Academic Skills Development – changing attitudes through a community of practice

Authors

Abstract

This paper examines the experiences of a particular group within the School of Health and Social Care as it created a community of practice in response to an international concern around students academic skills development and support in higher education. This Academic Skills Development Group generated a range of activities including small staff and student surveys that led to a wider exploration of the prevalent perceptions of literacies development and the culture of learning in which this was being sustained. Embracing a community of practice approach, the group, underpinned by the emergent literature, was able to challenge existing approaches to academic skills support across pre-registration, post-qualifying, and postgraduate courses. Initiatives included workshops, consultation in the schools strategic plan and also attempts to impact more fundamentally on the culture of learning within the school. The paper highlights some of the obstacles and complexities encountered when attempting to define academic skills and develop effective support systems.

Katy Newell-Jones, Debora Osborne, and Debbie Massey

 

Introduction

The increased focus on the development of academic skills in higher education has arisen from local and national policies in recent years. National initiatives arising from the Dearing Report (NCIHE, 1997), including the establishment of the Academy of Higher Education (HEA) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), have raised the level of discussion around academic skills support for students. Pressure to widen access to HE, both for UK learners and to attract an increasing number of international students, has enabled a greater diversity of students to gain entry to their chosen courses. With higher education being progressively more charged with preparing students for the complex world of work (Walker and Warhurst, 2000), traditional assessment strategies consisting of examinations and essays have been increasingly challenged (Alavi, 1995; Leach et al., 2001; Massey and Osborne, 2004). This challenge has been influential in the development of more creative assessment models such as poster presentations, portfolios and peer assessed group projects. These have increased the relevance of assessment tasks to the workplace and appeal to students varied learning styles. However, they may also have increased students academic stress since they require competence in a wider range of academic literacies (Lea and Street, 1998; 2000).

Arguably, widening access and the advance of academia into the realms of cyberspace has also created an increasing international focus on plagiarism. This too places stress upon students and academics in the face of new technologies and agendas for learning. This has been addressed in some way by the use of more creative assessment. However there remains an imbalance between, on the one hand, providing support for students and on the other, trying to detect plagiarism, that can result in distrust and stress on many levels. Studies exploring factors influencing students academic stress recognise the particular stress amongst re-entry students, women, and those participating in HE for career goals (Cano-Garcia and Hewitt Hughes, 2000; McLean, 2001; Michie et al., 2000), all of whom are strongly represented in health and social care education. So the national drivers of widening access, employability and diversifying assessment techniques have led to broader academic literacies requirements for an increasingly diverse student body that coincides with the mounting focus on student support in higher education.

In 2000 the School of Health and Social Care identified academic skills development of students as a priority area for development. Investigations revealed the University-wide options available were limited. Initiatives within the School relied heavily on the enthusiasm of key academic staff with an interest in study skills. These tended to be focused on offering remedial support following the identification of significant problems in students written work. This paper charts the work in progress of a community of practice (Lesser and Storck, 2001) developed to challenge existing approaches to academic skills support across pre-registration, post-qualifying, and postgraduate courses. It highlights some of the barriers and complexities encountered when attempting to define academic skills and develop effective support systems.

Establishing a community of practice

Methodologically there were a number of options available in meeting a challenge to enhance the effectiveness of student support for academic skills. Initially, the intention was to establish a task group to define academic skills, identify good practice in the school, and utilising the literature, develop and implement a school-wide strategy. However, the initial meetings with those who had a reputation as providers of good support, highlighted the need for us all to explore our own assumptions, to share and learn from each other and to find creative ways of raising awareness of this essential area of work that would lead to changes in practice. Hence the approach selected was that of developing a community of practice.

Lesser and Storck (2001) describe communities of practice where relationships are formed around practice and `authority relationships in a community of practice emerge around expertise (p. 832). They also posit that `[c]ommunities are only responsible to their members and `develop their own processes (p.832). The Academic Skills Development Group (ASDG) evolved around a number of academic staff interested in exploring how they were supporting students development of academic skills. They were confident that they could develop their own approach through engaging in debate and activities with colleagues. In addition they were keen to contribute to promoting a cultural change towards the development of academic skills across the School of Health and Social Care, which would result in more effective interventions with students. Membership of the group was unrestricted, dynamic and fluid. This flexibility facilitated processes and relationships to emerge and evolve as the membership of the group changed over time depending on individual needs and areas of focus within the group.

