Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How do we define and teach 'relevance' in academic writing?

Rosalind Lawe Davies
Graduate School of Education
The University of Western Australia
Relevance is a notion which is central to the judgements made about the selection and presentation of information in student writing in both assignments and examinations. It is a judgement made by the academic reader with regard to the content of the paper, and comments are usually framed negatively in such terms as "This is irrelevant", "Is this relevant?", or "Doesn't address the question". In other words, the content presented does not match the reader's expectations as to what the paper is 'about', and comment on relevance can reflect a level of confusion by the reader as to the logic of argument and direction of the text. However, from the student's point of view, it may be that the information is in some way relevant the 'matter in hand', but they have failed to signal the nature of connectivity. The apparently digressive information may function, for an example, as an expansion of content, or a contrast, the importance of which may be made clear later in the paper. The question for discussion invites participants to contribute their understanding of what 'relevance' is, and how they instruct or assist students in their academic writing.


The aim of posing this question is to discover whether academic teachers generally perceive 'relevance' to be a problem in student writing. If so, what are the most effective ways they have discovered to explain this concept to students, and what strategies have they developed to improve the quality of student writing? If relevance is not perceived to be a central problem, then what are the issues of most concern?

The background to my interest in this concept is that of educational Applied Linguistics. I have recently completed a large scale study of first and second-year student writing in examinations, using as my data examination essays from the School of Dentistry, University of W.A. The first step in this study was to submit typed copies of each essay to four raters: two academic dental staff and two Applied Linguists. Their task was to give their judgement as to whether the essay was a "readable, well-structured, logically argued and coherent answer to the question", and they were invited to offer a comment as to what affected their judgement. The most frequent comments from the content specialists concerned 'relevance' and 'logic'.

The comments were consistent with another, more casual, comment. In the early stages of the study, I described my research proposal to a (non-Linguist) senior academic in Education. Her immediate response was to focus on the issue of relevance, asserting that a valuable outcome of the study could be to teach students how to 'be relevant'. At the time I brushed this issue aside, as the main thrust of my research was to discover specific language features that were associated with 'coherent' and 'non-coherent' student writing. Now, I consider it important to be able to link the concept of relevance to specific strategies of language use, in order to find ways to assist students to improve their writing skills.

I have therefore returned to the topic of 'relevance' in the hope that the insights from my research regarding the patterns of language use associated with good and poor essays may ultimately be linked to this concept. This could be one way to teach students how to select appropriate information, and take responsibility for signalling 'relevance' in argument.

What is 'relevance'?

Relevance is defined as "bearing upon, connected with, pertaining to, the matter in hand" (Shorter Oxford Dictionary), a definition which seems to relate both to the selection of information to be presented, and to the logical organisation of that information. Both these characteristics of writing involve the expectations of the reader. It is suggested that the reader forms expectations of 'relevant' information on the basis of the essay title or essay prompt. When the information presented does not accord with those expectations, then concerns about relevance may arise. Expectations of the form of logical presentation can be based both in the essay prompt and within the essay itself. Where information units do not fit with the expected sequence, or where the writer appears to digress from the central argument, then the reader may question the 'relevance' of that unit. In some cases, the reader may become confused as to the direction that the essay is taking, and have difficulty constructing a clear message from the written text. Examples of these two kinds of difficulty with relevance essays are drawn from the dental students' essays (Lawe Davies, 1998). The information deemed to be 'irrelevant' is shown in italics.

Example 1. Unexpected choice of information

Essay promptDescribe the effects on the oral cavity of an absence of saliva.
Para 1The saliva, the watery fluid secreted by the glands into the oral cavity has several vital roles to perform. If the saliva is absent, there can be very deleterious effects on the oral cavity.
Para 2About 1.5 litres of saliva is produced every day, 90% of this coming from the 3 main pairs of glands; the parotid, submandibular & sublingual glands. There are also thousands of accessory salivary glands within the mucosa of the oral cavity. The saliva is more than 90% water, but contains important additional substances which contribute to the maintenance of health in the oral cavity.
Para 3Firstly, saliva acts as a buffer in the oral cavity..............

In this case, the irrelevant paragraph offers unnecessary details about saliva that provide 'off topic' background information. It serves to display the student's knowledge, but does not directly concern the 'effects on the oral cavity of an absence of saliva'.

Example 2. Information digresses from expected logical sequence

Essay prompt"All restorative procedures will cause some degree of reversible and irreversible damage to the dental-pulpal complex". Discuss this statement and its implications for restorative dentistry.
Para 1.The pulp-dentine complex is the vital centre of the living tooth.......
Para 2The pulp can be damaged in a number of ways.......
Para 3The dentino-pulpal complex has several ways to ward off invading micro organisms and to defend itself.....
Para 4Once a tooth is affected by caries it is already compromised....
Para 5The pulp-dentine complex is a low-compliance system, the only other being the brain- where the inflammatory response processes like heat, swelling, pain cannot escape = rigid. It is made up of a limited vascular supply - one way in and out - and cells and many nerve fibres - innovating the pulp for tough, pressure, pain, heat and cold. The stimulation of SA Fibres (short sharp) pain fibres and especially C Fibres (dull throbbing) causes cytokines to be released - this stimulation is usually caused by hyperaemia due to the inflammatory process. Once the pressure inside the pulp builds up the venous drainage system (AV shunts and U-loops) collapse and the stagnation of Peripheral Blood Flow occurs.......
Para 6The pulp-dentine complex suffers cumulative damage....
Para 7Assessment of preoperative state - .......

