Forging Language-Content Partnerships: Interdisciplinary collaboration in a reading and writing module for Science students

LEE Ming Cherk, Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)
Chammika, N. B. UDALAGAMA, Dept of Physics, Special Programe in Science (SPS), Faculty of Science (FoS)
Brenda YUEN, Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)
Happy GOH, Centre for English Language Communication (CELC)

Ming Cherk and colleagues take us through their process of delivering the academic literacy component of their module, offering us insights into the close collaboration between students, student mentors, and faculty colleagues from across disciplines.

Image courtesy of Vitchanan Photography/Shutterstock
Recommended Citation
Lee M. C., Udalagama, C., Yuen, B., & Goh, H. (2021, July 21). Forging language-content partnerships: Interdisciplinary collaboration in a reading and writing module for Science students. Teaching Connections. https://blog.nus.edu.sg/teachingconnections/2021/07/21/forging-language-content-partnerships-interdisciplinary-collaboration-in-a-reading-and-writing-module-for-science-students/

 

Bridging the language-content gap

In an academic literacy course, it is essential for language and content area specialists to collaborate closely so that students not only learn to read and write in the discipline, but also learn more about their disciplinary knowledge through language training. In light of this, our team adopted a four-pronged approach (see Figures 1 and 2) to design a blended learning module called SP2171 “Discovering Science” for first-year undergraduates in the Special Programme in Science (SPS). We pulled together various expertise from different disciplines and learning units, which included the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC), the Faculty of Science (FoS) (described in this post as the Language and Science Lecturers respectively),  the NUS Library1, and student mentors from FoS.

Figure 1. Four-pronged approach to the teaching and learning of academic literacy in SPS2171.

 

In designing and delivering SPS2171, each party handled tasks individually and also worked with each other collectively. Figure 2 illustrates this multifaceted language-content collaboration among the four parties.

Figure 2. Multi-faceted collaboration in SP2171.

 

With such a complex web of activities, several questions arose:

  1. How do we ensure teaching and assessment are aligned with the learning outcomes?
  2. How do we fully support students in their writing about science?
  3. How do we ensure that students’ performance was fairly assessed when each assignment was marked by more than one person?

 

Aligning Learning Activities and Assessments to Intended Learning Outcomes

Constructive alignment (Biggs, 2014) underpinned the module design. Learning activities and assessments were tied closely to the learning outcomes. In other words, the assessments were designed to inform and complement the learning activities. In turn, the learning activities would help students meet the intended learning objectives (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Constructive alignment in the writing component for SP2171.

 

Interweaving Support for Student Learning

From the outset, the reading and writing segment was designed collaboratively by the Language and Science lecturers. In addition, out-of-class learning was supported by student mentors who held regular group discussions on Zoom and provided verbal feedback (Dewanto, et. al., 2012; Dewanto, et. al., 2013). The outcome of this work model was a good balance between scientific and language content input.

Figure 4. Before Class: Lesson preparations and pre-class learning activities (e.g. reading strategies for out-of-class learning).

 

In Figure 5, we show two results from an annotation exercise in SPS217 designed to train students to read scientific journals.

Figure 5. Two samples of student submissions for the annotation exercise, designed to teach students how to read scientific publications and colour code information effectively for later reference.

 

The lesson was delivered in a lecture-cum-discussion style, with the main input given by the Language lecturer and intermittent explanations on content and discipline-specific conventions provided by the Science lecturer and student mentors (Figure 6). All three parties facilitated the breakout room discussions. The lesson proved to be lively and enthusing.

Figure 6. During Class: Online synchronous class activities

 

Outside class, students engaged in consultations with their Language lecturer and student mentors (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Out-of-class Engagement: Consultations

 

Ensuring Fair Assessment

Each assessment was accompanied by a rubric designed collaboratively by colleagues from both faculties, often with the student mentors’ participation. These rubrics were released with the instructions for each task on the SPS website dedicated to SPS2171. The marking was done by the Language lecturer and two student mentees (or staff from FoS), with proper standardisation of marking and prior trainings. Further checking on rater-reliability was done using Rasch modelling (Bond & Fox, 2015; Yuen & Sawatdeenarunat, 2020), and timely and detailed feedback was provided to individual students.