The overall approach within the ASDG has been collaborative identification of areas of shared interest that were then explored through interpretive action research. According to Denscombe (1998) action research addresses practical problems in a positive way, feeding the results of research directly back into practice (p. 65). It can be seen to be situational and a useful approach for researchers within education in that a problem can be identified, investigated, data collected, action taken, results evaluated, and continually monitored with the final aim of improvements to practice being achieved. It is a means of adding to or allowing for the possibility of developing new approaches in a continuing system, which may not normally encompass innovation and change. It can therefore be seen to be a useful approach because of its practical problem-solving emphasis (French et al., 2001; Manley, 2003). This philosophy appeared congruent with the ASDG objectives of improving practice, empowering learners, and contributing to and refining existing theory and assumptions.

Early explorations of the context

Since 2000 the ASDG has generated a range of activities from small-scale surveys which have led to focused work on specific topics resulting in whole-school dissemination workshops and programme specific initiatives.

In 2000 a descriptive survey of academic staff was undertaken, the aims of which were to:

  • explore the staff perceptions of issues around students academic skills
  • explore the relationship between the skills, which are considered essential, and those in which the school offers support to students
  • investigate the resources currently available and how they are used
  • identify issues around providing feedback given to students on written work
  • to identify the areas where staff feel they would value staff development opportunities

The staff questionnaire devised was piloted with 15 academic staff including course leaders, module leaders, and personal tutors, before being circulated school-wide. It was constructed inviting staff to prioritise a range of academic skills, followed by a series of open-ended questions to explore attitudes and perceptions in relation to supporting students in the development of academic skills. Confidentiality and anonymity were maintained through the data collection and analysis. The academic skills listed were as follows:

  • ability to express yourself effectively in writing
  • reading for in depth understanding
  • library, literature reviewing, and referencing skills
  • note taking, essay planning and construction
  • moving from descriptive to analytical writing
  • differentiating between opinion and evidence
  • critical awareness and reflective skills
  • ability to use numerical expressions
  • using graphical presentations and complex data interpretation

Sixty-five questionnaires were returned, which represents over half the staff with significant teaching contact with students, and approximately one-third of the academic staff at the time. This included all course leaders, the chairs of the pre-registration, post-registration, and postgraduate programme boards, a wide selection of module leaders and personal tutors, thus providing a school-wide picture.

Following analysis of the questionnaire the following themes emerged:

  • Staff priorities on academic skills
  • Methods of providing support
  • Evaluating effectiveness of support offered

A second descriptive survey was carried out of students views on the support that they received in the development of their academic skills. The student survey included all undergraduates (occupational therapists, physiotherapists, nurses, and midwives), post-qualifying and post-graduate students currently studying within the school. Students were asked to identify the three academic skills most challenging to them, from a list derived from the staff survey. Subsequent open-ended questions focused on the nature of support, where they accessed it, and how effective it had been.

Three hundred and eight questionnaires were returned from the pre-registration undergraduate, postgraduate, and post qualifying programmes which represented a response rate of only 15%. These results therefore, must be interpreted with caution. However, they did provide a source of student perspectives on the most challenging skills and the support received.

Interpretation of the survey results

Analysis of the staff survey responses in relation to beliefs and perceptions of academic skill development revealed three distinct, although not mutually exclusive approaches. Parallels were drawn with Lea and Street’s models of student writing (Lea, 1998; Lea and Street, 1998; 2000) which recognise three perspectives on student writing moving from the acquisition of technical skills, to academic socialisation and a third level of student writing as contested, communicative practice. Linking with Lea and Streets models was valuable in conceptualising the approaches to the development of academic skills within the school and in developing new strategies.

