Tag Archives: first year experience

Discourse diversity across L&T cultures

This week’s post comes to us via Karen Dellar, Barbara Morgan, Alison Brown and the team at the Study and Learning Centre at RMIT University.

Making the implicit, explicit – discourse structures across cultures

Most students initially find the transition to academic discourse and writing styles challenging. This transition can be more problematic when students are new to the Australian educational environment. Many international students are unfamiliar with lecturers’ expectations and visit the Study and Learning Centre’s busy drop in service for assistance with academic writing.

One student who is now receiving credits and distinctions recently reflected on her previous failure in a number of courses. We asked her what it was that helped her achieve better marks. She said quite simply: ‘I now know what they want!’

Acknowledging diversity – similarities and differences

This student’s experience typifies the challenges often faced by students in not knowing what is expected when they transition to study in a new culture. The first step towards creating a truly inclusive learning environment is to acknowledge the similarities and differences across learning cultures (and there are many) and then to make the differences explicit. Key differences relate to  discourse styles and expectations upon the reader-writer relationships. The way we shape or tell a story depends upon our cultural and linguistic context and the unspoken patterns we have learnt.

Across cultures there are different expectations of how texts are structured. We expect that all texts have a similar framework to our own…until we are faced with something different. It is surprising to realise how much of our knowledge of text organisation is implicit and culturally specific. English language readers have an expectation about how quickly you get to the point, and when you do, how explicitly this is done; the order that concepts are introduced; the amount of preamble or background that is necessary; the amount of repetition that is effective or the extent of digression that is permissible. As teachers we expect our students to conform to these expectations.

In the words of an international student:

In the Subcontinent (Pakistan and India) the way we are taught to structure our essays is, we don’t come to the point directly: we have to develop this major build-up, before coming to the point…otherwise our lecturer won’t think we have put in enough effort…but over here the thing was that ‘bang’ – go to the point directly and then you can start explaining… (Learning Lab International Student Stories)

model1_image

Model 1: Direct, linear approach. Here’s the flower. These are the main points…

Assignment structure is culturally specific

It is often assumed that students whose first language is not English have difficulty with their

Model 2. Here's the garden. Let me take you for a walk and I'll show you something..

Model 2: Explanation before getting to the main point. Here’s the garden. Let me take you for a walk and I’ll show you something…

studies because of their language. This is not the full picture. What is commonly overlooked is that students from different cultural backgrounds are often unaware of the academic expectations of their new educational culture. In particular, the discourse structure can be unfamiliar and different to what they know.

The models here give a visual representation of two common ways of structuring academic writing across cultures.

Model 1 is a simple representation of the approach to organising material in the Australian educational context. The student is expected to present the main point first, followed by explanation and analysis.

Model 2 is another representation of what is common in many other cultures. In this model the student builds a case through background information, explanation and analysis and finally presents the main point.

Put simply, the measures for ‘good writing’ in an Australian university are often quite different from the students’ previous experience. International students are often disappointed at their poor marks in first year as they take some time to work out what is required. In the case above, the student repeated first year having learnt this lesson the hard way. A better solution would be for students to be explicitly taught what is expected and for it to be acknowledged that their understanding of academic writing on arrival may be different to what we expect.

For more on helping your students structure their assignments visit RMIT’s Learning Lab. For diverse cohorts a good starting point is International Student Stories. As well, you will find resources on assignment genres that you can use in-class and direct students to for self-study.

References:

Arkoudis, S & Tran, L 2010, ‘Writing Blah, Blah, Blah: Lecturers’ Approaches and Challenges in Supporting International Students’, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, vol. 22, no. 2, pp. 169 -178.
Fox, H 1994, ‘Listening to the World. Cultural Issues in Academic Writing ‘, National Council of Teachers of English, USA.
Ramburuth, P 2009, ‘The impact of culture on learning: exploring student perceptions’, Multicultural Education and Technology Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 182 – 195.
Ryan J & Carroll J (eds) 2005, Teaching International Students: Improving Learning for All, Routledge, London.

Share your thoughts about discourse diversity and your tips for conveying your expectations in the comments section!

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Reflecting on reflection: Part 2

Posted by: Mary Ryan, Associate Professor and Higher Degree Research Coordinator in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. 

A/Prof Mary Ryan at the Inclusive Conversation Series March 2014 © RMIT University, 2014, Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

A/Prof Mary Ryan at the Inclusive Conversation Series March 2014 © RMIT University, 2014, Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

The project team thanks the Office of the Dean of Learning and Teaching and Associate Professor Andrea Chester, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, Learning & Teaching, DSC for supporting the Inclusive Conversation Series.

(This post has been broken into two parts- click here to go to the previous post.)

