It’s essay crunch time on campus. Kelsi O’Rourke had three papers due last Wednesday in women’s studies, neuroscience and psychology.

But as she worked late, the Brock University student would click on an unusual online game to remind herself about essay structure, forming arguments and citing sources in scholarly style.

The flashy new web tutorial called Essay-Zone, designed by Brock staff, uses graphics, jokes and quizzes to teach students how to write a post-secondary essay.

It’s one of the more high-tech tools universities are using as they scramble to shore up the writing skills of students who they say, without Grade 13, bring less maturity and knowledge to the post-secondary table.

It’s a concern at universities across the GTA.

“As much as high school tries to prepare you for university essays, it can never prepare you enough — I’m still handing in essays in second year that I think will get better marks than they get,” said O’Rourke, 19, a psychology major.

“So I found it helped to have a tool I could click on at any hour because I’ve never had anyone actually teach me how to write a university essay.”

Jill Brindle, Brock’s learning skills manager, designed the online help for students who were too shy or self-conscious to get help face-to-face. “We made it like a game — very playful, with humour and lots of click-and-drag activities that give immediate feedback.”

Now used by more than 2,000 Brock students — some classes give two to 15 per cent of the class mark for finishing the tutorial — Essay Zone has drawn interest from universities in Montreal, Calgary, Texas and Hong Kong.

But using the tutorial with students is just one way Brock professor Andrew McDonald tries to bridge students’ gap in writing skills. He revamped his first-year European history course to spend more time on the skills of research, writing and formulating a thesis.

“We have come to realize that writing skills are very weak and it’s no longer possible to just ignore that,” said McDonald, “so I spend less time on content now and more on analytical and writing skills.

“Students really need quite a bit of assistance with the mechanics of research. You just cannot go into a first-year class and expect they know how to write an essay.”

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