22 SES 06 E, Reading and Writing: Critical perspectives
This paper outlines the pilot of a project focused on supporting the development of critical reading/writing skills and enhancing academic practice around critical thinking for first year undergraduate students undertaking a core module (on sport pedagogy) at a UK university. The project came about following the authors’ reflections on previous experiences within the module and the evident resonance with wider academic debates within higher education (HE). Within their own practice, the authors identified that many students had limited understandings of criticality and often executed these skills poorly within coursework. A review of feedback provided to students in coursework indicated that it consistently highlighted the need for students to go beyond description and look more critically at alternative perspectives on the subject matter. Discussions with students also revealed a lack of confidence around critical reading, writing and thinking, with confusion around requirements/expectations across disciplines in this respect. While research shows that critical thinking is recognised as a core skill within Western universities (Curzon-Hobson, 2003) there is growing concern that many students (as suggested above) are struggling to adjust to ‘criticality-based requirements’ (e.g. Ridley, 2004). The changing face of HE means that students now enter university with vastly different amounts of social, cultural and educational capital (Laing et al., 2005) and many lack the necessary skills to allow them to succeed and achieve in the HE climate (Bennett Moore et al., 2010). Further, there has been much focus in recent times on how HE institutions (across Europe and beyond) can evidence ‘learning gain’ (Rogers, 2007; OECD, 2012) and how practice might best be shaped to support this (RAND, 2015).
Research reminds us that poor critical thinking, reading and writing practice is not just a student ‘problem’. It is argued that ideas of critical thinking are bound to social experiences, cultures and practices (e.g. Atkinson, 1997) and that uncritical acceptance of this can render academic practices exclusionary and reductive. As such, there have been calls for academics to re-evaluate and reconsider critical thinking within their own practice, and in relation to their own contexts, to aid students’ appreciation of criticality from socio-culturally located perspectives (Hammersley-Fletcher & Hanley, 2016). Such thinking guided the development of the Critical Reading and Writing (CReW) project, outlined in this paper. Bearing in mind the view that critical thinking skills should be addressed “prior to the writing stage” (HEA, 2014 p.5), the project was developed and embedded within a large, core first year module (student n = 218) that already had a strong focus on critical inquiry. Through the development of an interactive workbook, tailored activities and coordinated delivery (across lectures, seminars and tutorials) the project sought to: foster enhanced understanding of critical thinking among students; increase their capacity and confidence to engage in critical debate; and facilitate the development of key criticality skills that would aid their capacity to meet the needs of assessment practices (within and beyond the specific module). Research activities were designed to run alongside the project activities, to ascertain the perspectives of students/staff and consider areas for development.
The delivery of the CReW project commenced in October 2017 and activities ran for the duration of the module (up to February 2018). The research activities comprised semi-structured online surveys (pre- and post-delivery) and focus group discussions with students, as well as reflective conversations between academic staff. These activities were deemed appropriate given the emphasis placed on making space for student voices when evaluating practice in HE (Browne, 2010) and the value of researcher reflexivity within action research projects (Baumfield et al., 2013). The pre-survey asked students to reflect on their current confidence/perceived competence with regard to the criticality-based requirements of academic study and to consider what support they felt they might need in this respect. From a cohort of 218, a total of 150 responses were received for the pre-delivery survey (representing a 69% response rate). The post-delivery survey repeated this format, but also asked students to reflect on what they felt they had learnt and to identify aspects of the CReW project that they felt worked particularly well or that could be developed. A total of 35 responses have been received for this survey to date (with this being ongoing). Following completion of module delivery, focus group discussions have been organised with selected students. To date, five focus group discussions have been held (participant n = 10) with further groups planned. Within these semi-structured discussions, students have been/will be given the opportunity to expand on the survey answers and to consider key aspects of project delivery. Research activities are ongoing, but data generated throughout the project (survey responses, focus group transcripts and reflective fieldnotes) will be collated and analysed to identify key findings and points of interest relating to the aims of the project and broader academic debates. Responses to closed-questions within the online surveys will be entered into an Excel spreadsheet and used to generate descriptive statistics (i.e. the frequency of a particular response or the percentage of the total data set that this represented). The qualitative data (open-ended responses from the online surveys, focus group transcripts and observation field notes) will be analysed thematically using a constructivist grounded theory approach (e.g. Harry et al., 2005) in order to ascertain students’ views regarding the CReW project and identify pertinent factors to feed into ongoing project design and development.
As noted above, research activities are ongoing for this project. However, a preliminary analysis of the data indicates that there was significant support for the CReW project amongst students. In particular, the pre-delivery survey highlighted that there was a perceived need by students for additional support with demonstrating criticality within coursework, with more than 80% of respondents indicating that they felt the project would be useful in this regard. Moreover, students suggested that the CReW project design seemed pertinent to their needs; with structuring essays, accessing relevant sources and accurate referencing frequently cited as areas where students lacked confidence. The focus group discussions also highlighted that the integrated nature of the project (linking CReW activities through lectures, seminars and tutorials) was particularly well received and that students valued enhanced support from academic staff. Some areas for potential development have already been noted, including enhancing the ‘usability’ of the CReW workbook in teaching sessions – potentially through the digitisation of this resource and the provision of supporting materials in different formats. Moreover, it is felt that the co-teaching element of the project could be extended, as students found this particularly useful. The potential benefits of co-teaching are well noted within the literature, with Beninghof (2012) emphasising the value of co-teaching for both student and practitioner development. On the whole, students’ perspectives of the CReW project were positive. However, it is acknowledged that engagement was varied across the cohort and the level of ‘buy-in’ from students influenced the extent of the benefits accrued. Further analysis of the data is due to be undertaken and consideration will be given to the potential of the project to impact on student ‘learning gain’
Atkinson, D. (1997) ‘A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL’. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1) pp. 71- 94. Baumfield, V., Hall, E. & Wall, K. (2013) Action Research in Education. London: Sage. Beninghof, A. (2012) Co-teaching That Works: Structures and Strategies for Maximising Student Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass. Bennett Moore, Z., Faltin, L. & Wright, M. (2010) ‘Critical Thinking and International Postgraduate Students’, Discourse, 3 pp. 63-94. Browne, J. (2010) Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education: An Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance. London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Curzon-Hobson, A. (2003) ‘Higher Learning and the Critical Stance’, Studies in Higher Education, 28(2) pp. 201-212. Hammersley-Fletcher, L. & Hanley, C. (2016) ‘The use of critical thinking in higher education in relation to the international student: Shifting policy and practice’, British Educational Research Journal. 42(6) pp. 978-992. Harry, B., Sturges, K.M., & Klingner, J.K. (2005). ‘Mapping the process: An exemplar of process and challenge in grounded theory analysis’, Educational Researcher, 34(2) pp. 3-13. HEA (2014) Critical Thinking. York: HEA. Laing, C., Kuo-Ming Chao, & Robinson, A. (2005) ‘Managing the expectations of non-traditional students: a process of negotiation’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 29(2) pp. 169-179. OECD (2012) AHELO Feasibility Study Report: Volume 1: Design and Implementation. Paris: OECD. RAND (2015) Learning Gain in Higher Education. Cambridge: RAND. Ridley, D. (2004) ‘Puzzling experiences in Higher Education: critical moments for conversation’, Studies in Higher Education 29(1) pp. 92-107. Rodgers, T. (2007) ‘Measuring Value Added in Higher Education: A Proposed Method for Developing a Performance Indicator Based on the Economic Value Added to Graduates.’ Education Economics, 15(1) pp. 55–74.
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