4Rs of Reflection

Reporting and responding

Reflective learning is a wicked skill (Knight, 2007). It has slippery definitions, is seen differently by different people, and is often treated as omnipresent rather than teachable. My response to this issue has been to find out a bit more about it. I needed evidence about things like… What constitutes reflective learning? What are the conditions under which it can happen or is taught? What do people do in different disciplines? How can it be expressed? Is it assessable?

Relating

I started by drawing on my own experiences. I realised that in my own teaching I was making assumptions about students’ knowledge of how to write an effective text, their abilities to analyse and weigh up a situation, and their skills in identifying a key issue (for them) upon which to reflect. I soon became conscious of the need for a teaching intervention. I couldn’t leave this to chance – particularly for those students for whom English was not their first language or for those who were first in their family to attend university or who had entered university through pathways other than senior schooling. So I decided some serious research was needed to help me work out how this could be improved for students in higher education. Fortunately, the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) agreed that this was an important issue and they funded a project over two years.

Reasoning

I turned to learning theories such as Kalantzis and Cope’s Science of Learning through knowledge processes, Bloom’s taxonomy and others. A common factor across these theories was the view that learning was an active rather than passive process and that students can move from basic understandings to quite complex thinking skills of critical analysis and reasoning.  I scoured the literature on reflective learning and practice and found that it is generally accepted that there are levels of reflective thinking or learning, moving from basic identification of an issue, to dialogic thinking back and forth, to deep, transformative reflection that can change ideas or practice – hence the 4Rs that I’m using to reflect here (nothing like practicing what you preach). Plus I started to annoy plenty of colleagues at QUT – asking them about their own practices in teaching reflective learning. My colleague (Michael Ryan) and I developed the Teaching and Assessing Reflective Learning (TARL) Model: (See Figure 1: Populating the Pedagogic Field). The model considers the pedagogic field of higher

Populating the Pedagogic Field

Figure 1: Populating the Pedagogic Field (click to enlarge).

education as a space that enables increasingly more complex ideas and professional attributes to be attained (vertical axis) as students move through their degree (horizontal axis). It suggests that students can:

  • begin by reflecting on their own views and practices as a novice in the field,
  • incorporate the views and practices of others in the field,
  • reach the final goal of critically reflecting on self in relation to experienced colleagues and clients as a beginning professional.

The practical aspects of the model are the teaching patterns that are mapped to show at which point in a program they have been successful and the level of complex thinking that they can achieve. The benefits of this approach include minimising replication of activities across a program, ensuring that reflective activities are increasingly more sophisticated across a program and introducing a shared language for staff and students.

Reconstructing

I’ve learnt that a smorgasbord of reflective activities is not useful to develop levels of complexity across a program. I’ve learnt that we can’t make assumptions about students’ skills in this area. I’ve realised the importance of a shared language across programs and consistency in language within a course. Most importantly, I’ve learnt that higher education teachers really make a difference. If they prioritise and explicitly teach reflective learning, students can progress to those deep levels of self-reflection. New applications of this work have been in areas of peer review – teaching students how to write a reflective and useful review and how to respond reflectively to peer feedback; as well as teaching students how to evaluate university teaching and courses in a more reflective way as co-contributors to the learning experience. From here, I think I need to work more with academic staff in helping them to implement some of the great resources and strategies from the project.

References:

Knight, P 2007, Fostering and assessing ‘wicked’ competences, Milton Keynes, Open University.

Murphy, KR, 2011, ‘Student reflective practice – building deeper connections to concepts’, ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 25

Ryan, ME & Ryan, MC 2013, ‘Theorising a model for teaching and assessing reflective learning in higher education’, Higher Education Research & Development, vol 32, no. 5, pp. 244-257.

Ryan, ME, 2014, Teaching and Assessing Reflective Learning in Higher Education, Inclusive Conversation Series, RMIT, March 2014 presentation.

Share your thoughts on reflection in the comments section!

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Reflecting on reflection: Part 1

Posted by: Mary Ryan, Associate Professor and Higher Degree Research Coordinator in the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. 

The project team thanks the Office of the Dean of Learning and Teaching and Associate Professor Andrea Chester, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor, Learning & Teaching, DSC for supporting the Inclusive Conversation Series.

(This post has been broken into two parts- click here to go to the next post where I apply the 4Rs to my own experiences.)

Reflective practice is often described as being as much a state of mind or attitude as it is a set of activities. It requires educators to assess themselves and their practice and as a result of this process become, “conscious agents in their own pedagogy” (Griffiths: 2010).

