Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Accessing Text-Based Activities: Assignment 4 - Working with Texts

Assignment 4 required us to choose a text-based activity we had done with our students and identify the reading and writing challenges they might experience with the activity. We then needed to collate a series of supporting resources for the activity and discuss the rationale for each resource and instructions for using the resource.

The activity that I have chosen to look at is one I did with first-year med students. I gave the students two short articles about smoking; one written about the economic drain on a country due to smoking-related health problems and one on how doctors can encourage patients to stop smoking. During the lecture, students were given the opportunity to read through both articles and begin on their summaries. Their home work was then to write one-page of coherent and cohesive paragraphs on the negative effects of smoking and the role of health professionals in alleviating the problem.

This was a fairly “layered” assignment, requiring them to draw on a wide range of academic literacy skills. As such, there were several potential challenges with this exercise. The first pitfall lies in students not being able to read or fully understand the articles I had given them. For this reason, I specifically did not choose journal articles, but rather “specialist” articles. I would describe these articles as popular science, but written for the specialist. The benefit of this is that the articles are more accessible, both in terms of language usage and then secondly in terms of structure, which is more familiar than that of a journal article. The resource I provided to help the students work through the articles was a glossary I compiled. In the glossary I included not only technical terms, but also more common words that were being used in a disciplinary-specific manner. Because I want this exercise to happen in class, it is important that I provide a glossary, but also, I want the students to get into the habit of looking up things they don’t understand, rather than just glossing over them. During the lecture I had students do a first read-though, instructing them to highlight interesting points and any words or phrases they did not understand. I then had them use the glossary to look up words (and ask me about anything that was still unclear) to clarify understanding. The students then read through the articles a second time. After the second reading, and once I was assured by the students that they understood the readings, we moved onto summarising.

Summarising itself is also a challenging activity. Many students are very unsure about what they can leave out of their summaries, as they don’t feel qualified to assess the relative significance of different bits of information. I don’t know that there is any particular resource which can tell you how to do this, but rather I think that practice and discussion are likely the most useful way to become comfortable with this skill. Therefore, the summarising also happened during the lecture and we did it in ‘bite-sized’ chunks – one paragraph at a time. The exercise was done individually, but the summaries produced were discussed as a group. The students were then able to take these summaries away with them and use them to construct their one-pagers.

Writing the one-pagers is challenging as students need to make choices about how to package the information, in what order to present the information and how to flow from one theme to the next. The resources that I make available for students to draw on for this part of the activity include hand-outs on basic essay structure, coherence and cohesion and phrases in academic writing (Bare in mind that these are all concepts that the students have previously been taught about and have engaged with in other exercises). I think that all these resources are important, because at this stage I am not trying to test how well students have remembered the skills we have previously covered, rather my goal is to have them practice implement these skills. Thus, by providing students with supporting resources, you give them the freedom to put all their focus into producing a good piece of writing. When instructing students in how to use these resources, I first talk to them about making an outline or plan for their essay – what are the three or four main points that they want to make? Ok, then think about constructing one paragraph around each point. I then have them think about what is the most logical order in which to discuss these points. Under each point, what are the key pieces of information you want to talk about? Ok, put down the facts, now look at how each fact relates to the one before and after it. Use the hand-out on cohesion to look for appropriate words to guide your reader through those relationships. Finally, to formalise your writing, make the tone appropriate for your audience and improve clarity, you can draw on the phrases in academic writing. Essentially, I want students to see that these skills and features of academic writing must be woven into the text they produce. As such, I encourage them to use the resources, and revisit the resources, at various points along the journey.

In my opinion, text-based activities are an essential foundation to academic literacy, particularly in the sciences. If a student cannot critically engage with text, if they cannot read, understand and manipulate text, they will never be able to produce good writing within the discipline. 

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