Communicating science research through the Final Year Project: Teaching towards a transformative awareness

by Wu Siew Mei and Lee Kooi Cheng

Centre for English Language Communication


PR4196 was launched in semester 1 of AY2017/ 2018 in collaboration with the Pharmacy Department (PD). The initiative was mooted by the PD and from its conceptualisation, the PD has been working very tightly with CELC. The structure is such that 4th year students spend the semester doing individual research with their respective supervisors and this constitutes a 16MC module. However, 4 MCs are relegated to the communicative aspects of the project report. 12 sessions are built into the 13-week period and these sessions are aligned with the respective stages of their experimental research stages. So for instance, the first two weeks are allotted to the writing of the research proposal, and the Introduction and Method sections of the project report as the students ease into their research projects and shape more them towards a level of specificity with their supervisors. The communication aspects are fully taught by CELC tutors. In terms of the level of support and collaboration, the embedding model lies high on faculty and integrated support continuum (Briguglio & Watson, 2014), although it falls short of a fully integrated support programme, where discipline staff teach/co-teach with English language staff from the Centre.


Adapted from Briguglio and Watson’s (2014) multi-layered model of language development provision

This blog post reviews the adoption of an academic literacies approach to the collaborative embedded module, with the aim of surfacing some of the challenges encountered in its implementation and the possible solutions adopted. It is an exercise to reflect on the extent to which pedagogical principles and practices adopted are effective in meeting selected learning outcomes and how the teaching and learning towards these outcomes may be further improved upon.

This reflection mainly considers the effective achievement of these two module learning outcomes:

  • To be able to apply the principles of academic communication effectively in their FYP writing.
  • To demonstrate a good understanding of the appropriate use of academic sources and scientific conventions in their FYP writing.


The academic literacies approach: adoption and implementation

The collaborative embedded model provides the best situation to use the academic literacies approach to learning academic writing. Adopting an academic literacies approach (Lea & Street, 2000), students are made aware of language use as a social practice and therefore, notions of academic discourse are to be derived from the disciplinary community they are in (Lillis & Scott, 2007). It is not about learning a set of conventions. The idea of literacy as a social practice recognises that literacies are socially and culturally embedded practices that vary from one context to another and that there are power discrepancies in any literacy related activity (Paxton & Firth, 2014).

This approach also represents a move towards a transformative rather than a normative pedagogy (Paxton & Firth, 2014). A transformative pedagogy, requires a movement beyond simply identifying and inducting students into dominant disciplinary conventions. It requires the opening up of curricular spaces where the literacy practices of disciplines might be critiqued and contested. There is a need to make available dialogic space or to “make space for talk” (Lillis, 2001, p. 133) to enable the co-construction of meaning or meaning making in knowledge construction. This process prioritises an interest in soliciting student writers’ perspectives, which are often undervalued, and what they bring to meaning-making in the academy. It also encompasses the meanings that academics bring to and derive from their disciplinary practices to student writing.

Students are provided with general academic writing instruction but they are constantly guided to observe the following: how language is used in disciplinary community and their texts. Towards that end, there is a deliberate effort to open up dialogic spaces in the curriculum design so that we adopt practices to constantly refer students back to the pharmacy community to ascertain the best writing practices. Three main classroom activities open up the dialogic space for a transformative pedagogy:

  1. Peer review of writing tasks is a frequent class activity,
  2. Constant references made to the Journal of Controlled Release (JCT) and Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology,
  3. Frequent consultation with supervisors’ views on many areas of doubt.


Scenario 1 Peer review as a discursive activity

The content matter in individual projects vary greatly although all my students are in the area of Pharmacy Technology. Students form a very good microcosm of the Pharmacy community as they are able to understand each other’s research areas even if they are not in the same area of topical interest. In a lesson on writing the introduction, one of the paired activity was for students to listen to one another’s contextualized development of generalized background to a project being narrowed down to specific research gaps and accompanying research aims. It was interesting to watch the co-construction of knowledge that this approach encourages, as knowledge is a social practice.

Student A questioned the need for a HNDT antimicrobial mouthwash that can last way beyond the two month expiry for the treatment of oral lesions caused by pemphigus valgaris. Student B explained that the non-complete recovery of this oral condition necessitates the continual return for HNDT mouth wash fortnightly in the long run in managing the condition. While student A resets his knowledge of this ailment to one where there is no complete recovery, student B reviews how he contextualizes the nature of the ailment in his introduction to highlight the significance of his project and thus, sharpen the statement of his research gap.

