The Open University in the South East ran one of their associate lecturer professional development conferences on the 1 March 2014. This year, the conference was held at Kent College, Tonbridge. I don’t know whether I wrote about this before, but this was the same where I attended my first ever OU tutorial (as a rookie tutor). Today, the site is very different. Then it was gloomy and dark. Now, the buildings are bright and airy, and boasted a spectacular view of the Kent countryside.
This post is a very brief summary of the event. The summary has drawn directly from the notes that I made during the day (and these, by definition, will probably contain a couple of mistakes!) It also contains a bunch of rough reflections. I should add that this blog is primarily intended for other associate lecturer colleagues but it might accidentally be of wider interest to others too.
During this conference, I signed up for two sessions. The first was entitled, ‘supporting academic writing’. The second session was all about, ‘aligning TMA feedback to students’ needs and expectations’.
Supporting academic writing
This first session was facilitated by Anna Calvi, who projected a set of phrases about academic writing onto a digital whiteboard. A couple of examples were, ‘what is a semi-colon?’ and ‘I think of ideas and information as I write’. ‘Do any of you recognise these? Which are the most important for you?’ Anna asked, challenging us to respond. She didn’t have to wait long for an answer.
A couple of responses that I noted down were: explaining why structure is important, the importance of paraphrasing and differences between written English and spoken English. There’s also the necessity to help students to understand what is meant by ‘written academic English’. Some suggestions were immediately forthcoming: the choice of vocabulary, style and appropriate referencing.
One of the participants asked a question that I have heard asked before. This was, ‘can all faculties have a module that helps students to write descriptively?’ The truth of the matter is that different faculties do different things. In the Mathematics Computing and Technology module, writing skills are embedded (and emphasised) within the introductory level 1 modules. Other faculties have dedicated modules. Two key modules are LB160 Professional Communication Skills for Business Studies, and L185 English for Academic purposes, which I understand can contribute credit to some degree programmes.
During this session, all the tutors were directed towards other useful resources. These include a useful student booklet entitled reading and taking notes (PDF) which is connected to an accompanying Skills for Study website (OU website). Another booklet is entitled Thinking Critically (PDF). This one is particularly useful, since terms, ‘analyse critically’ and ‘critically evaluate’ can (confusingly) appear within module texts, assignments and exams.
One of the points shared during this first session was really important: it’s important to emphasise what academic writing is right at the start of a programme of study.
What needs to be done?
So, how can tutors help? Anna introduced us to a tool known as the MASUS framework. MASUS is an abbreviation for Measuring Skills of Academic Students and has originally come from the University of Sydney. We were directed to a video (OU website) which describes what the framework is and how it works. A big part of the framework (from what I remember), is a checklist for academic writing (OU website). In essence, this tool helps us (tutors) to understand (or think about) what kind of academic writing support students might need. Key areas can include the use of source materials (choosing the right ones), organising a response in an appropriate way, using language that is appropriate to both the audience and the task, and so on. In some respects, the checklist is an awareness raising tool. The tutor’s challenge lies in how to talk to students about aspects of writing.
If you’re interested, there’s a more comprehensive summary of the MASUS framework (PDF) is available directly from the University of Sydney. Another useful resource is the OU’s own Developing academic English which tutors can refer students to. We were also directed to an interesting external resource, a Grammar tutorial, from the University of Bristol.
After looking at the checklist and these resources we moved onto a wider discussion about how best tutors can help students to develop their academic writing. I’ve made a note of two broad approaches; one is reactive, the other is proactive. A reactive strategy might include offering general backward looking feedback and perhaps running a one to one session with a student. A proactive approach, on the other hand, could include discussions through a tutor group forum, activities within tutorials, sharing of hand outs that contain exercises and practical feed-forward advice within assignments that have been returned.
TMA feedback can, for example, give examples (or samples) of what is considered to be effective writing. An important point that emerged from the discussions was that it is very important to be selective, since commenting on everything can be very overwhelming. One approach is to offer a summary and provide useful links (and pointers) to helpful resources.
Anna moved onto the question of what tutors might (potentially) do within either face to face or on-line tutorials to help students with their academic writing; this was the part of the sessions where tutors had an opportunity to share practice with each other. Anna also had a number of sample activities that we could either use, modify, or draw teaching inspiration from.
The first example was an activity where students had to choose key paragraphs from a piece of writing. Students could then complete a ‘diagram’ to identify (and categorise) different parts (or aspects of an argument). Another activity might be to ask students to identify question words, key concepts and the relationships between them.
