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Developing scholarship skills

The development of academic writing skills (or 'academic literacy' as it is sometimes referred to), is central to success at university. Three models have been identified by Lea and Street as means of fostering such skills, namely: 'study skills approach', which can be bolt-on or embedded and subject-specific or generic; 'academic socialisation approach' where the teaching or practising of scholarship skills uses the language of the subject discipline with some subject content (for example, in nurse education helping students to think as a nurse might think); and 'academic literacies approach', which is a totally embedded approach in which academic writing skills are explicitly developed within the programme.

One of the best examples of the embedded approach is provided by the University of Wollongong in Australia. There, a model was developed based on two philosophical tenets: one, that the best way of helping students to effect the transition to academic writing is to integrate instruction in both generic and subject-specific academic skills within the curriculum, and two, that all students are perceived to be 'in transition' to begin with. So 'osmosis' should have no part in the skills development process, because it will be 'hit' or 'miss' as a strategy for developing subject-specific and generic writing skills. For further details see Introducing scholarship skills: academic writing.

Another example is Queen Mary, University of London who setup recommendations for practitioners on developing writing skills); the University of Ulster and Auckland University of Technology, suggest that the best way to develop academic literacy skills is a planned, integrated, cross-disciplinary/multi-stranded approach. Napier University decided to adopt just such an approach with: Applying the SCONUL Seven Pillars Model for Information Literacy.

Further examples progressive skills development are discussed in Transition to and during the first year which also includes much of the above chimes with the data that was obtained for the Student expectations, experiences and reflections on the first year practice-focused project, part of The First Year Experience Enhancement Theme. These included some interesting comments on the roles secondary schools have to play in easing academic transition.

A further refinement of academic writing skills development for first-year students is described in a case study for the Graduates for the 21st Century Theme. Here, the School of Divinity at Edinburgh University has piloted the University's revised Degree Programme Specifications (DPS), which have themselves been redesigned to emphasise the degree-specific attributes that are developed.

A compulsory academic skills course is a prerequisite for all students to graduate with an honours degree from the School. This online course is taken in the first year, is non-credit bearing and allows students to develop foundational skills required for their higher education experience. It was re-designed for 2011-12, retaining its primary function of basic skill development but within a framework of graduate attributes - the course providing the foundations on which to build the higher order attributes within the University's Graduate Attributes Framework and the relevant DPS.

The School of Divinity at St Andrews University is attempting to improve the writing skills of students by introducing the following:

  1. Orientation week mandatory courses that identify weaknesses and show students how to address them. Tutorial sessions and guidance to other resources to support personal development
  2. Provision of very detailed feedback on first-year essays, including extensive comments on grammar and spelling, essay structure etc. and guidance on sources of further support (e.g. at the University's learning support unit)
  3. Use of lectures and seminars devoted to feedback on written work.

These sessions were primarily intended to develop criticism and argumentation skills, but also provided an opportunity to reinforce issues of basic writing. Despite these changes, the School saw little improvement in the quality of writing being submitted by the same students over the course of the year and into the second year. The weaknesses appear to stem from fundamental deficiencies at the curricular level in primary and secondary education. Consequently, the University is developing its links with secondary schools and engaging with the SQA through Curriculum for Excellence committees in an effort to address the needs of students in the years ahead.

In a related project, therefore, the Madras College/University of St Andrews partnership provides the university with opportunities to share experience, to shape the emerging school curriculum and to offer work experience to their students (in the school) and pupils (in the University - recognising that St Andrews is the major employer in the town).

A management group, consisting of two senior members of each institution, oversees the partnership and receives reports from each sub-group that is expected to run a series of joint events each year. These events include: sharing expertise in student support/study skills; opportunities for projects to support the Scottish Baccalaureate; careers advice and work experience; student mentoring; and CFE open forum events.

Another example of developing scholarship skills from the G21C Enhancement Theme is provided by work undertaken at Heriot-Watt University in the School for the Built Environment. The identified need was to prepare first-year students for independent study, and for developing high level critical thinking skills to enable them to deal with a range of real world situations.

The existing mentorship scheme across the school was successful in parts, and provided a basis for a more concerted effort across the school to embed scholarship skills. The project aimed to embed scholarship skills across all four programmes of the School through first-year study (mentor) groups. The study groups involved all first-year students and were small (four to six students) with one academic, and involved all academics (not necessarily in each year).

In addition to a mentoring role where students could bring questions about studying, study groups set work to promote scholarship. Any work carried out in study groups contributed approximately 15 per cent to a module's assessment.