In this example, para 5 is both lengthy and intrusive. It interrupts a sequence of paragraphs that relate to the essay prompt, and offers information about the 'dentino-pulp complex' that may be accurate, but in this position has no apparent bearing on the 'matter in hand'. In this way it digresses from the sequence and does not carry the essay forward. It is debateable whether an initial organising statement (eg It is necessary to understand that...) would serve to make the paragraph function in context.

Variables affecting judgements of relevance

Judgements of relevance vary according to the nature of the writing exercise, the academic discipline, and the cultural background of the writer and the reader.

The examples shown above illustrate the kinds of problems that were evident in examination essays. However, the examination essay is just one of the types of writing that students produce, and it could be that 'relevance' is of concern in this situation more than in others. In an exam, students write an answer to a question in the full knowledge that the reader knows the answer, and they are also in a situation where they need to demonstrate knowledge under time constraints. There is obviously a temptation to tell "all you know on a given subject" rather than rigorously test for 'relevance' in relation to the question.

Perhaps students have some justification in this approach. In the dental essays on the "effects on the oral cavity of an absence of saliva", all students included a paragraph on the role of saliva in digestion. In this regard, an absence of saliva would mean that digestion of carbohydrates would not commence in the mouth, but in the stomach. This is not an "effect on the oral cavity" but an effect on rapidity of digestion, and as such, this information is not relevant to the question. However, not one rater commented on this, and only student indicated that the information was additional to the central question, but he would mention it anyway. In other instances, students included 'additional', non-relevant information in brackets, or abruptly included it at the end of the essay marked "NB" or "Note".

In other disciplines, it is probable that concern with the nature of relevance is different. Readers may have primary concerns other than those of relevance. For instance, at Melbourne University, Storch and Tapper (1998) conducted a study of feedback comments offered by staff to students in two academic disciplines: Geography and Education. They considered relevance to be a sub-category of essay content, and found that of the negative marginal comments made by teachers, 5.8% concerned relevance, and there were no positive comments on this feature. More frequent were comments concerning issues such as quality, correctness and sufficiency of content.

The cultural and language backgrounds of the writer and reader are also important variables in the possible mismatch of student/teacher expectations of the need for 'relevance'. In expository texts, writing conventions in English tend to favour a 'linear', deductive form of argument in which all information directly contributes to the central topic (Hinds, 1990). When native speakers of English digress from a central argument, the basis is often a lack of planning, or allowing a 'flow of thought' to dominate planned composition (Clyne & Kreutz, 1987). However, non-native speakers of English, particularly those with advanced literacy in their first language, may digress in accordance with other cultural norms of written genre.

It is well documented that other cultures have different conventions that value digressiveness (eg. Clyne & Kreutz, 1987; Golebiowski, 1998; Hinds, 1990), and that readers in those cultures expect to be led on a journey whose line and purpose is not always predictable. Digressions may serve the purpose to display knowledge, present something interesting, but of marginal 'relevance', or display elegance or mastery of genre.

Students from different cultural backgrounds may therefore bring different writing conventions to bear on their academic writing, with consequent difficulties with the concept of 'relevance' in a situation where readers expect more direct 'linear' forms of writing. In the study of writing by dental students, the International students from Malaysia tended to give 'irrelevant' background information in the opening section of their essays, but otherwise followed the conventions of essay writing in English. In other data, I have found that Japanese writers regularly digress from their central argument, and, when questioned, often have clear explanations of the purpose of each 'digression'; for example, to honour an important scholar, or to display breadth of reading. In this, they conform to forms of writing more appropriate to Japanese than to English, and the students appreciate clear, targeted assistance in the appropriate use of language to adjust to discipline-specific writing norms in an Australian setting.


This paper is intended to offer a number of ideas concerning relevance in student academic writing, and the background of my interest in this concept. Participants in this session are invited to offer their ideas, experiences and teaching practices. After all, is 'relevance' relevant to the perceived problems of academic writing? Do problems of relevance contribute to the reader's confusion or irritation? Does it significantly affect the final mark? All comments and contributions to the discussion will form the basis of a further research project and preparation of materials designed to assist both academic teachers and students in a variety of disciplines.


Clyne, M. and Kreutz, H. (1987). The natural function of 'Digression' and other discourse phenomena in German academic writing. Working Papers on Migrant and Intercultural Studies, 8, 1-21.

Golebiowski, Z. (1998). Rhetorical approaches to Scientific writing: English-Polish contrastive study. Paper presented at the 23rd annual congress of the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Brisbane.

Hinds, J. (1990). Inductive, Deductive, Quasi-inductive: expository writing in Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai. In U. Connor and A Johns (Eds.), Coherence in writing:research and pedagogical perspectives, (pp 91-110), Alexandria, Virginia, TESOL.

Lawe Davies, R.M. (1997). An Applied Linguist reads Engineering. In Z Golebiowski and H Borland (Eds.), Academic communication across disciplines and cultures. Selected proceedings of the First National Conference on Tertiary Literacy, research and practice, Vol. 2, (pp. 164-178), Melbourne, Victoria University of Technology.

Lawe Davies, R.M. (1998). Coherence in tertiary student writing: writers' skills and readers' expectations. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Graduate School of Education, University of Western Australia.

Storch, N. and Tapper, J. (1998). Discipline specific academic writing: What content teachers comment on. Paper presented at the 23rd annual congress of the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Brisbane.

Please cite as: Lawe Davies, R. (1999). How do we define and teach 'relevance' in academic writing? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 220-223. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/lawedavies.html

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