Screen shot 2014-04-15 at 11.45.45 AM

A/Prof Mary Ryan at the Inclusive Conversation Series March 2014 © RMIT University, 2014, Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

My work as a teacher of undergraduate and postgraduate Education students for many years has shown me how much students can benefit from explicit teaching of critical reflection to improve their learning. This has motivated my work on developing students’ reflective learning capacities over several years — first as a teacher working directly with students and in the past few years supporting other teachers, program coordinators and support staff to develop a systematic curriculum model with practical strategies and resources that builds students’ capacities in reflective learning.

At the end of this page I’ve provided some resources that could help you in your teaching and in Part 2 I’ll share my reflections (on reflection) using this 4R model.

When educators reflect on their teaching, their practice improves. Students can also benefit when they reflect on their learning experience or practice. Murphy (2011) states the act of reflecting on an experience or critical incident, leads to students making deeper connections to the concepts they are learning beyond the rote memorisation or simple completion, resulting in students experiencing an ‘a-ha’ moment.

Reflective learning is a way for students to:

  • develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills

  • consider different possibilities and actions

  • link old ideas with new ones

  • stimulate creative solutions

  • encourage life-long learning

  • draw on evidence to plan future actions

  • improve practice

  • create cohesiveness across a course/program. (Ryan, 2014)

How can I integrate reflection into teaching and assessment?

Designing a practice of reflection means both clarifying the purposes it needs to serve and identifying opportunities for reflection in students’ work that are realistic and yet occur at the right intervals with sufficient depth to be meaningful (Murphy 2011).

At RMIT, there are a number of teaching staff who have introduced reflective practice into their curriculum in courses such as Fashion and Textiles, International Development (GUSS), and Media and Communication to name just a few. And there would be countless staff who use the word ‘reflection’ in a task or in assessment criteria. What makes our project special is the real examples of reflection shown within their discipline. These patterns have been linked (where appropriate) to professional standards for the accrediting bodies and plotted on a graph to

Populating the Pedagogic Field

Populating the Pedagogic Field

show how they increase in complexity, or how they move from simulated to real experiences. (See the figure: ‘Populating the Pedagogic Field’ to the right and click to expand.)

Some examples have been selected here from the Developing Reflective Approaches to Writing (DRAW) Wiki to illustrate how you could introduce reflective practice into the course. The patterns include teaching resources including annotated examples of reflective writing, and student blogs:

Analysing Reflective Texts (ART),

Mapping Critical Incidents – Foundation (MCIF)

Reflections Around Artefacts (RAA)

Reflection as a Professional Activity during Service Learning (RPA)

Resources:

The Developing Reflective Approaches to Writing (DRAW) Wiki: holds the teaching patterns and common resources for over 20 patterns that are being used in different disciplines. The DRAW website (http://www.drawproject.net)provides a short summary of the project and references.

References:

Knight, P 2007, Fostering and assessing ‘wicked’ competences, Milton Keynes, Open University.

Murphy, KR, 2011, ‘Student reflective practice – building deeper connections to concepts’, ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 25

Ryan, ME & Ryan, MC 2013, ‘Theorising a model for teaching and assessing reflective learning in higher education’, Higher Education Research & Development, vol 32, no. 5, pp. 244-257.

Ryan, ME, 2014, Teaching and Assessing Reflective Learning in Higher Education, Inclusive Conversation Series, RMIT, March 2014 presentation.

Share your thoughts on inclusive teaching and assessment in the comments section! Click here to read Part 2 of this post!

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First impressions

Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching & Andrea Wallace, Educational Developer, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Andrea is a member of the Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices Project working to develop resources and deliver professional development to staff.

Sign in a school bus reads: 'Keep Out. Please put on seatbelt + be quiet + behave. Thanks'

A sign in a school’s excursion bus at the Old Melbourne Gaol this week.

As the saying goes, ‘You don’t get a second chance at a first impression.’

This week, across Australia, thousands of lecturers and tutors will be meeting their new students or welcoming back continuing students.

In Vocational Education, classes have been back for almost a month, but still, it’s early days.

It’s obvious that getting off on the right foot and creating the right environment for students has a special importance in tertiary education. For one thing, in a 12-16 week delivery schedule, the feeling that time is precious is understandable.

In wanting students to take our course seriously, in the feeling that we’re competing for the mindshare of their course load, in rushing about, is there a risk of putting up a sign (metaphorically) like the bus driver (or the staff who share driving duties) in the picture to the left? Note the ‘Keep Out’ in red and the tiny ‘Thanks’ at the right. What messages are we sending students in their first classes?

So this post is just a quick reminder that in the midst of all the organisational and administrative tasks we should still hold our personal philosophy of education front-and-centre and be enacting the strategies and principles that brought us through university as learners, and that brought us to university to teach.

The Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices Project has a set of principles that might help you see that big picture (or the jigsaw pieces of the bigger picture that are your courses) and we can’t think of a better time of the year (at least for our southern hemisphere audience) than now to put them in front of readers. Each of the following links has an associated page with key questions, resources and examples of the principle in use:

Getting a piece of writing from your students in a class early in your teaching schedule is an easy diagnostic tool. You’ll get to know a key aspect of their learning skill set and coupled with a quick survey you can get an impression of what your students expect from the course. Perhaps you teach online (or you’ve taken these elements of your course online) and you use a discussion board or blog for this. You can probably see how this simple task hits many of the principles above– if you’ve asked students what was their inspiration to study a certain discipline; if you’ve read the responses and turned them around to the students quickly; if you’ve then provided the means for them to share their responses and maybe organise themselves in study groups based on this for the first assessment, you’re establishing an environment that is ‘feedback rich’.

But what about longer pieces of writing? What about supporting your students in documenting their progress in your course?

Next week, there’s an opportunity for all staff at RMIT as Associate Professor Mary Ryan (School of Education, QUT) delivers a lecture and workshop on the Teaching and Assessing Reflective Learning (TARL) model that she and her team developed in a recent OLT project.

Professor Ryan will explain how the systematic approach can be used to embed the pedagogy of reflective writing across courses in different disciplines.  The workshop will explore the suite of pedagogical patterns and accompanying resources for systematically teaching and assessing reflective practice underpinned by the TARL and EPC models.

Lecture: Teaching and Assessing Reflective Writing
Thursday 13 March 2014
11.30 am – 12.30 pm
Building 80, Level 1, Room 2
Workshops: Teaching and Assessing Reflective Writing
Thursday 13 March 2014
12.30 – 2.20 pm
Building 13, Level 3, Room 5 (City)
Or
Friday 14 March 2014
11.00 am – 12.30 pm
Building 514, Level 1, Room 2 (Brunswick)

Registration for the workshops is essential. Space is limited. Click here to register (RMIT Login required).

Oh, and on the topic of first impressions, we’d also like to mention two blogs that have made good impressions on us during the break and will be of particular interest to casual, sessional and part time staff:

We recently added them to our blogroll (right of screen)– go visit their site for more perspectives on starting the year.

Share your thoughts on first impressions, inclusive teaching and reflective writing in the comments section!
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The promise of the new

Posted by: Ruth Moeller, Lecturer in Education and Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Tulip among leaves and dirt

(cc) Flickr User: dugspr

Isn’t it rewarding that when you least expect it, you are given a shake and reminded why you do what you do?

Well for me it happened on Sunday, when I gave up my morning and volunteered at the University’s Open Day, and  I am so glad I did. It reminded me that what I have been taking for granted is of importance and significance to others.

When you are teaching you can get lost in the mire that can be ‘teaching’: marking, PowerPoints, student questions (why don’t they read the notes!), meeting deadlines and technology challenges. In doing so it is easy to forget why we are here and what we are offering to our students. In my three hours at Open Day I saw, met and spoke with potential students and realised that for them coming to university is a significant point. It takes them away from the familiarity, structure, and comfort of secondary school and places them into a whole new environment and onto a path to their future.

Now my role on Open Day was traffic direction. This meant wearing a stylish fluoro orange vest, holding a clipboard and greeting and directing the myriad of people who came through the door where I was standing. Can I say it is amazing the power a clipboard gives the holder: people saw an authority figure, or perhaps it was the fluoro vest. Anyway, people were more than happy to engage and ask questions and take my directions.

I spoke with many, often just to confirm what the signs said: “Yes the presentation is on the third floor”. Or to help them navigate through the maze that is RMIT. It is easy to forget that coming to a university for the first time can be physically daunting: buildings can seem to be arranged randomly, and numbers whimsically. Why else would Building 94 be opposite Building 53? Someone might pipe up here that it is probably the order in which they were built or acquired: the new RMIT Design Hub after all is number 100… and that holds until you get to Brunswick and Bundoora. There are little traps too like forgetting that the Art is often listed as Fine Art and that Art is scattered across a number of levels and buildings across what seems like the entire CBD.

What I had forgotten was that this part of going to uni is often a family affair, potential student were there with one, maybe two parents, often a sibling or two and in a couple of cases, I’m guessing a grandparent. There seemed to be two types of groups, one where the potential student was running the show and the rest were following along behind and the other where a parent, often with notes in hand was trying to find out what was on offer and how it would help their child. It was also interesting to consider the siblings who were tagging along, not always voluntary I’ll bet, but nonetheless seeing what the future may hold for them too.

