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.”

 

LearnIT, as seen by the Guild President

From Harry Anderson, Guild President, University of Liverpool

a photo of Harry Anderson, Guild President, University of Liverpool

Harry Anderson, Guild President, University of Liverpool

The Guild recently played host to the inaugural Learn IT session – a series set up by the University’s Developing Digital Literacies Working Group with the help of the Guild tasked with looking at how we use and interact with technology in terms of our education.

The event brought together students and staff from a variety of areas within the University, with the aim of the inaugural event being to begin the conversation over where we are, as in institution, in terms of technology enhanced learning.  As a result, the questions discussed remained broad and ranged from effective time management through to how our physical spaces at the University are conducive to digital learning and working.

Partly in a nod to the future Learn IT events, and partly due to the open and frank nature of the event, it was stressed that Tuesday’s session was merely the start of the conversation. There were to be “no wrong answers”. Dr Nick Greeves, for instance, referred to how Chemistry had been looking into providing iPads to students to allow them to take notes, with one of the interesting discussion being around how physical note-taking (i.e. the old fashioned pen and paper approach) was still seen as superior given that it was often quicker and enabled students to absorb information better. Therefore, understanding when and where technology is of benefit was equally as important as understanding when and where it is not.

LearnIT - inaugural event on digital literacies

Small-group discussion on the use of technologies for learning/working at the LearnIT – inaugural event on digital literacies, 28 Oct 2014, The Guild, University of Liverpool

Another key message that emerged from the event was the fact that issues concerning technology were not just reserved to students, and were equally a concern of staff too. Bringing together students and staff into the same open forum was one obvious way that illustrated this, highlighting, for example, how time-management and the like were problems staff had to deal with just as much as students. Presentations, however, from Law lecturer Dr Rob Stokes and third-year Physics student Joe Chamberlain also helped bring this point into sharp focus. Both Rob and Joe, for example, talked about different issues they’d faced, and overcome, with the help of technology, with Joe even having designed his own app, Unisocs, to manage his course demands. With these presentations acting as the catalyst, conversations soon began to flow amongst the various groups, with recommendations, points of discussion and broad issues being picked up and debated.

One such discussion I had concerned the provision of WiFi around campus. As with the above, it soon became evident that good provision of WiFi was an issue staff felt equally strongly about and how, with the landscape of technology rapidly and ever changing, the need to be able to connect and access resources lay at the heart of virtually everything. Whether it was accessing VITAL, sending emails or reading e-books and journals, the need for a fast and secure connection was essential.

LearnIT - inaugural event on digital literacies Small-group discussion on the use of technologies for learning/working at the LearnIT - inaugural event on digital literacies, 28 Oct 2014, The Guild, University of Liverpool

LearnIT – inaugural event on digital literacies

Overall, the first Learn IT session went down extremely well, with positive feedback from staff and students alike. By bringing together both groups, the Tuesday’s event created an opportunity rarely afforded in other university settings and enabled a frank, open and honest discussion about how we currently use technology and crucially how we can improve it for both staff and students. Given this event was just the starting point of a much wider Learn IT conversation, the remaining sessions will no doubt be just as successful and I very much look forward to attending.

Harry Anderson, Guild President

Not so much “ECDL” but rather “how can I do well…?”

The inaugural LearnIT event

This week photomath.net launched an Iphone app which allows students to use their mobile phones to photograph a mathematical problem and not only to obtain the correct solution but also the full “working out” – that evasive concept which my old maths teachers used to constantly insist upon seeing. In my case it didn’t really matter. Both my workings out and my final answer were usually wrong – which is probably why I ended up following Law instead of anything which involved the slightest hint of scientific method.

The other significant event of this week for me was the inaugural session in the LearnIT series which is being co-organised by the Developing Digital Literacies working group and the Guild in recognition of the rapidly changing technological landscape in which teaching, learning, living and working now take place.

LearnIT inaugaral event

The event saw around 60 staff and students discussing how we can use technology to make us more efficient with our time, more effective collaborators, and more flexible and better organised writers.

This was the first in a planned series of events which will start to focus on more specific issues. I am personally looking forward to the upcoming session which will consider the reputational issues at stake for users of the web and particularly social media. The value of managing your ‘digital footprint’ in a well-informed and even a creative way is something which our own students are becoming more and more aware of. The LearnIT: Career and digital identity management online session will take place on the Tuesday 18th Nov 2014, 1-3pm to consider those sorts of issues. You can register for this event here.

What makes this series of events particularly interesting is that it proceeds on the assumption that we really don’t know what the “right” approach to using technology in HE effectively actually is. That seemingly down-beat outlook in fact promises to delivery much more than we might expect from a new-age trendy tech-evangelist perspective on technology. The LearnIT approach is open-ended and makes no assumptions about what technology might offer us. Tuesday’s event saw staff and student break out into focus groups to grapple with particularly un-focussed ideas. Because that the point; to break with conventional perspectives on IT for teachers and learners in higher education and start talking about what we want and need from technology.

Up until that moment I had tried very hard so far to avoid saying IT for a very good reason. This programme of events is about needs and solutions in the context of the work we do, not the all-to-easily-accepted discourse on Information Technology training and skills. This new discourse speaks of digital literacy not information skills. Not so much “ECDL” but rather “how can I do well…?”

We heard two excellent presentations from Dr Rob Stokes (lecturer from Law) from Law and Joe Chamberlain (student from Physics) which illustrated just that point. Each of these participants at some point faced the same problem – how to manage the challenges of workload management in the context of intense pressure to succeed. What solutions might technology offer to workload management? Neither of the solutions suggested by our speakers were the same in any shape or form but each was their own solution and each met the users’ needs.

The inaugural session has stepped up to face a myriad of issues ranging from helpful apps to awful habits, from online worlds to physical spaces, from the custom fit of the personalised app to the regimental reliability of the corporate IT solution. Looking at how our individual personalised learning, living and working needs might be met within the ever changing word of the app.

Jeremy Marshall (Lecturer, Liverpool Law School)

Follow the conversation about digital literacy for Liverpool University staff and students on Twitter at #LearnIT and @livDigiL and online at http://digilearn.liv.ac.uk