 

Some Afterthoughts

All in all, the module ran smoothly, in no small part due to the close integration and commitment of all concerned. At the outset, the learning outcomes were clarified and the assessment tasks and rubrics were painstakingly designed to reflect them. Students also felt well supported in their learning. They were especially appreciative of the help they received from both the Science and Language lecturers, and their mentors. They also stated that they had gained by way of learning how to read and think critically about a scientific topic (“helps us develop our own method of reading“, “it forces you to dissect, piece everything together and from there, you will be more intrigued to find more articles to understand what you are doing”), and that they had acquired the necessary research writing skills (“You learn how to structure the sentences and make them flow”). Judging from students’ feedback, the intended learning outcomes have been achieved.

One concern that student mentors themselves raised was that being novice markers, they were unsure of their own ability to rate writing. Despite this, we still saw co-marking as a valuable exercise as it ensures a balanced and judicious assessment of content and language. Also, problems relating to fair marking were addressed with rater training, Rasch analysis and adjustment of marks. However, we appreciate that further rater training using the rubrics would have helped the student mentors gain more confidence in carrying out their task.

We also observe that this approach is viable only with a low student mentor-student ratio. Student mentors have voiced their concern about the extensive amount of time taken for “handholding the students”. To scale up this learning model, more past student mentors should be encouraged to return to help. All the same, it would still be prudent to develop students’ ability in self-and peer assessments, so that they are able to “own” their learning and be more independent.  

 

LEE Ming Cherk is a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC). She has taught academic writing at undergraduate and postgraduate levels across many disciplines. Her research interests include academic writing across disciplines, discourse analysis, peer reviews, student engagement, and online learning.

Ming Cherk can be reached at  elclmc@nus.edu.sg.

Chammika UDALAGAMA is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Physics, the Special Programme in Science (SPS) and the Science Communication Team at the Faculty of Science (FoS). Chammika teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses on topics ranging from quantum mechanics, Python programming to ocean dynamics. He is very interested in using technology to enhance teaching, learning and assessment.

Chammika can be reached at chammika@nus.edu.sg.

Brenda YUEN is a Senior Lecturer at CELC, where she has taught and coordinated undergraduate courses in science communication, academic writing, and critical thinking. She has also been involved in the development and validation of university-wide English language proficiency and placement tests in Hong Kong and Singapore. Her research interests include technology-enhanced feedback for student learning, language testing and assessment, particularly rubric validation using Rasch modelling.

Brenda can be reached at elcbypl@nus.edu.sg.

Happy GOH is a Senior Lecturer at CELC. She has taught various communication courses designed for different types of learners and purposes, including critical thinking and writing for community and engineering leadership, and oral skills. Her interests include assessment and blended learning.

Happy can be reached at happy@nus.edu.sg.

 

Endnotes

  1. We would also like to acknowledge our colleagues from the NUS Library, Magdeline Ng (NUS Science Library) and Mr. Ming Guang Han (NUS Central Library) who were instrumental in training our students on the use of reference databases and reference manager software.

 

References

Biggs, J. (2014). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, 5-22. https://www.herdsa.org.au/herdsa-review-higher-education-vol-1/5-22

Bond, T. G., & Fox, C. M. (2015). Applying the Rasch model: Fundamental measurement in the human sciences (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Dewanto, A., Udalagama, C. N. B., Gapter, L., Sellou, L., Lim, Z. H., Jaidev, R., & Lee, A.M. (2012). Special Programme in Science: A pedagogical model for teaching an Integrated-Science Curriculum to undergraduates. Proceedings of ICERI2012 Conference, (November), 6170–6180.

Dewanto, A., Udalagama, C. N. B., Gapter, L., Sellou, L., Lim, Z. H., Jaidev, R., & Lee, A.M. (2013). Student mentorship in Special Programme in Science. Proceedings of ICERI2013 Conference, 4969-4975.

Yuen, B., & Sawatdeenarunat, S. (2020). Applying a rubric development cycle for assessment in higher education: an evidence-based case study of a science communication module. Asian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(1), 53-68. https://nus.edu.sg/cdtl/engagement/publications/ajsotl-home/archive-of-past-issues/V10n1/v10n1-Yuen-Sawatdeenarunat