inferences
  3. reflecting awareness of the complexity and contested nature of the chosen topic
  4. defending their own thesis by constructing convincing arguments of their own

It should be plain that in requiring more than what the ES1103 Synthesis Essay requires of students, the FAS1101 Overview Essay presents a greater challenge to students.

Table 2 shows that the weight of ‘Content’ in the Final Essay of ES1103 is almost half of the analogous criterion of the Final Essay of FAS1101. Argumentation (and the requirement of research) is, therefore, almost twice as important in the Final Essay of FAS1101 than it is in the in the Final Essay of ES1103. In addition, it is harder for students to achieve FAS1101 Content marks than it is to receive ES1103 Content marks because the two modules differ in what they require for this assessment criterion. In the ES1103 Final Essay marking criteria, an essay deserving of an ‘A’ for Content requires the following conditions be fulfilled by an assignment:

  1. a clear, balanced and comprehensive response to all elements of the prompt
  2. convincing development showing understanding of the complexity of the topic
  3. a clear evaluative stance (the evaluation and suggested solutions in particular)
  4. integrated and relevant sources which are paraphrased, synthesized and/or summarized accurately

On the other hand, the Final Essay marking criteria of FAS1101 requires, among other things, convincing arguments and accurate reports of data/textual evidence or prominent ideas, theses, interpretations or positions which are clear, sufficient, well elaborated, and which reflect complexity and /contested nature of the topic. (The same is also true with respect to the ‘Organisation’ criteria which differs markedly between the two modules.)

To sum up the main conclusions of this section, while there exist overlaps with respect to the main aims or objectives of FAS1101 and ES1103, it is hasty to infer simply on the basis of this superficial observation that the two modules are near duplicates of each other. FAS1101 is the more demanding of the two modules because its assignments require students to conduct independent research on full-fledged academic topics, require students to continually revise and strengthen what they have argued for in a previous assignment and require students to display competence in argumentation or critical reasoning with a given set of conceptual tools. In addition, the assessments of FAS1101 and ES1103 place different emphasis on the level of cognitive reasoning or linguistic skills demanded of students. For these reasons, we conclude that the FAS1101 is the more challenging of the two modules.

Teaching Methods and General Pedagogical Approaches

As mentioned earlier, ES1103 focuses primarily on the teaching of basic writing skills required by academic discourse broadly construed. Emphasis is, therefore, placed on rudimentary skills—of, say, deep reading, summarising/paraphrasing/synthesizing, citing and writing grammatically—skills which may be applicable to the specific discipline of the student. These skills are eventually assessed in the writing of a 900-word problem-solution essay. Towards the end of the module, students are also expected to write a 500-word ‘Critical Reflection’ as a means of reflecting on how the skills they have learned can be transferred to writing in their own disciplines.

The primary goal of FAS1101, on the other hand, is more straightforward: it equips students with the wherewithal to write an argumentative research paper in a discipline associated with the arts and social sciences. Insofar as FAS1101 teaches argumentative writing, such a task presupposes the ability on the part of students to understand ongoing research projects, existing academic debates and the concepts, theories and arguments associated with academic projects and debates. Students enrolled in FAS1101 are assumed to possess, at the outset of the module, the necessary rudimentary academic writing skills which are the focus of ES1101. Students are also expected to do a significant amount independent research and to learn in barely under one lesson what suffices as a convincing argument.

The two modules also differ with respect to how grammar is taught. In ES1103, apart from learning conjunctions and syntax in the traditional manner, students are introduced to a ‘linguistic toolkit’ which is based on what is known as the ‘semantic lexico-grammar’ approach (which is a species of the ‘Systematic Functional Linguistics’ approach popularized by Halliday). Roughly, on this approach to the teaching of grammar, the traditional classification of the parts of speech (e.g. nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs) is not emphasised; what is emphasized, instead, is the function in which certain words or expressions play in surface form.[3] On this approach to the teaching of grammar, students of ES1103 are taught what the function or use are of certain words or expressions. This approach bypasses the ‘traditional approach’ of the teaching of grammar which involves, as earlier mentioned, the teaching of the classification of the various parts of speech. For example, to maintain cohesion at paragraph level, students are taught to use referring pronouns and conjunctions; exercises are given for students to practice these skills. Such a method of teaching is useful for students to convey their meaning effectively. However, this method does not address grammatical surface errors (e.g. subject-verb agreement, tenses, pronouns) if an effective solution to this requires an understanding of basic syntax (which is the virtue of the traditional approach to the teaching of grammar). Also, since the issue of ungrammatical language is but informally dealt with through peer and tutor feedback, this approach may not help weaker students in learning how to write grammatically.