I met a girl, in Year 10 who had come with her Mother to see what uni is all about, spoke with some parents who wanted to know if university studies could lead to a job and how the courses were linked to ‘the real world’ and others who didn’t know what they wanted but had come to look around.

It is interesting isn’t it, that most of the information could be found online but there is still a need to engage with the visual and physical aspect of the university, to see what it is like and to experience the environment and in doing so to get a felt sense of where their future may be.

In the lulls between greetings, I took time to guess, which area are they interested in. My general observations, were that stylish, well groomed young women were interested in Public Relations, those in grungy t-shirts, the Music Industry and those with novelty bags or water bottles – Communication Design.  Yes, it was stereotyping but it was harmless fun, and I was often right, so it also may mean that they were on the right path.

After my three hours I handed over the Clipboard and Vest of Power. I wandered through the buzzing crowds, to Bluebelle, my trusty bicycle. Pedalling home, I had plenty of time to reflect on the day and the positive energy that surrounded it. Over my journey, I concluded that Open Day is all about potential, options and future. Although ATAR was mentioned, it wasn’t the focus.  There wasn’t a sense of limitation, just possibilities, for potential student, their families and even for the staff present who were there to show the University as a place to develop that potential.

So I have decided “I‘ll be back”, because every now and then you need to be given a dose of optimism, as it helps to keep you out of the mire.

PS: Question of the day: “Where is the lightsaber display?”

Tempted answer: “In a galaxy far, far away.”

Real answer: “Not sure, try ‘Games and Animation’.”

(That is the answer from someone who responsibly wields the Clipboard of Power!)

Share your thoughts about the possibilities of Open Day in the comments!

RMIT Learning & Teaching Expo 2013

Guest post: Penny Mercer, Project Advisor, Learning and Teaching Unit, RMIT University.

Click to open the RMIT Learning & Teaching Expo 2013 page.

The Learning and Teaching Expo is an opportunity to showcase the excellent work of our dedicated teaching staff. It is a time for all of us to reflect on how we might enhance the student experience, reimagine our teaching and network with colleagues.

This year’s Expo takes the theme of “Inspiring teaching, inspiring learning.” Come along and hear what your colleagues have done to improve student learning outcomes, bring along your own experiences, or questions for discussion time. The Expo eLearning journey will allow all staff to identify a point of interest from which further learning opportunities can be explored.

Come along and hear from our invited keynote speakers about what is happening in the tertiary education sector, hear what your colleagues have done to improve student learning outcomes and bring along your own experiences or questions for discussion time.

Day 1: Tuesday 3 September – 12pm to 4.30pm, with lunch from 1pm to 2pm
Day 2: Wednesday 4 September – 9am to 1pm, with lunch from 1pm to 2pm
Venue: Design Hub, City campus.

Click here (or on the image above) to see the 2013 program and register now to attend (RMIT login required).

We look forward to seeing you there!

Donning a pirate’s patch for your students

Posted by:  Andrea Wallace, Educational Developer, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Andrea is a member of the Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices Project working to develop resources and deliver professional development to staff.

Pirate5With the project team busy working on things behind the scenes, on Friday 7 June, Professor James Arvanitakis launched the Inclusive Teaching Conversation Series, sharing his experiences of life at university. The stories and experiences he shared with us started from his first day at university. As a first in family student, he recounted how he sat through his first lecture (for film studies, which wasn’t one of his courses) and, based on the advice of his mother, carried both his passport (so people knew who he was) and a container of lamb to feed new friends.

His first year wasn’t brilliant in terms of grades and it would be fair to say that after being called into the Dean’s office (where it was suggested he might be better following his father’s footsteps into a trade) a young James could have been part of that statistic we call ‘attrition’. Luckily for us (and his current students) James completed his studies and after an early career that involved stretches in the finance and not-for-profit sectors, he returned to university for postgraduate study and eventually to teach.

He received the Prime Minister’s Award for Australian University Teacher of the Year in 2012, and now teaches into large classes at University of Western Sydney where the student cohort is culturally diverse and where a large percentage of students are also the first in their family to attend university.

James’ focus on the student is evident in almost everything he speaks about. By donning his pirate eye patch, he challenges conventional delivery techniques and has introduced new strategies which he continually tweaks including the use of social media. Alongside his research and publication interests, he keeps his teaching material current and engages with his students by letting them use their language to unpack topics such as gender and racism.

