Situated Learning: Reflections on Academic Writing and Graduate International Students

Expert post by
Dr. Laura Colombo


Intercultural Communication

During my graduate studies in the U.S., writing in English was one of the major challenges that I faced. As a graduate student, I couldn’t easily go back to undergraduate level to take courses in writing skills, but on the other hand, I had the luxury of reading about and understanding the issues underlying my academic challenges. Let me use concepts mainly from one reading that I found most useful in order to share with you my experience of academic transition and success as an international graduate student in the U.S.

For one of my courses, I read Lave and Wenger´s (1991) book Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. This reading allowed me to better conceptualize and face the learning process I was going through when trying to produce academic texts in English. This book offers a theoretical description of learning as a process of participation situated in a community of practice (CoP). According to the authors, newcomers learn and become full members of a CoP through legitimate peripheral participation (LPP). That is: performing peripheral yet productive tasks that both contribute to the common goal of the community and help develop the learner’s identity. In this way, they have the opportunity to explore different viewpoints while getting involved in various social relations and their participation gradually transforms both their identity and the CoP itself. As a result, they become part of a new system which defines them and, at the same time, they define it.  Learning, then, implies “becoming a different person” (p. 53).

Reading about theoretical perspectives on academic work/challenges helped me feel comfortable in the process of gradually enacting the role of a new person, as a scholar, as more of an insider in the field, and as an expert voice for presenting the results of my research and study. As any graduate international student, I was expected to both produce academic texts in a second language (L2), and to write them as scholars (i.e.: old-timers) in my field of study did (Casanave, 2002). The more I learned about how “outsiders” enter new CoPs and begin to engage in LPP, the more I was able to get involved in new activities, perform new tasks and functions, and master new understandings.

The first academic texts that I produced in English were final papers for my graduate classes, which I learned to write by the very act of writing them as well as by negotiating my writing practices with peers, writing advisors, professors, and friends. Yet in this process, I also had to negotiate my identity as a L2 speaker. The consciousness that the theoretical literature provided me helped me negotiate and find my identity as a writer.

My writing acquisition process, then, transcended the classroom walls and the master/apprentice or professor/student dyad. As a matter of fact, there was “very little observable teaching” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 92) for native or non-native speakers about how to accomplish the writing tasks for the courses. Like my native-speaker colleagues, I found opportunities to learn from other masters/professors and from classmates/apprentices; but as an Argentine who had to use standard English, I was a newcomer in an additional CoP—I had to negotiate not only my identity as  a nonnative user of English but also as a student scholar through LPP in a different CoP.

Peers were a very useful support system for me. Peer interaction allowed me to immerse myself in practices that differed from those I was familiar with back home. Discussing the assignments with my classmates helped me understand the contextual expectations and negotiate my writing. Some of my classmates were simultaneously old-timers and newcomers—old-timers when negotiating their way in institutional practices related to writing in U.S. universities, and newcomers when trying to participate in the conversations of the disciplinary CoP. My relationships with classmates, native and non-native speakers alike, slowly but steadily helped me move towards full participation.

However, unlike some of my classmates, I faced situations where my opportunities to get engaged in a “situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world” (p. 51) were constrained by my inability to fully express myself in English. While occasionally approaching old-timer status in some disciplinary CoP’s back home, I was a newcomer in the U.S., and my inability to leverage my native vocabulary, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the preferred rhetorical structures, hindered my LPP. I felt that my identity as a writer was challenged, and it seemed that I had to re-learn how to properly negotiate meanings in texts when producing them in my L2.

The expertise I had built as a writer (informed by my identity as a student, a professional, and a practitioner), was almost nullified in these new CoP’s, and I had to re-negotiate my methods of participation. This led to a fair amount of frustration, resulting in a strategy I consider characteristic of international students: learn from people who do not participate in the disciplinary CoP, but with whom the negotiation of meanings is more accessible (i.e., speakers of the same language). For example, when producing my first written texts at the university I drew upon my Spanish-speaking friends. Some of them where specializing in other disciplinary fields. However, they were old-timers at forging their identities as academic English as a Second Language (ESL) writers—an identity that I would have to negotiate in order to fully participate in my own disciplinary CoP. By using my native language to discuss the ways in which I would negotiate meanings in written English, I was able to build my identity as an ESL writer faster than if I had been restricted to communicating solely in English.