The study-skills perspective (Lee and Street, 2000) is primarily a deficit model, focusing on the technical skills of writing, for example grammar, language, and spelling. It is based on identifying areas of weakness and providing remedial support to alleviate the problems. In the survey this perspective was demonstrated by half of the teaching staff who tended to feel that teaching academic skills should not be part of their role (Baty, 2002, also reflects on this). Within this group the attention appeared centred around ensuring that students who were failing modules due to a perceived weakness in their study skills, were offered additional support. The purpose of feedback to students tended to be to justify the grade awarded and to provide advice on technical aspects of their work. Activity around academic skills tended to be reactive and support usually began after problems emerged when written work had been submitted and failed to make the grade. The problems were seen largely as those of the student, also highlighted by Higgins (2000), `imply[ing] that students lack of knowledge of the meaning of the language are to blame for their misconceptions (p. 3). Expression in writing, reading in depth, and referencing skills are seen as essential by most teaching staff, yet only half those who felt they were important actively provided support for students in developing these skills. This is in line with staff feeling that students should already have these skills prior to entering higher education and hence adopting a reactive, remedial approach.

The academic-socialization perspective (Lee and Street, 2000) is more developmental in nature and focuses on the need for those within Higher Education to become acclimatised into the ways of writing appropriate to the academic arena. Where this approach was evident, staff saw the acclimatisation of students into an academic (and usually professional) context as a key part of their role. The responsibility for students academic skill development tended to be shared between students and staff, with staff being more pro-active in taking responsibility for articulating the specific academic skills requirements of their profession or discipline. There was more attention paid to providing detailed guidelines on assessment procedures and to providing formative feedback on assessed work, both of which were highlighted by students as key factors in promoting learning (Drew, 2001). The use of the literature and referencing skills were more likely to be incorporated into overall support for students as opposed to being dealt with on a remedial basis. Structural barriers (Higgins, 2000), for example the modular system with its focus on discrete short blocks of learning and a lack of continuity of support, were more likely to be recognised.

The academic-literacies perspective (Lee and Street, 2000) adds another dimension, recognising the multiple literacies students need to acquire and use in the course of their study, the power relationships connected with them, and the skills required in selecting the appropriate literacy for a given communicative practice. From this perspective student writing is no longer viewed as a set of transferable skills (the study-skills perspective), or a vehicle for the communication of acquired knowledge (the academic-socialization perspective), but is viewed as a means of students engaging in academic discourse, perhaps challenging conventional thinking, and presenting new perspectives. Where the academic-literacies approach was reflected, staff were aware of the variety of communicative practices (literacies) which students were required to use during their programme of study and their professional practice as health care practitioners and the skills involved in shifting between them. Teaching staff did not appear to be looking for conformity of student writing but valued creative approaches. Students were encouraged to challenge traditionally held views and to articulate their own perspective. Where the technical skills were lacking, teaching staff were willing and able to look beyond this at the conceptual understanding in the work, whilst also commenting on the technical aspect of the work.

The approach of teaching staff to academic skills does not correlate with academic level or cohort size, indicating that factors determining the approach are associated with the internalised theory of teaching staff towards academic skills. Arguably the continued dominance of the deficit approach within higher education is driven by hegemonic discourses; the majority of academics have probably been exposed to this model as students themselves and also as novices in the practice arena. The ASDG decided that academics involved in all aspects of higher education should challenge this dominant hegemony and engage in discourses around the nature of learning to learn as well as encouraging the acquisition of appropriate skills (Rawson, 2000).

Analysis of the student questionnaire revealed that students perceptions of academic skills closely mirrored academic staff perceptions. Students wanted explicit feedback from teaching staff to identify their weaknesses. Additional support requested tended to be described in terms of specific technical skills, however, there was a stronger emphasis on the process of developing these skills over a period of time and the need for ongoing dialogue with others. A degree of confusion was expressed around whom students could approach for support in academic skills and a fear that the teaching staff were too busy which reflects the findings in other studies (for example Drew, 2001). This confirms that teaching staff were unclear about their roles and unable to allocate the required time or lacked the confidence to take on this role and suggests that these messages were communicated through to students.