It got me thinking about my first experience of tertiary education, moving from assisting academics and researchers doing field work, to becoming a mature-aged student sitting in a lecture theatre listening to the theories of Freud. As a mature-aged student, I thought I understood what it meant to study. I thought I would fly through my degree and its assessments. But the reality was quite different. I remember the pressures of working part-time (to pay my mortgage, student fees and to eat!), learning how to write an essay and understanding that I was expected to interact with my lecturers and ask questions.  Along with assignments, group work and

Professor James Arvanitakis addresses staff at RMIT.becoming a critical thinker I was also trying to maintain some sort of a social life.  And if you’d asked me what I wanted to do with my degree, little did I know that some of the position descriptions I’ve ended up with didn’t exist in 1987. The same can be said for this student cohort, will they walk into a job after graduation that didn’t exist 10 years ago?

Sitting in the workshops that accompanied the launch and observing James’ teaching, he modelled many of the principles for inclusive teaching during each of the workshops. So for those of you who have not accessed the new pages, I would strongly suggest that you visit each of the principles and its supporting strategies. The strategies can be used for you in two ways, as a guide to help you design your practice to ensure that it’s inclusive or as a tool to reflect upon and refine your teaching:

As a project team, we invite staff in each of the three colleges to share with us any resources that you have developed which reflect inclusive teaching approaches and if you would like to be involved in promoting or working alongside the project team to incorporate inclusive teaching strategies into your teaching we encourage you to make contact with us!

The Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices Project Team New resources and professional development opportunities will be announced through various channels once they are uploaded and available for use by staff.

Don’t forget that you can find the rubrics on the English Language Development Project page in the Teaching Resources area of the RMIT staff webpage.  Please contact Barbara Morgan at the Study and Learning Centre for more information (barbara.morgan@rmit.edu.au).

All photos in this post are © RMIT University. Photographer: Carmelo Ortuso.

Share your thoughts on inclusive teaching and assessment in the comments section!

How do we assess English language competence?

Posted by: Barbara Morgan, Manager, Academic Literacies & Maths, Discipline Services, Study and Learning Centre, RMIT University.

Click on the image to open a new window to RMIT's Study and Learning Centre.

Click on the image to open a new window to RMIT’s Study and Learning Centre.

Lecturers often ask us what they can do to help their students improve their English. They face a growing number of students in their classes from a range of language and cultural backgrounds, prior education experiences and academic abilities who all want to succeed in their studies. It is not just in the classroom that lecturers articulate their fears as there is increasing concern about English proficiency across the sector in response to the recent inclusion of English language in the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) threshold standards.

At RMIT English language development is an important aspect of the ‘Work Ready’ graduate attribute.

The issue is how do we ensure that these crucial skills are developed over the course of a degree?  It seems that with increasing diversity we need to be even more explicit about what is expected and how to  go about it. The challenge for all tertiary institutions is that English language is developmental and context specific; university learning is a kind of apprenticeship into a discipline. This takes time.

So how do we overcome this barrier and teach this? One useful way is through the feedback we provide to students. Writing effective English language feedback for students can be challenging. Of interest to us all is that English language feedback is useful for all students and helps them to develop the capabilities required in their program.

For this purpose the Study and Learning Centre has developed a series of user friendly English language rubrics (for essays, reports, reflective journals, and oral presentations) to assist teachers to give practical feedback to their students on their English language and academic skills.

The rubrics aim to explicitly verbalise the implicit language and literacy requirements of assignment tasks. They do this through clear and simple explanations of the linguistic features of assignments and links to models on the Learning Lab. Staff can use the feedback provided in the rubrics to give students the specific advice they need to improve their language and literacy. Students highly value feedback from their teachers so we expect that use of the rubric could support positive GTS scores. Staff from the Study and Learning Centre are also available to directly work with you to customise the rubrics to suit your needs.

You can find the rubrics on the webpage English Language Development Project in the Teaching resources area of the RMIT staff webpage.  Please contact the Barbara Morgan at the Study and Learning Centre for more information (barbara.morgan@rmit.edu.au).

Share your thoughts on the nature of feedback or English language competence in the comments section!

The librarian, the academic, the student…

Posted by: June Frost, Liaison Librarian, University Library, Bundoora West Campus, RMIT University.

I recently came across this description of my library colleagues in an Oxford University student’s column:

When it is not attacking other creatures librarianus spectacalus spends most of its time catching the unsuspecting rectangular creature bookius bookius in the strange firm linear webs with which they line their mountain caves.  But librarianus does not eat bookius bookius; instead they catch it for the strange effect it produces when they stare at its underbelly.

rowsofbooksAcademic librarians are a strange breed of people. Of course, there are variations within the breed: some like to catalogue and organise information, some like to present information by using the latest gadgets, some like to verbally impart information (sometimes endlessly it seems), some (just a few) like to keep information secret, but almost all of us love to share information in one way or another. It’s not difficult to distinguish the key word here – INFORMATION! We love the opportunity to share information with our colleagues, teachers, lecturers and researchers and with our families (much to their dismay). Here is a typical exchange:

- How was your day, Mum?
- Oh, really good today. Did you see my post on Facebook about RMIT Library’s new LibrarySearch function? It’s just like doing a Google search except you find all the Library resources on one topic including e-books, e-articles and streaming video?
- Oh, great Mum – hope you didn’t make it public!

