Developing Academic Writing Project: Progress so Far…

By Sarra Saffron Powell (Educational Development) sarrasaf@liv.ac.uk

In the Department of History, academic staff have identified writing skills as a priority for student development in order to support higher attainment across all cohorts and levels of performance. The History Writing Project, a collaboration between the School of Histories, Languages, and Cultures (HLC) and Educational Development (CCL), provides students with one to one writing tutorials/workshops. The tutors are current PGR students trained to assist students and record common areas of difficulty, to feed into an online diagnostic tool to be housed in iLearn. Relevant learning resources will be created and uploaded into iLearn for use by all History students.
The pilot is funded by the HSS Faculty Improvement fund, in order to assess the benefits of co-curricular writing skills support delivered by PGR students. It is led by Sarra Saffron Powell (CLL) and Richard Huzzey (History), with support from the HLC Learning and Teaching Support Officers, the History HoD and Margaret Procter (History).
Progress to date
Four PGR tutors have been recruited to the project: they are proving to be enthusiastic, committed and autonomous in their approach. Prior to working with students they attended a bespoke CPD workshop (facilitated by CLL) on approaches to learning and teaching for writing skills development.
A system that enabled staff to refer students as they marked assignments was established. Staff were issued with stickers that they could place on students’ assignments during marking if they judged that the student would benefit from a writing tutorial. This informed students that they could contact the tutors through an email (writing@liv.ac.uk) to arrange a session. However, the PGR tutors have reported that this approach has been problematic, resulting in poor uptake of the service, as a considerable minority of students no longer collect hard copies of their work. This appears to be linked to the infrequency of students visiting the History department since timetabled instruction was moved to central teaching rooms. In addition, the widespread adoption of electronic feedback sheets makes tutors’ use of stickers impractical; if the Writing Project continues then History Department feedback forms should be redesigned to advertise this service on the pro forma template.

Student Engagement
Given the limited student engagement via sticker referrals and to encourage further uptake, the service has been offered to all students in History via email and VITAL module announcements for core (required) modules. In total 52 students have, or will be, attending one-to-one tutorials which demonstrates a clear need and demand for this service.
The tutors are currently developing a pair of two-hour essay writing workshops open to all History students to be delivered in February and March. The first session is already fully booked with 15 students attending (and places reserved). Anticipating the March workshop be fully booked, a total of 82 students will have benefited from the service.

Developing Digital Capabilities
The foci of the diagnostic are currently being identified during tutorials (thus far, these are typically confidence issues, grammar, structure, style, referencing and use of primary and secondary texts). The diagnostic will be available to all History students in a bespoke section of iLearn. When a student completes the diagnostic the system automatically marks it and sends the student an email of the results which contain hyperlinks of resources in History iLearn. Effectively, iLearn produces a personalised learning plan which could be used during induction, by Academic Advisors, School Learning and Teaching Support Officers and by the writing tutees prior to tutorials. The back-end of iLearn stores all diagnostic scores with student ID which provides valuable data, that over time, will allow anticipatory identification of student skills issues: making it possible to provide development opportunities at appropriate times.
The materials in iLearn will be created to specifically support the development of students’ digital literacy skills that can be harnessed to specifically support improvement of academic writing, organisational and time management skills. iLearn materials will be live and available for student use by Semester 1, 2015.

Evaluation:
Undergraduate students attending tutorials or workshops are asked to provide feedback on their experience, which will allow us to evaluate the pilot and gather qualitative information for the department’s curriculum development and iLearn services. Postgraduate tutors are also asked to provide feedback and reflections on their practice and experience. Preliminary qualitative information is given below:
Benefits for undergraduate students
Students report that the sessions were useful and indicated improvement in their perceived self-efficacies. Example feedback illustrates that students value and appreciate the service:
“Many thanks for taking the time to see me. I found it helpful and appreciate the advice…I am sure I will find the group session useful as well.”
“Thank you very much for today’s session, I found it really useful and can definitely see places where I can improve in future essays.”
“Yesterday’s session was really helpful, I’ve been back over my other essays from my last semester and I think with the advice you gave me my essays should be better this semester!”

Benefits for PGR tutors
Our PGR tutors report that their work on the project has given them enhanced capacity for critical self-reflection and greater confidence in small-group teaching contexts. Given the poverty of opportunities for History PGR students to gain teaching experience as part of their degree programme, the project has provided them with essential CV experience for future job applications. Our PGR tutors have stated:
“I have been proud to be involved in the project and have found it to be particularly beneficial to my personal and professional development. I have appreciated being involved from the initial planning and implementation stages… Meeting with undergraduate students on a one-to-one basis to share best practice and identify issues with their writing has really improved my confidence.”
“As a final year PhD student, I have found the Writing Tutors pilot to be extremely useful and engaging on several levels. It has provided me with valuable teaching experience, including the planning and running of a workshop, and one-to-one tutorials. With limited opportunities for teaching experience on the PhD programme, the pilot has given me the chance to practice and improve my teaching skills in new and different ways. Working closely with students on their writing skills has given me a real insight into the broader undergraduate experience, and has shaped my own understanding of how to provide useful feedback. Looking at common writing mistakes and how best to overcome them has also made me think about my own writing skills, and how they can always be improved. I have really enjoyed working with the students, the other tutors, and the staff that have worked to carry out the pilot, and I hope that it can continue in some form for the rest of the academic year and beyond.”