Both staff and students tended to rely on, and expect, support in academic skills to be provided predominantly on an individual basis and in response to specific needs. There was relatively little evidence of the use of group work although students did identify peer support as a significant source of their support. It appears that the benefits of collaborative learning are valued in relation to the content of a programme of study, but not when considering the development of academic skills.

Creating the community of practice

The staff and student surveys led to a school workshop where staff were encouraged to engage in debate around their overall approach to academic skills and also to attend workshops focused on their developmental needs identified in the survey, including developing critical thinking, supporting students with dyslexia and for whom English is not their first language. Many of these workshops have been repeated and have led to the production of resource packs. These workshops stimulated a host of small-scale initiatives supporting students academic skills development, including study skills modules, drop-in sessions, and study skills programmes including sessions on referencing, essay writing and literature searching. These initiatives demonstrated a change in attitude away from denial or one-to-one remedial support when students failed a module, towards a more pro-active approach from academic staff, not only those involved in the ASDG. However, many early initiatives had a deficit-approach, identifying academic skills which lecturers felt were weak and offering remedial sessions. The study skills modules were developed from an academic-literacies perspective, although the use of this model presented enormous challenges to the module team, when disparate values and beliefs at times came into conflict with learning and teaching strategies (Osborne, 2004).

Since 2002-3 there has been a further shift in the attitude of academic staff towards a stronger recognition of the role of academic staff in the creation of an environment where students can develop academic skills more readily. Messages from Ivanovic et al.s (2000) and Higgins (2002) aptly titled papers and Lea and Streets (2000) finding that views expressed by students that many of the difficulties they experienced with writing arose from the conflicting and contrasting requirements for writing on different courses and from the fact that these requirements were frequently left implicit (p. 38) were reinforced by direct feedback from students at Brookes. Initiatives have focused on clarifying the marking criteria, workshops on providing effective feedback to students, and guidelines on supporting students in the development of assessed work. A number of MSc. dissertation students have considered pedagogic research projects including an action research project on the process of providing feedback (Butcher, 2004), all of which contribute to developing good practice in the support of students academic skills development.

In 2004 the ASDG worked in collaboration with pre-registration and postgraduate students to devise a staff development workshop with the aim of exploring The Learners Voice in relation to academic skills. This workshop drew on student feedback to inform the identification of three themes (referencing, clarity of assessment tasks, and providing feedback) that were the focus of the workshop. Students were part of the planning and delivery group and contributed to role plays portraying the learners perspective. Groups of students and academic staff have devised action plans focused on improving the learners experience through eliminating confusion and inconsistency whilst improving the quality of advice, guidance, and feedback. This last workshop demonstrates a move from a deficit approach of four years ago where the focus of support was on academic staff identifying the learning deficits of failing students and providing remedial support on a one-to-one basis, to working with students to explore ways of creating a climate where barriers to the acquisition of academic skills are reduced and guidance is readily available to all students from the outset.

Outcomes

The activities of the ASDG community of practice have had a significant impact across the School of Health and Social Care. The impact ranges from highly visible aspects, which include whole school events, the development of policy and initiatives at the programme level, to less tangible but essential attitudinal changes, largely brought about through discussion and debate.

Staff development events, strategic direction and policy development:

  • Regular whole school workshops focusing on the development of academic skills that have become a high profile feature of the staff development programme. Workshops offered have included supporting international students and students with dyslexia, critical thinking, use of IT in assessment, providing written feedback on students writing, issues for academic staff in supporting the development of academic skills, and exploring the learners voice.
  • Production of a resource pack on critical thinking for staff and students and development of an e-learning resources site using WebCT.
  • The production and approval of a whole school policy on supporting students in the production of written work and adopting a supportive approach to creating a climate where the incidence of inadvertent plagiarism is reduced and students and academic staff are encouraged to engage in dialogue around the production of written work.
  • Recognition of the need for staff to support students in developing their academic and professional literacies has been incorporated into the schools Learning, Teaching, and Assessment strategies since 2001. High on the agenda is Personal Development Planning (PDP), an initiative that embraces an holistic approach to students learning and personal development. The primary objective of PDP is to improve the capacity of individuals to understand what and how they learn and to take responsibility for that learning.
  • An active community of practice (ASDG) with a membership of 20-30 academic staff engaging in debate around key issues relating to learning and teaching, seeing academic skills development as an integral aspect of their roles as academic staff, and closely linked to approaches to learning.
  • The ASDG has been recognized within the schools formal structures with staff able to include time for involvement in the group in the personal workload planning (PWP) framework since 2003. The role of the ASDG has extended to explore wider issues around approaches to learning, teaching, and assessment and not restricted to the narrow support of study skills.
  • The development of study skills and learning to learn modules as part of the undergraduate and post qualifying programmes, with a focus on supporting students in developing strategies for effective learning in higher education.
  • An ASDG WebCT site for staff under development with access to reports, resources, links to other academic skills sites, and discussion boards for staff.