But most of all, we love sharing information with students who at certain times of the year, are our biggest fans.  It might be that StudentonmobilephoneatRMITthey’ve never used a certain database or that they hadn’t realised they can access a resource from their iPad or maybe they’ve hit a tricky concept in one of their courses. They might not know it, but they’re usually looking to fill a gap in their information skill-set.

Information skills

Information /ɪnfəˈmeɪʃ(ə)n/ (International Phonetic Alphabet)

  • facts provided or learned about something or someone: a vital piece of information.

(from Oxford Dictionaries Online.)

Traditionally, information skills sessions takes place in the first few weeks of a semester, when students are reeling from information overload.  It doesn’t matter whether they are starting a TAFE certificate or beginning research for a PhD, there’s a lot to take in.  The Library homepage contains a plethora of – you guessed it—INFORMATION, and students need to learn the skills to navigate (we also love the word ‘navigate’) their way around and through this information, until ‘Bingo!’ they find what they are looking for.  To get to the ‘Bingo!’ moment, it’s quite understandable that most students will need some help in: firstly, recognising they need information; secondly, selecting the right method to find the information; thirdly, finding ways to locate, disseminate and store the information; fourthly, synthesising and evaluating the information; and lastly, deciding on the methods to present the information.

Time Pressures

A study by Kent state University Researchers which collected data from higher education institutions across 17 states in the USA found that the biggest barrier to including information skills (or IL: information literacy) in teacher education programs was time:

It makes sense that barriers remained consistent whether educators were trying to integrate IL skills or IL standards. Since most courses consist of well-established content, it is not surprising that lack of time and lack of their own expertise in IL were identified as major hurdles. These responses highlight another possible benefit of collaboration; a librarian, looking at a course from a different perspective, may be able to suggest ways that existing content and assignments can be slightly modified to include important IL skills and knowledge. Kovalik, et al (2010) p.62

I suspect the same might be said of RMIT or indeed across the nation.  It does take time for course coordinators and lecturers to firstly talk to or LIAISE (another of our favourite words) with librarians, schedule in an information skills session and then find a time to incorporate it into the busy course schedule, but it will be worth the effort.

The Solution

StudentreachingforbookatRMITOne solution to this may be to rethink the timing of library skills sessions in the academic year.  How about scheduling a session mid-semester when the student’s first major assessment piece is being delivered?  If the librarian has access to the assignment question and themes, the skills session can then be tailored to the question and the students can walk away with not only skills but some actual resources to set them on their way. For flexibility, we could also ensure this information is available online for students who prefer to learn from their bedroom floor…speaking as someone with teenage children.

For myself, I will happily impart information to students at any time of the year, but by trying to strategically place these research sessions at the right point of the calendar, it may produce better outcomes.

Maybe it could further cement our libraries as AWESOME, SICK and KOOL (yes that’s how they spell it now!) places on campus.  Or to use the IPA/ˈɔːs(ə)m//sɪk/ and /kuːl/.

Share your thoughts about campus libraries and information skills in the comments below!

Reference:

Kovalik, C. L., Jensen, M. L., Schloman, B., & Tipton, M. (2010). Information literacy, collaboration, and teacher education. Communications in Information Literacy, 4(2), 145-169. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/865649314?accountid=13552. 1 February 2013

What is inclusive teaching, and why is it important?

Guest Post by Dr Kylie Murphy, Academic Development Group, College of Science Engineering and Health.

Students browse bookshelves at Carlton Library

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Access and equity are hot topics in Australian higher education lately. The university sector is under pressure to massify. Rather than reinforcing the social class structure, Australian universities are now tasked with the challenge of helping students to transgress social class boundaries and break generations-old cycles of economic disadvantage. Indeed, there are significant financial incentives for universities around attracting and retaining students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. University teaching staff should be in no doubt about the importance of supporting more first-in-family students to come to higher education and ‘stay the course’.

What should we do?

But how are university teachers supposed to help students who lack the sociocultural capital of more ‘traditional’ university students to persist with their studies and succeed? Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds not only lack the financial resources of their middle and upper class peers. Many also:

  • have less time and space in which to study
  • lack the academic literacies taught more readily in selective-school classrooms
  • lack the language skills often modelled from birth by tertiary educated parents and
  • lack the understanding, support, and advice of university-experienced friends and family members.

If success in higher education is to be more accessible to socioeconomically disadvantaged students, perhaps we need to make it easier for all students to get a degree than in the past?