Even in the discussion of a relatively straightforward Methods section, this approach encourages co-construction of knowledge arising from situating the construction of text in its social environment. In the peer review of method adopted for drug dissolution testing for critical pellet drug release information in vitro, the choice of a more conventional USP 2 apparatus was presented. Further deliberations amongst a pair of students resulted in the possibility of testing the use of a new technology of a digital surface imager that has the ability to look directly at the solid-liquid interface as the dissolution process is happening. Real-time ultra-violet (UV) movies of the dissolution process can be gained microns from the drug surface using as little as 2mg of a sample and less than 20mL of dissolution medium within 30 minutes. Here again, the documentation of Methods provided that opportunity for the co-construction of the students’ knowledge about dissolution methodologies and their respective rationales. Consequently, further input in consultation with experts in the community (supervisors) provided that further construction of students’ understanding of some aspects of pharmaceutical technologies and processes in research.


Scenario 2 Dialogic talk with Pharmacy colleagues and supervisors

In another instance, uncertainty in the documentation of qualitative methods of inquiry provided that opportunity to show the social practice aspect of knowledge and how that in turns shapes writing practice in the discipline. In most cases, the experimental nature of the FYP is written following the IMRD format. However, the couple of cases of qualitative research projects threw a spanner in the court as it was not clear what Methods may mean and what the documentation of methods may consist of. These students engaged with the recommended disciplinary journal and their supervisors/ seniors to understand the notion of Methods in qualitative pharmaceutical research. Both sources of engagement point them to the need to systematically account for a documentation of qualitative research methods including how qualitative data sources are selected, how qualitative/ textual data is analysed and basically, a thorough rationalization for each step of the qualitative process taken. The underlining principles of reproducibility of the investigation and the validation of the robustness of methods taken help frame the community’s stance on why the systematic account of the methodology is insisted upon.

Another example pertains to a simple yet significant use of grammar for the title of the final year project.  One of the pharmacy content experts sat in a lesson on writing a research proposal.  There was a discussion on how to frame the project title so that it is succinct and comprehensive.  A student raised the question on the difference between “…ing” structure, as in the case of “investigating”, and “…ion” structure, as in the case of “an investigation of …”.  When the question was re-directed to the students, some did not think it mattered.  Nonetheless, similar to the language teacher, the pharmacy content expert shared that as a project supervisor, the subtle difference mattered to him in that the former signals work in progress and the latter a completed research project.

During the same discussion on project titles, there was an enriching conversation on the length of the title which tends to be long as observed in existing final year projects and at times journal articles and poster presentations.  There was a sense of apprehension among students that their titles might be lacking if they had not included “sufficient” information reflecting their projects. The conversation touched on awareness of targeted audience (namely who might be the immediate and extended readers), tension between accessibility and specificity, use of pharmacy related terminology versus a more general term.   These are issues that the pharmacy content expert emphasized are helpful for students to talk through with their respective supervisors.  The implications are in fact beyond mere titles; but have clear bearing on how the final year projects are positioned and reported.


Scenario 3 Consultation with professional publications as a discursive activity

Seeking out answers from other professional pharmacy community in the JCT help student construct their understanding of how to communicate with the community. One major aspect concerns the presentation of results in the Results and Discussion (R&D) section. They were firstly made aware of the possible variation of presenting Results and Discussion as a combined or as separate sections. Possible reasons from the community, such as the constraint of space in publications may explain the rationale for the combined sections. That helps the students’ rationalize their choice of a combined R &D, given the word limit of their FYP.

Within the combined R&D, students often presented their interpretation of results with a citation to ensure its validity but without any explication how the citation helps make their interpretation valid:


For the FD-HPMC1-M9 excipients (Figure 1t – v and 1z – ab), this trend was not obvious but the pores generally increased in size with higher HPMC viscosity and were larger than their FD-HPMC1-M3 counterparts. The latter observation was possibly due to a lower proportion of HPMC in the formulation, causing less mechanical obstruction to ice crystal growth [29].