 

PGR View: Taking the Plunge into Social Media

For the 2013 Humanities and Social Sciences First-Year Development Workshop, I offered a new session that explored how academics are using social media in order to raise their research profiles.  The participants were first-year postgraduate researchers and it was clear from listening in to the pre-session chats over coffee that they had some firmly cautious opinions about using social media as part of their research practice.

HSS FYDW BLOG

The session was kicked-off by Lisa Hawksworth, from the Sydney Jones Library, who discussed case studies of researchers who have successfully used social media to highlight their work to the wider public.  The session then became an open forum that focused on questions that I asked participants to explore before the workshop.

Two-weeks before the workshop, I set a task for participants to find profiles of three researchers in their field of study and critically assess how they were using social media.  During the forum, they revealed their findings which offered insight into how academics use social media to both establish and maintain their profiles amongst fellow academics and the wider public.  Some participants were surprised to find that well-established professors in their field were consistently using social media. Reflecting on the profiles they found, the wider group wondered whether such busy academics had assistants to help maintain the high level of engagement with social media that they encountered.  Some even pondered whether PGRs were providing technical support!

Regardless of who is actually maintaining Twitter feeds, Linkedin profiles, blogs or other forms of social media, participants recognised that senior academics value social media as a means of promoting their research areas and individual profiles.   However, when asked whether they would follow in the footsteps of ‘the good and great’, there was a sense of hesitation in defining when and how they would engage with social media.

The majority of responses suggested that time and content concerns were an important factor in their decision to engage with social media.  Some of their responses were:

‘It is something I would have to carefully manage.  It would take up so much of my time and I’m already busy!’

‘I’ll wait until I have something worth saying, but yes I would definitely use it’

For others though it was hesitation to ‘take the plunge’ as a creator of social media:

‘I’ve never tried it in a serious way as a contributor, but I am definitely a consumer’

So what barriers do PGRs encounter that prevent them from actively creating social media?  It might have something to do with their immediate working environment.  According to the authors of the Handbook for Researchers and Supervisors: Digital Technologies for Research Dialogues, the decisions of whether postgraduate researchers embrace social media as a means of sharing information, collaborating and disseminating their research to the wider public and other researchers are often based on the attitudes of their supervisors. [1]   Such attitudes and or preferences for only certain types of social media can have either a facilitating or hindering effect.

The responses I heard during the workshop made me wonder whether workshops that offer a safe environment where PGRs could encounter and explore how to make the leap from consumer to creator would help alleviate the general anxiety that some researchers may feel towards employing social media.  While there are resources available for PGRs, such as Vitae’s The Engaged Researcher and the Research Information Network (RIN): Social Media: A Guide for Researchers it seems that a little handholding to explore best practice would be beneficial.  But moreover, this also suggests to me that workshops for supervisors would also support and shape how the next generation of researchers engage with social media.

I am keen to learn whether any supervisors are interested in such a workshop!  If so, please leave a comment.

Dr Aimee Blackledge, Researcher Developer

Developing Digital Literacies at the University of Liverpool

Libraries, Digital Literacies and labels… LILAC 2013 conference

Digital Literacies

Steve Wheeler

What is the difference  between Digital Literacies and Information Literacy? As a librarian Information Literacy is my bread and butter, although I acknowledge it doesn’t trip off the tongue of those outside the profession. Information Literacy is defined by the Professional body for Libraries, CILIP as:

“knowing when and why you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner”

So, where does Information Literacy end and Digital Literacy begin? Is there even a difference? Does it matter?  I don’t think the labels matter at all, and we can waste far too much time navel gazing and agonising over them.

I recently attended the LILAC (Librarians Information Literacy) conference, in Manchester along with 800 librarians, mainly from the UK, but with increasing numbers from other countries. Many of the papers dealt with Digital Literacies – in fact this could easily be re-branded a as a Digital Literacies conference.  The first Keynote speaker was Steve Wheeler from Plymouth University, where I used to work; @Timbuckteeth on Twitter.

His keynote, and others from the conference are on the LILAC YouTube Channel now. The phrase that really stood out for me from Steve’s talk was  “Digital Wisdom”. Isn’t that what we all need? The wisdom not to tweet something stupid, the wisdom to ensure that your digital footprint is accurate and not damaging to your career, and the wisdom to choose the appropriate tool for the job in hand. This is not just “skills”, or even knowledge – it’s a way of thinking in a digital age. I took away some useful further reading from this keynote – a debunking of Prensky (2010) Digital Natives concept from Kennedy et al (2010), which concudes there is nothing special about the knowledge and skills of the so called  “Net Generation”. young people are no more able to learn and live in a technological age than the generations before. Instead of being especially adept at using technology, many are in fact basic users. This chimes with my own experience of students and indeed younger  family members. Just because you are young, it doesn’t mean you automatically “get” technology.

Steve Wheeler at LILAC 2013, Manchester University

Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Waycott, J., & Dalgarno, B. (2010). Beyond natives and immigrants: Exploring types of net generation students. Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), 332-343.

Prensky, M. (2010). Teaching digital natives : partnering for real learning / Marc Prensky ; foreword by Stephen Heppell. Thousand Oaks CA ; Corwin, 2010.