I also learned from the relationships I established with writing advisors. As with my Spanish-speaking friends, they were not apprentices in the same disciplinary CoP that I was. Nevertheless, they were apprentices in their own CoP’s, since graduate writing advisors at my university are also graduate students. They were old-timers in regards to writing in formal English—enabling the writing advisor position—but they were also newcomers in their graduate programs. Meetings with writing advisors gave me the opportunity to explore, in a more personal way, how to negotiate meaning in my L2. In these situations, my LPP in my own disciplinary CoP was empowering, because I was forging a trajectory, and developing my identity and membership in that specific field. This empowerment helped me re-conceive my peripheral role, moving the disempowering aspect of my LPP to the background.

The empowering/disempowering dynamic implied in my LPP (Prior, 1997) factored into my relationships with my professors/old-timers. I knew that learning how to write academic texts was not strictly formulaic, and therefore, while new to the U.S., I tried to interact with Spanish-speaking professors. In these meetings I was using a means (academic Spanish) that was “transparent” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 102) to me in order to negotiate my way into practices that implied the use of a new tool (academic English) that I had not yet mastered. This presented opportunities to legitimize my participation as a L2 writer, and to better engage in existing practices, all the while shuttling between two languages (Canagarajah, 2006).

My learning trajectory shows how I learned to write English in spaces that transcended the classroom and university, though it was not smooth. As Lave and Wenger (1991) state, “[l]earning itself is an improvised practice” (p. 93) and every time I faced a different writing task I reinvented myself and my writing. I expended much time and effort simply trying to gain “access to arenas of mature practice” (p. 110) that I might attain LPP in multiple CoP’s. Crafting my identity as a L2 writer in a disciplinary CoP would have been eased by a clearer definition of these spaces of productive peripherality.

Nevertheless, I learned by doing—and this is where I think the richness of Lave and Wenger’s theory lies. By retrospectively analyzing my learning trajectory, I was able to map my LPP opportunities. So, what would I say to international students who have to learn academic writing?

First, keep in mind that writing as a situated activity. This implies that you do not learn to write once and for all. On the contrary, with every writing-task that you face in grad school, your relative position as an apprentice in the CoP changes, making access to old-timers and other apprentices vital. Therefore, you should implement strategies to facilitate this access. A simple one: ask, ask, and ask questions in order to have more tools to negotiate your participation. Another strategy is to use both, formal and informal resources such as writing centers, writing advisors, professors´ office hours, bilingual faculty, students, friends, proof-reading groups, etc. The mere interaction with others can open precious opportunities to exchange not only ideas to revise and improve your writing but also your writing practices.

Second, learning as participation also implies that all the writing you do should promote your LPP in the disciplinary CoP that you are an apprentice. However, this situation does not always happen. Usually, you have to write final papers for your courses where the instructor and (perhaps) classmates are the only audience. You can change this situation simultaneously trying to engage in publishing practices. Think of your final papers as drafts for future journal articles addressed to your disciplinary CoP. You can even share with your professors this intention and ask them to suggest appropriate publishing venues. Better still, you can propose to your graduate program to support a journal which emphasizes student involvement.

These are some ways in which you would be shifting the writing-to-display-knowledge function of your graduate-courses writing to a writing-to- participate-and-learn one. I hope that you have a successful journey toward becoming a confident member of the communities of practice in your academic discipline and professional field. My best wishes.



Casanave, C. P. (2002). Writing games: Multicultural case studies of academic literacy practices in higher education. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Prior, P. A. (1997). Literate Activity and Disciplinarity: The Heterogeneous (Re) production of American Studies Around a Graduate Seminar. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 4(4), 275-295.

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One Comment

  1. I found this post very useful because the author models an extremely important approach for international students to taking control of their academic development. By providing a slightly theoretical framework that is easy to understand and very practicable, she shows international students how to understand their process of transition and work towards success.
    You may not agree with or use the same idea of becoming a part of the community of practice. For example, you may see yourself as someone who is not trying to gain a new identity but instead appreciating who you are and building on that. But I like the idea of developing a consciousness about your position and where you want to reach within the time that you have is a great idea.
    I personally agree with the author that it is important to make the shift from writing to display knowledge towards writing to participate, because for many international students this shift can be tough. It can be tough not only because we may have been trained for writing to display knowledge in our home countries, but also because this is a process that any student (including locals) go through anyway. It is tougher for international students even if they have a similar background, because anyone’s level of confidence to present their ideas and perspectives can decrease when they enter a new community of any kind. Gaining that confidence, and if necessary gaining the new skill/ability to develop your own position/ideas is very important for academic success in the American university.
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

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