Why we’re here

By David DeBrot

We don’t run a tire factory and we’re not here to build the next space station.

We’re here to help people learn.

The ‘we’ refers to the collective group of staff at the University. We remain a teaching and learning university with aspirations for research. Even after attaining progress and product of research activity, we will continue to be employed primarily for our ability to help students learn. One outcome of this will be students and their families continuing to choose our university because here they can learn, develop skills and transfer these abilities to their future careers.

This piece will not be a detailed run down of exactly how we provide support for students. Please see ‘Questions about what we do’ for that. Instead, I will argue here that academic language and learning support, such as the LSU, cannot be relegated to a marginal support service. It’s integral to what we all do – helping students learn.

My basis for this argument is literature across regions and countries as well as the experience of LSU staff and other Academic Language and Learning (ALL) professionals (this is the moniker given to our field, a field with subgroups, disciplines and research). We in the field seek to maximize the potential for success in the learning cycle and inform the teaching and assessment practices that affect this cycle. We believe that learning does not happen by magic and that mystery in assessments should be minimized so that students have the best possible chance to demonstrate the skills they are meant to develop and comprehension of the content they are required to learn.

Are you still with me? Good. To achieve this we work to make the skills, processes and resources explicit for students so that we can, as Chanock put it, get them from ‘mystery to mastery’ (Chanock 2002, p. 1). We do this with our workshops and consultations as well as collaborating with people like you who are interested in helping people learn. The fact is, this stuff works – and often we see this work come to a successful fore with students’ writing. Wette’s study (2010) found that ALL writing intervention did work. Connected to sound writing intervention is the concept that making students’ writing ‘more academic’ can be more about developing thinking than writing (Laurs 2010). This means they might need to understand what an argument is in a Western university, the kind of discourse that is expected and assessed and the steps they can take to build their own arguments and analyse others’. This is exactly what we do in the LSU.

Making these elements of writing explicitly clear may seem like cutting corners or spoon-feeding students, but again, central to what we do is the notion that mystery does not equal learning. Sure, you may have found yourself working through a confusing assignment of your own during your University studies, but we don’t give marks for resolving confusion. We give marks for those specific skills and content requirements set out in the assessment criteria. Even when we aim to avoid this confusion, we need to be careful in identifying where it might arise. It is a mistake to assume similarly that students naturally ‘get’ what Universities, subjects and lecturers expect of them – regardless of their language or cultural background. In literature relating to the development of academic literacies it seems that some administrators and academics perceive academic literacies as natural and self-evident (Hyland 2011). They are not. Both international students and native English speaking students have difficulties coping with the academic literacies assumed at tertiary level study (Murray 2010). Indeed, a lack of these skills (such as critical thinking, academic writing and research) has led to students, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, dropping out from their studies (Thomas 2002, Rowley 2003). This is precisely why having Academic Language and Learning support such as that provided by the LSU is crucial to the success of students in their programs.

This is supported by quantitative evidence that staff and students at RMIT Vietnam value our services and are using them more each semester (LSU 2011). There is also quantitative and anecdotal evidence indicating that LSU efforts and collaboration with staff lead to higher pass rates and better outcomes for student learning. This corresponds to research into the efficacy of learning skills programmes in general (Hattie, Biggs and Purdy 2006).

So, while we do not formally assess student work and award marks, we are involved in the very ‘stuff’ of learning – learning how to learn. The LSU will continue to argue this position and aim to improve what we do and work with all of you to develop academically stronger students and help our students learn.

References

Chanock, K. 2002, ‘From mystery to mastery. In B. James, A. Percy, J. Skillen, & N. Trivett (Eds.), Changing identities: Proceedings of the Language and Academic Skills Conference’. Wollongong, NSW: University of Wollongong. Retrieved from http://learning.uow.edu.au/LAS2001/selected/chanock.pdf

Hattie, J., Biggs, J., & Purdie N 1996, Effects of learning skills interventions on student learning: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, vol. 6, issue 2, pp. 99-126.

Hyland, K 2011, Academic Discourse in ‘Continuum Companion to Discourse Analysis’, pp. 171-195, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York.

Laurs, D 2010, ‘Collaborating with postgraduate supervisors’, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington.

Murray, N.L  2010, ‘Workplace Language Needs and University Language Education — Do They Meet?’ The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, vol  1, issue 1,pp. 55-64.

Rowley, J 2003, ‘Retention: rhetoric or realistic agendas for the future of higher education’, The International Journal of Education Management, vol. 17, issue 6, pp. 248-253.

Thomas, L 2002, ‘Student Retention in Higher Education: the role of institutional habitus’, Journal of Education Policy, vol.17, issue 4, pp. 423 – 442.

Wette, R 2010, ‘Evaluating student learning in a university-level EAP unit on writing using sources’ Journal of second language writing, vol. 19, pp. 158-177.

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