Further ideas include an activity to spot (or identify) parts of essay, such as an introductory sentences, background information, central claims and perhaps a conclusion. A follow on activity might be to ask questions about purpose of each section, then connecting with a discussion to the tasks that are required for an assignment.
There was also a suggestion of using some cards. Students could be asked to match important terms written on cards to paragraphs. Terms could include: appropriate tone, formality, alternative views, vocabulary, linking words, and so on. There would also be an opportunity to give examples, to allow tutors to emphasise the importance of writing principles.
A further tip was to search the OpenLearn website for phrases such as ‘paraphrasing’ (or module codes, such as L185) for instance. The OpenLearn site contains some very useful fragments of larger courses which might be useful to direct students to.
Aligning TMA feedback to students’ needs and expectations
This second session was facilitated by Concha Furnborough. Her session had subheading of, ‘how well does our feedback work?’ which is a very important question to ask. It soon struck me that this session was about the sharing of research findings with the intention of informing (and developing) tutor practice.
I’ve made a note of another question: how do we bridge the gap between actual and desired performance. Connecting back to the previous session, a really important principle is to offer ‘feed-forward’ comments, which aims to guide future altering behaviour.
An early discussion point that I noted was that some students don’t take the time to download their feedback (after they have discovered what their assignment marks were). We were all reminded that we (as tutors) really need to take the time to make sure students download the feedback that they are entitled to receive.
This session describes some of the outcomes from a project called eFeP, which is an abbreviation for e-Feedback evaluation project, funded by Jisc (which support the use of digital technologies in education and research). If you’re interested, more information about the project is available from the eFePp project website (Jisc).
The aim of the project was to understand the preferences and perceptions that students have about the auditory and written feedback that are offered by language tutors. The project used a combination of different techniques. Firstly, it used a survey. The survey was followed by a set of interviews. Finally, ten students were asked to make a screen-cast recording; students were asked to talk through their responses to the feedback and guidance offered by their tutors.
One of the most interesting parts of the presentation (for me) was a description of a tool known as ‘feedback scaffolding’. The ‘scaffolding’ corresponds to the different levels or layers of feedback that are offered to students. The first level relates to a problem or issue that exists in an assignment. Level two relates to an identification of the type of error. If we’re thinking in terms of language teaching, this might be the wrong word case (or gender) being applied. The third level is where an error is corrected. The fourth is where an explanation is given, and the fifth is clear advice on how performance might be potentially improved.
Feeling slightly disruptive, I had to ask a couple of questions. Firstly, I asked whether there was a category where tutors might work to contextualise a particular assignment or question, i.e. to explain how it relates to the subject as a whole, or to explain why a question is asked by a module team. In some respects, this can fall under the final category, but perhaps not entirely.
My second question was about when in their learning cycle students were asked to comment on their feedback. The answer was that they gave their feedback once they had taken the time to read through and assimilate the comments and guidance that the tutors had offered. Another thought would be to capture how feedback is understood the instant that it is received by a learner. (I understand that the researchers have plans to carry out further research).
Even though I attended only two sessions, there was a lot to take in. One really interesting point was to hear different views about the challenges of academic writing from different people who work in different parts of the university. I’ve heard it said that academic writing (of the type of writing needed to complete TMAs) is very tough if you’re doing it for the first time. In terms of raising awareness of different resources that tutors could use to help students, the first session was especially useful.
These conferences are not often used to disseminate research findings, but the material that was covered in the second session was especially useful. It exposed us to a new feedback framework (that I wasn’t aware of), and secondly, it directly encouraged us to consider how our feedback is perceived and used.
One of the biggest benefits of these conferences is that they represent an opportunity to share practices. A phrase that I’ve often heard is, ‘you always pick up something new’.
Copies of the presentations used during the conference can be found by visiting the South East Region conference resources page (OU website, staff only).
A week after drafting this summary, I heard that the university plans to close the South East regional centre in East Grinstead. I started with the South East region back in 2006, and it was through this region that I began my career as an associate lecturer.
All associate lecturers are offered two days of professional development as their contract, and the events that the region have offered have helped to shape, inform and inspire my teaching practice. Their professional development events have helped me to understand how to run engaging tutorials, my comfort zone has also been thoroughly stretched through inspiring ‘role play’ exercises, and I’ve also been offered exceptional guidance about how to provide effective correspondence tuition.
Without a doubt, the region has had a fundamental and transformative effect on how I teach and has clearly influenced the positive way that I view my role as an associate lecturer. The professional development has always been supportive, respectful and motivating.
The implications on the closure of the South East region on continuing professional development for both new and existing tutors is currently unclear. My own view is probably one this obvious: if these rare opportunities for sharing and learning were to disappear, the support that the university offer its tutors would be impoverished.