In consultation with the community, students learned that, ‘in the discussion section of the report when we cite articles, we tend to compare our results and results from other groups to support our results or to explain our observations.” (personal communication) They were also shown a tutor’s comments (in red) on a submitted draft report on the use of citations in the discussion section:

These results are in agreement with Unroe et al10 and Quelennec et al.11  √ where they showed …(need to discuss the similarities of your results to theirs.)

It was with this understanding of the role of citation provided by engaging the community that saw some adoption of these practices in later FYP drafts:



Another area that posed a challenge in the course was the alignment of the experimental research process and the writing up of that research. In this course, students mostly had not attained their results at the fourth week of the module programme which is allocated to the writing up of results. This misalignment is redressed by activities that facilitate students’ unpacking of professional researchers’ statement of results, especially in research areas that are similar to theirs.

In contending with the effectiveness of how these results are presented and what makes the arguments in the presentation convincing, students are unpacking the statement of results from the social practice point of view. They are ascertaining disciplinary effective ways of communicating findings. One aspect of results presentation which they observed is the way results are presented in terms of the trends and patterns arising from a set of data rather than the description of discrete data points.

Another observation students made is in the use of visuals to present evidence from their results. They noticed that in some cases, results are presented in both graphical and diagrammatic forms. This is especially so when photo evidence provide that other layer of proof of the growth or development of tissues in situ that can be traced to the presence of a certain drug element used. The community require the double layers of evidence, where appropriate and this awareness facilitated their thinking about when and how these layers of evidence may be needed in their own experimental setting, in the negotiation and construction of knowledge.


Scenario 4 Language teaching with a transformative pedagogy

The direct teaching of grammar is not part of the pedagogy of this course. Items considered essential for grammar instruction were ascertained from conversations with the Pharmacy department. Areas such as the construction of a coherent text, the systematic use of appropriate tenses in different sections of the FYP and the adoption of an appropriate tone are some examples of areas of importance to the Pharmacy community. These areas were also expressed as important as gleaned from the comments of examined FYPs which were provided by the department and this provision was crucially helpful in ascertaining what aspects of grammar count as important to the community.

Activities that prioritise meaning making using grammar were worked into curriculum time. They include:

  • Individual consultation sessions with students that allowed opportunities for them to explore language usage in their own writing and to discuss the rationale for changing ways of presenting knowledge. Many times, the question raised was “what were you saying here?” and “would it be more effective to say it with sentence A or B?”
  • Class activities that unpack well written and not so well written adapted texts to negotiate how one excerpt may communicate messages better than another.
  • Error analysis of common grammar items and expressions in students’ writing with the aim of understanding the rationale of why some aspects of grammar work better than others in ‘faulty’ sentences.

These input and activities on language use provide a space for both students and academics to contest and critique possible options on how best to communicate effectively and this inquiry for options in itself points toward a transformative pedagogy.

We move within the grey area of a balance between the “normative” and “transformative,” continuum of teaching approaches in (Jacobs, 2015) in the course as we reflect on how to push further into wider dialogic spaces and a higher level of transformative pedagogy using the academic literacies approach. As Firth pointed out, a raised awareness among students that knowledge construction is a meaning making process that can be contested and negotiated is in itself is a transformation (Paxton & Firth, 2014).

There is an opportunity and need for better developed discursive space between us as academic language staff and the Pharmacy community, and especially the project supervisors.  Such spaces will help move us further in the continuum towards a more fully integrated support for the learning of academic literacies.



Briguglio, C., & Watson, S. (2014). Embedding English language across the Curriculum in Higher Education: A Continuum of Development Support. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37 (1), pp. 67 – 75.

Jacobs, C. (2015). Opening up The Curriculum: Moving from The Normative to The Transformative in Teachers’ Understandings of Disciplinary Literacy Practices . In T. Lilis, K. Harrington, M. S. Lea, and S. Mitchell (Eds.) Working with Academic Literacies: Case Studies Towards Transformative Practice, pp. 131 – 143. The WAC Clearinghouse, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Lillis, T. (2001). Student writing: Access, regulation, desire. London: Routledge.

Lillis, T., & Scott, M. (2007). Defining academic literacies research: Issues of epistemology, ideology and strategy. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 5–32.

Paxton, M. & Firth, V.  (2014). Implications of academic literacies research for knowledge making and curriculum design. Higher Education, 67:171–182

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