22 SES 13 C, Paper Session
Many doctoral students struggle with the formalities and focused rigour of academic writing. International students at western universities have the added obstacle in that they are writing in a second language. It is a common trend in western universities to attract and enrol growing numbers of international students and in many cases these students constitute a significant source of revenue (Greenwood et al, 2014). Consequently, the problems international students face in mastering academic writing are a concern for universities in Europe as they are for those in New Zealand.
This presentation reports a study of a group of international doctoral students in New Zealand who were brought together to develop a learning community. The intention of the community was to help students to work collaboratively as well as individually to identify the challenges they face in academic writing and to evolve strategies to overcome them. The research project investigated how students developed agency through participation in the community. It also examined the concerns the participants had with their academic writing and what they found most useful in the discussion in the community.
The study draws on three principal fields of knowledge and theorisation. The first is the large body of literature that discusses the difficulties that students have with academic writing. Much of this literature focuses on surface errors in English (Corder, 1967) and on difficulties in achieving sequential flow and cohesion (Hinkel, 2002, Al Badi 2015).
The second is the growing body of literature that deals with the development and operation of learning communities. A number of studies (Chatterjee-Padmanabhan & Nielsen, 2018; Noble & Henderson, 2008; Greenwood et al, 2016) report case of student learning communities that were developed to combat student isolation and to facilitate shared learning. Greenwood (2020) argues that the process of transforming a community of practice (Wenger, 1998) “into a learning community involves deliberate intention to learn, continuing, though not necessarily constant, engagement, the development of trust, processes that foster dialogue and that serve to both critique and encourage, and risk-taking.” She states: “Because knowledge evolves within a learning community, there is need for flexible rather than set frameworks and for participants to take ownership of what they learn”.
The third is the body of studies that explore the concepts of agency and self-efficacy. Various authors (Synofzik, Vosgerau, & Newen, 2008; Haggard & Chambon, 2012,; Desantis, A., Roussel, C., & Waszak, F., 2011) discuss agency and self-efficacy in terms of how an individual takes responsibility for considering and initiating actions. Bandura (2001) states that people only have the motivation to act when they know that their desired effects are met, when they have a sense of self-efficacy and that such self-efficacy has motivational, cognitive and affects aspects. Bandura (2001) further refined the concept of human agency as the ability to exercise control over the nature and quality of life.
This presentation reports the overall operation of the learning community and reports in detail the experiences of two of the participants in the project. The narratives of two participants were chosen because they illustrate what each saw as his/her greatest concern in detailing academic writing, what each considered s/he had gained from the community, and the ways each developed a sense of agency through participation in the group.
A participatory action research (PAR) approach was selected for this study. Action research allows planning and action to evolve as a result of critical reflection on each stage of the project (Noble, Macfarlane, & Carmel, 2005). The development of a learning community is a process that evolves over time and each such community evolves in its own way according to the needs, initiatives and critical insights of its participants. The participatory aspect of PAR is important to this study as it was important for the participants to be actively involved in shaping the direction of discussions within the community and for the findings to honestly reflect their experiences and perceptions. An open invitation was sent to international postgraduate students in all the departments of the university. About twelve elected to join the group after the project and the time it was expected to take had been explained to them. In addition, two professors were invited to join the group as on-line advisors and facilitators. The group met for an hour and a half fortnightly for six months. A longer workshop was held in the fifth month. Attendance at meetings fluctuated according to pressures in individual students’ lives. Meetings were recorded. After each meeting, there was a reflective debrief between the researcher and the facilitators. The researcher and the two facilitators each wrote a reflective memo after each session. The other participants were also invited to write reflective memos (which they did not need to share) and/or to send comments by email. Many of the participants did send comments or suggestions by email; none offered to share reflective memos. At the end of projects, all the participants were individually interviewed in an open-ended approach that invited them to share key experiences, what they had learned through the community, and what aspects of academic writing they most wanted to work on. A phenomenological approach was used to analyse and interpret the data collated. Phenomenological research investigates the lived experience of people (Heiddegger, 1962; Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009; van Manen, 2014). An interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) seeks to capture people themselves make sense of their experience. The progress of the project and the findings of the research are reported as participant narratives interwoven with detailed reports of critical episodes (Hosseini, in preparation)
Participants identified a range of personal difficulties in academic writing, ranging from specific problems with vocabulary and grammar to less specific feelings about ‘not doing it right’ or ‘being too simple’. Over successive meetings, participants became more confident in talking about their difficulties and more critically insightful about what was expected of them and what their actual problems were. They also became more collaborative in sharing strategies that they found useful, in brainstorming alternatives, and in positively critiquing one another’s ideas and writing. In the final interviews, each participant shared what they learned through working in the community. A common response was increase in confidence through realisation that they were not alone in experiencing problems and could seek and find useful support from others. Several participants identified particular features that they now understood better and could work with more effectively. For example, one participant said she now understood what her supervisor wanted in reporting of experiments and another stated she now managed to keep a regular reflective journal. A couple stated that they had not expected to learn anything new (having joined to support others) but found they had incrementally, and almost unconsciously, gained new insights into their methodology and their findings. Several students stated that they most valued the opportunity to talk to others including professors (who were not their supervisors) about their ideas and how to express them. One talked about her new awareness that academic writing was about meaning-making and that, although she still struggled with aspects of grammar and vocabulary, she realised she did have things to say. At the end of the project, participants made suggestions about future possibilities. It was strongly recommended that university agencies to initiate and facilitate postgraduate learning communities, although there were differing opinions about whether such communities should be homogenous.
Al Badi, I. A. H. (2015). Academic writing difficulties of ESL learners. Paper presented at the The 2015 WEI International Academic Conference Proceedings, Barcelona, Spain. Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 1-26. Chatterjee-Padmanabhan, M., & Nielsen, W. (2018). Preparing to cross the research proposal threshold: A case study of two international doctoral students. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 55(4), 417-424. Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learner's errors. IRAL-International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 5(1-4), 161-170. Desantis, A., Roussel, C., & Waszak, F., 2011). Greenwood, J. (2020, in press), Understanding the experiences of international doctoral students: charting a troubled geography of doctoral supervision. In J, Southcott, E, Creely, D. Lyons, S. Grant, K. Carabott (Eds) Phenomenological Inquiry in Education. London: Routledge,. Greenwood, J., Alam, S., & Kabir, A. (2014). Educational change and international trade in teacher development: Achieving local goals within/despite a transnational context. Journal of Studies in International Education, 18(4), 345-361. Greenwood, J., Alam, S., Salahuddin, A., & Rasheed, H. (2016). Learning Communities, Doctorates, and Partnerships for Development: A Case Study. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 14(1). 49-67. Haggard, P., & Chambon, V. (2012). Sense of agency. Current Biology, 22(10), R390-R392. Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row. Hinkel, E. (2002). Second language writers' text: Linguistic and rhetorical features. Routledge. Hosseini, M.( in preparation) Noble, K., & Henderson, R. (2008). Engaging with images and stories :Using a learning approach to develop agency of beginning "at-risk" pre-Service teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 33(1), 46-61. Noble, K., Macfarlane, K., & Carmel, J. (2005). Circles of change: Challenging orthodoxy in practitioner supervision. Pearson SprintPrint. Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative phenomenological analysis: theory, method and research, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Synofzik, M., Vosgerau, G., & Newen, A. (2008). I move, therefore I am: A new theoretical framework to investigate agency and ownership. Consciousness and cognition, 17(2), 411-424. Van Manen, M. (2014). Phenomenology of practice: Meaning-giving methods in phenomenological research and writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
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