Enabling international, taught post-graduate students' successful engagement with the western Higher Education discourse

  • Martin Sedgley, School of Management, University of Bradford, Bradford, UK

    In the western HE discourse, tutors’ expectations are often tacit in nature and difficult to explain to those on the periphery of the learning community (O’Donovan et al 2008, Price 2005). This results in a particularly challenging learning journey for international students from didactic educational cultures (Montgomery 2010, Ryan 2010). Lillis (2001) maintains that many UK universities exclude such marginalized students by not explicitly teaching the necessary writing conventions.

    There is a need for research and practice evaluation in the area of international, taught post-graduate study, where relatively little is understood about personal experiences of coping with an intensive ‘cultural collision’ in the transition into a one-year UK Masters programme. This paper explores a package of collaborative initiatives developed at Bradford University School of Management to explore how to best support that process for this target group.

    It is argued that students most need what Shahabudin (2009, p 20) calls the ‘scaffolding frameworks’ that can help them move successfully from directed to independent study. Consequently, over the last decade, many universities adopted a socialisation model of academic writing, attributing a role to learning support tutors of ‘acculturating’ new students (Creme and Lea 2008).

    However, there are criticisms of this model as another version of the earlier ‘skills deficit approach’, including the representation of a single academy. There is an institutional convenience in assuming that generic writing workshops, for example, will induct students into a seemingly unified discourse. Academic literacies contends that accepted writing practice depends on the epistemology of disciplines and individual tutors (Bloxham and West 2007, Lillis and Turner 2001 Street 2004).

    This debate reflects both the opportunity and difficulty of implementing effective learning development programmes. On the one hand, a socialisation perspective responds to the need to induct students quickly into the UK HE discourse. This is particularly important for Masters students who realistically have less than six months to become sufficiently adept. Whilst academic literacies advocates an embedded curriculum approach through which tutors can best induct students into the particular interpretations of their own disciplines.

    In her recent HE mapping study, Shahabudin (2009) decries the notion of ‘one size fits all’, arguing this is inappropriate among a diverse student body. O’Donovan et al (2008, p 211) refer to a ‘nested hierarchy of models’, which persuasively proposes a multi-faceted approach to learning development through a complementary blend of skills and literacies practices.

    At the School of Management, the Effective Learning Service is currently evaluating a ‘halfway house’ approach with a menu of learning interventions that involve differing degrees of ELS / tutor partnership in developing students’ understanding of module-specific academic expectations. These include ELS co-teaching within modules, joint presentation of annotated exemplar essay workshops, collaborative development of module-specific eResources, and independent formative feedback on assignment drafts. This is proving fertile ground from which collaborative programmes are spreading across the School disciplines. Debate is also then stimulated among academics about their own, distinct literacy practice, and this is an area offering rich potential for further research (Lea and Stierer 2000, Wingate 2006).