In FAS1101, it is assumed that students have achieved a certain mastery of accurate grammar use, and therefore grammar is given even much less emphasis than it is in ES1103. FAS1101 adopts a traditional approach to the teaching of grammar and its purpose is to refresh students’ memory and enable them to self-proofread. Instead, the notion of what makes for good academic writing ‘style’ (i.e. clarity, coherence and precision/succinct-ness) is emphasized in the student learning materials and are requirements of the assessments.

Conclusory Remarks and Recommendations

From the above discussion, it can be seen that beyond some overlaps between the two modules, there are important differences in terms of scope, method of delivery, and depth. This should allay any worries on the part of faculty that the two modules overlap in a problematic manner. Yet, it remains unexplained why it is that students perceive a (frustrating) overlap between the two modules. We conclude this working paper with some conjectures about why it is that students complain of ‘overlap’:

  1. Students dislike compulsory skills-based modules in general, and academic writing modules in particular: so, the complaint of ‘overlap’ is a dressed-up way of expressing frustration over having to study what it is that they dislike and feel anxious over.
  2. The labels ‘writing’ and ‘academic writing’ are vague and carry with them undesirable preconceptions on the part of students (e.g. that such modules are resurrections of General Paper).

Given conjectures 1 and 2, we offer the following recommendations:

  1. The lesson objectives of FAS1101 and ES1103 should be stated with more details and with more intuitive terminology.
  2. Also, given that ES1103 is created to cater to the language needs of students who did not clear QET because of their low language proficiency, it is suggested that the grammar component in this module be given more emphasis and taught more explicitly so that weaker students could learn better. On the other hand, the (single) lesson on argumentation or critical reasoning FAS1101 could be further developed. However, if increasing the number of lessons on argumentation leads to an undesirable disruption of the overall schedule of FAS1101, the following steps could be taken to incentivize the learning and practice of argumentation in class:

(a) students are given a short passage from an academic text and asked to reconstruct, preferably in groups, the argument found therein. The tutor then proceeds to show why it is that the most charitable reconstruction offers one the best means of evaluating the said argument.

(b) students are assigned two short passages from academic texts whose conclusions appear inconsistent or to contradict. Students, again preferably in groups, then engage in a debate not so much against the other camp as one involving a comparison of the respective merits of each passage.

(c) tasks ‘a’ and ‘b’ count towards a student’s class participation grade, which may be increased from the current 15% to 20% as a means of further incentivizing active class contribution. Also, a more controversial recommendation is this: students may begin the semester with a full (100%) or an ‘A’ (75% or above) grade for class participation, and this decreases when students intentionally bypass the opportunity to engage in tasks ‘a’ and ‘b’—the rationale for this is that diligent and responsible students who wish to maintain their perfect or A class participation grade will be incentivized to contribute.

Finally, to avoid any future confusion about needless ‘overlap’ between FAS1101 and ES1103, it would be well worth carrying out a mapping exercise to clarify what and how certain learning outcomes in each module are achieved. This mapping exercise coupled with further studies on the extent to which either or both modules may not be meeting their expressed module outcomes will help any future designer of CELC modules to know what to put in their course and the pitfalls to avoid.


Sword, H. Stylish Academic Writing.


[1] It should also be mentioned that the presence of overlaps in module aims and assessment tasks is not uncommon across the university. For example, a student may be required to learn and perform mathematical manipulations across a number of mathematics, physics and engineering modules; and a student may be learning and engaging in set-theoretic manipulations in mathematics, formal linguistics and philosophy. ‘Overlap’ is not unique to CELC across a number of mathematics, physics and engineering modules; and a student may be learning and engaging in set-theoretic manipulations in mathematics, formal linguistics and philosophy. ‘Overlap’ is not unique to CELC modules. Indeed, FAS1101 offers students the opportunity to reinforce and to deepen their understanding of some important writing skills that they have learnt in ES1103.

[2] By ‘academic discourse’, we refer to the set of features that are commonly found in writings or utterances suitably labelled as ‘academic’; such discourse differs, then, belonging to the genres of popular fiction or news

[3] For instance, the class of linguistic terms known as the modal auxiliaries (e.g. ‘may’) plays but a subsidiary role to the function of that word or expression (e.g. ‘may’ functions as a qualifier or hedge word).

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