Attitudinal change

  • The new `Learning to Learn module adopts a constructivist epistemological approach and goes some way to meeting the challenges of widening access and international student populations. Module development has been highly visible resulting in much interest from across the school, and service providers.
  • Workshop development by the ASDG has moved away from an initial deficit model approach planned by staff and also a belief that there was a need to bring in external expertise. The most recent workshop involved students in the planning and development process as well as the delivery. This represents a new confidence where the ASDG focus is on working in partnership with students and seeing them as experts in their own learning.
  • Programme teams now recognise the need for representative membership of ASDG to ensure active involvement and engagement in the work of the group. This denotes a shift from individual and personal interest in membership to one of greater school ownership of the groups initiatives.
  • There has been a significant move from the group drawing on the literature to feeling that they now have a contribution to make to it. Presentation of the work of the ASDG at conferences and in journals within health and education contexts (Gottwald et al, 2001; Newell-Jones, 2001, Osborne, 2004, Massey & Osborne, 2004) is innovative and attracting wider interest.
  • The group has developed its own level of expertise and link with Brookes new learning support services to work in collaboration with them rather than simply referring students to them (eg. planning joint workshops with the Mature Student Advisor and Learning Support Coordinator).

Limitations and tensions

Choosing to operate as a community of practice as opposed to a committee or task group brought with it some challenges and tensions. Academic staff were drawn to the ASDG largely because it provided an open negotiated forum for exploring issues relevant to peoples practice in a collaborative fashion. It developed its own processes for meetings, reporting, and goal setting and was responsible primarily to the members themselves (Lesser and Storck, 2001). As the work began to have some impact across the school, there was an expectation for the group to conform to the practices of a committee. Terms of reference for all groups and committees were being tightened in order to ensure a focus on strategic priorities and that issues were not being addressed in more than one forum. To be most effective in the emerging structure the ASDG would need to be prepared to respond to externally selected goals and sometimes changing priorities, report to key committees and work to tighter deadlines. These good practices are in tension with a community of practice where the processes of goal-setting and accountability are largely internal. However, the group itself wanted to influence practice across the school and in order to do that it needed to make more explicit links into school structures. To have the kind of impact that the work of the group merited, the ASDG have needed to mirror some of the attributes of a task group or committee and link more closely into the formal school structures. The challenge has been to maintain the essence of a community of practice in the way in which the group tackles its selected areas of work.

There are also some tensions between the overall approach adopted within the ASDG which was one of action learning, with some of the activities which informed the development of the group. Arguably the use of a descriptive survey is incongruent with the traditional methodologies associated with action learning (Bowling, 2002). Reflecting now, the use of surveys might not have been the most appropriate method of exploring attitudes in particular. Semi-structured interviews would have been more congruent with an interpretive methodology. However, many staff did write at length about the factors that influenced the kind of feedback they gave to students and also on the kind of staff development from which they would benefit. The response rate from students has limited the usefulness of the analysis. However, the data provided some valuable perspectives on academic skills and was analysed with the limitations in mind and disseminated through at conferences (Gottwald et al 2001, Newell-Jones, 2001) and influenced the work of the ASDG substantially over the following two years.

