Mind the gap(s): exploring university teaching staff’s perceptions of IELTS writing versus university writing requirements


Tania Horák

Sharon McCulloch

Elena Gandini

Date Published:

31st May 2024

This study investigated the level of awareness among academic staff with the role of admissions tutor regarding what IELTS writing scores actually represent in practice, namely what can be expected of international students (ISs) in terms of the academic writing they produce.

We investigated these academics’ knowledge of IELTS and how they had gained this knowledge, including any training they had received. We captured a baseline picture of this level of awareness through a questionnaire sent to universities throughout the UK. Subsequently, we investigated the themes from the questionnaire in more depth via interviews with a subset of the academics and then also investigated the features academics value in students’ writing, using a think-aloud procedure in which we asked the same subset to evaluate a set of IELTS scripts. A group of IELTS examiners also undertook the same think-aloud procedure in order to compare their evaluations with those of the academics to better understand the application of the IELTS descriptors in practice.

We found an overall lack of familiarity with the writing tasks and the descriptors amongst the academics, as well as differences in whether they perceived the IELTS score as representing either a) sufficient current ability or b) potential to produce the types of writing required of international students. Both groups of participants drew on a core of terms to indicate the features they valued while judging the scripts but each group also used terms not used by the other. The study also found, in addition, that some scripts were deemed by the academics to be at an acceptable level for entry to the academics’ courses whereas the IELTS score actually awarded the scripts would have precluded these candidates from entry. While it was confirmed that these academics are not generally involved in score setting, we suggest that an increased level of awareness about IELTS would still be of benefit to enhance the study experience for both students and tutors.