Are more lenient standards the answer?

Lowering academic standards or reducing the expected capabilities of graduates is, of course, not the answer.

Two students studying at Brunswick Library

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Australia’s economic health (to say nothing of other social benefits) needs more people who are as knowledgeable and skilful as graduates have long been, not an increased number of graduates who are less capable than before. Undergraduate degree students each bring tens of thousands of dollars to the university they are enrolled at. To attract increased and more diverse student enrolments and then simply lower the bar for students to step over is, if nothing else, completely unethical. The answer, instead, lies in transforming universities into places of truly inclusive teaching.

How can inclusive teaching help?

If inclusive teaching doesn’t mean lowering academic standards, what does it mean? Broadly, it means teaching in such a way that maximises the capacity of all students to reach meaningful standards of success. In other words, it means teaching so that all students in the course can meet the learning objectives. It’s not surprising, then, that there are many ways to conceptualise inclusive teaching. But while writers in this field may revel in exploring the complexities of inclusive education as an abstraction, a stack of slightly differing definitions and conceptual deconstructions are of little help to academics who just want to know how to teach their next class more inclusively or how to re-design an assessment piece for greater inclusivity.

What makes teaching inclusive?

Inclusive teaching manifests as many specific practices, adapted and contextualised as appropriate to the area of study and learning objectives in question. Instead of itemising possible inclusive practices, here, I offer three criteria that stand out to me as ready litmus tests for determining whether or not any particular thing that we do as a teacher or lecturer is ‘inclusive’. When selecting content for a course, when devising, explaining, and providing feedback on learning and assessment activities, and when otherwise communicating with our students, these three questions are critical considerations:

1        Will this content, range of activities, communication style, feedback, etcetera allow all of my students to feel respected and valued — or might some students feel overlooked and unengaged?

2        Will it help all of my students to maintain or develop enough confidence in themselves, in my approachability, and in the relevance and flexibility of the curriculum so that they will persist when challenges arise — or might students with more than their fair share of obstacles become disheartened and give up? and

3        Will it help all of my students to move step-by-step from the knowledge and skills they each have, now, to the knowledge and skills that I want them ultimately to attain — or does it fail to clearly communicate the steps required?

An attitude more than a checklist

I see inclusive teaching as an attitude as much as a checklist of actions. To me, it’s an ongoing process of aspiring to answer ‘yes’ to the above three questions regarding every aspect of our teaching and assessment practice, even though the implicit ideals are not always achievable. In my own teaching, I try to satisfy the above three criteria — aiming to help all of my students to feel respected and valued, to feel confident enough to keep trying despite setbacks, and to achieve the learning objectives in an appropriately scaffolded way — but I sometimes run short on the necessary resources, including time and know-how. And I know my efforts don’t always work for every one of my students. There are some factors that affect student learning and success that teachers simply cannot change.

Something to be proud of

Student Services Office, Bundoora Campus

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky

Inclusive teaching is not easy and it’s no panacea. However, our many teaching staff at RMIT who do continually try to enable all of our students to feel respected, to feel confident enough to persist despite difficulties, and to ultimately achieve the intended learning outcomes — even though they don’t always achieve these objectives with every student — are important agents of social change and incredibly valuable assets to the University. For those vulnerable students whom our inclusive teaching efforts have helped, and do help, the positive impact of our efforts, especially combined with the efforts of other inclusive teachers and student support staff, is potentially enormous.

Learn more

Read what Australian low socioeconomic status students say about inclusive teachers, and what inclusive Australian academics say about low socioeconomic status students, at www.lowses.edu.au. This website contains well-researched practical advice for university teachers and policy makers. And stay tuned for RMIT’s launch of its own professional development and support opportunities arising from the University’s Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices project.

Get Onboard

The transformation of higher education institutions from places of exclusivity and pre-existing privilege to places of inclusivity and life-changing opportunity is well underway in Australia. Australian universities now serve students of varying levels of socioeconomic advantage, including students from under-privileged backgrounds who we know, with good teaching, perform as well as or better than their wealthier peers. But, still, students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds remain proportionally underrepresented in Australian university enrolments.

The challenge lies, of course, not only in attracting more high-potential socioeconomically disadvantaged students to our universities, but also in ensuring that we capitalise on their potential, maintain their confidence and motivation, and appropriately scaffold their pathways to success once they arrive with us. This two-pronged challenge is being addressed on a global scale, including in the UK and the US as well as in Australia. Whether it’s social justice or economic pressure that drives you to teach as inclusively as you can, the imperative is strong — and it’s not going away.

Share your thoughts on inclusive teaching strategies in our comments section!

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