Having said that, the heart of all action research is underpinned by a philosophy of changing and developing practice (Hart and Bond, 1995). Also, to some extent the survey itself reflected the approach to academic skills prevalent in the school at the time – weighted more towards exploring the technical skills required for effective study than the wider skills associated with learning to learn which the group would now prefer to explore. Nevertheless, the survey provided a snapshot of perceptions of staff and students to academic skills that promoted valuable discussion within the group and stimulated a wealth of small-scale initiatives in pre- and post-qualifying programmes. Generalisation of the survey to other higher educational institutions may not be feasible, however, we believe the lessons learned and strategies adopted are applicable in a wider context.

Conclusion

This small action learning study highlighted the process of identifying implicit theory that underpinned the actions of teaching staff, through interpretive research, and making this explicit was a powerful and empowering approach (Radnor, 2002). It has enabled individuals and groups to become aware of their own internalised theory, to question it and make conscious decisions about the nature of future actions in supporting students in higher education develop academic skills. The community of practice engaged in by the ASDG has worked to significantly shift primary attention away from a deficit model approach to study skills acquisition. There has been a growing awareness of the need to create a climate where assessment and feedback processes in particular are more explicit and accessible for students. This in itself is creating an environment that fosters collaboration and an increased sense of responsibility for staff in supporting students in both the content and process of learning.

As a consequence, the outcomes of this small-scale action research study have had an impact across the School of Health and Social Care in terms of awareness, process and procedures. Consciousness raising has led to a greater understanding and critical awareness of lecturers approach to academic skills. This has contributed to a range of constructive initiatives, arising from the creativity of teaching staff in the light of their changed perceptions, which have impacted at the level of both staff and student practice and school-wide strategy. This was perhaps most profoundly demonstrated at the recent Learners Voice Workshop (29th September, 2004) where there was a clear sense of collaborative ownership from both students and staff over the action plan devised to address issues identified by students in relation to their literacies development. This represents a positive shift forward from where the group started in 2000. The ASDG is cognisant of the changes that are already emerging but at the same time recognises that there are ongoing and new challenges ahead.

Biography

Katy Newell-Jones is a principal lecturer in the School of Health and Social Care. She is programme leader for the education programmes including MSc. Higher Professional Education and co-ordinates the Academic Skills Development Group. In addition to her part-time role at Brookes, Katy is a consultant and trainer in global education. She was recently awarded a National Teaching Fellowship from the Academy of Higher Education.

Debora Osborne is a senior lecturer in the School of Health and Social Care where she teaches on the undergraduate nursing programme focusing mostly on multi-professional practice. She has led the development of learning to learn modules, has a keen interest in collaborative learning approaches in higher education and has been actively involved in the work of the Academic Skills Development Group since 2001. Her doctoral focus is on cultural constructions of women’s identities.

Debbie Massey is program leader for Critical and Specialist Care in the School of Health and Social Care. She has been an active member of the Academic Skills Development Group since 2002 as well as the Schools Learning Teaching and Assessment Committee. Debbie sits on the Schools Research Ethics committee and is actively seeking to promote adult learning and critical pedagogical approaches within the post qualifying curriculum.

Contact Details

Katy Newell-Jones PhD BSc (Hons) Dip. Ad. Ed
National Teaching Fellow / Principal Lecturer
Oxford Brookes University
School of Health and Social Care.
Level 4 Academic Centre
John Radcliffe II
Headington.
Oxford OX3 9DU.
Telephone: 01865 221556
Fax: 01865 220188
Email: knewell-jones@brookes.ac.uk
Debora Osborne BA (Hons) Grad. Dip. Ed. RN
Senior Lecturer
Oxford Brookes University
School of Health and Social Care.
Level 4 Academic Centre
John Radcliffe II
Headington.
Oxford OX3 9DU.
Telephone: 01865 851102
Fax: 01865 220188
Email: dmosborne@brookes.ac.uk
Debbie Massey MSc BSc (Hons), PGC, RGN
Principal Lecturer
Program Leader – Critical & Specialist Care
Oxford Brookes University
School of Health and Social Care.
Jack Straws Lane
Marston
Oxford
0X3 OFL
Telephone: 01865 482602
Fax: 01865 482775
Email: dlmassey@brookes.ac.uk

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