Developing academic skills with a diverse student body

Author/Producer Dr Tracy Johnson
Published in Newsletter No 11 Summer 2008
Date Published Summer 2008
Pages 3


Tracy Johnson of the University of Bristol explains how the university supports the development of academic skills in diverse groups of students and the particular needs of international students at UK universities


The Student Development Unit at the University of Bristol has trained over one thousand students in key and academic skills during the current academic year. This represents a significant number of students voluntarily seeking skills training outside of the discipline-specific curriculum, and 52% of those attending were international students. We have learned important lessons from running workshops on many topics including critical thinking, reading skills and academic writing. As well as being relevant to orientating international students in terms of what they can expect at a UK university, these courses have broader applications to the ways in which academic skills are delivered to an increasingly diverse student body.

International student feedback on these workshops showed it was "a good start to get to know how to study in the UK", "it helps to know exactly what we need to be doing", and "even if you know already how to criticise and analytically think it is useful to clarify the processes you've been using".

It seems obvious, perhaps, that students entering the UK higher education system with a different pedagogical background need some orientation in what to expect and what will be expected of them; there is a growing body of research, for example, on the teaching of students from a Confucian educational context who seem to experience difficulty engaging with critical Western styles of thinking.[i] But if the other 48% of participants attending these sessions are home students, what is their purpose in seeking academic skills training outside of their department?

Looking at the feedback received from home students, their aim is evidently very similar to that of their international colleagues: to better understand what is required of them to gain the marks that they want to achieve and to develop their critical thinking skills. They said: "it has improved my confidence and attitude towards essays" and, crucially, it "provides useful information that is not taught in lectures".

Students seeking support with academic skills development can be referred directly to the Student Development Unit workshops. Others work with support staff who are invited to deliver academic skills workshops within departments, rather than academic skills development being addressed by staff lecturing on subject-specific content. What has resulted is a situation where the skills that all students require to carry out their academic work effectively and with confidence have become such an implicit aspect of degree study that they have, arguably, become invisible. The strategy of the academic skills workshops is to abstract the techniques required for successful study, making them more explicit, and encourage students to reflect on their practice and relate these techniques to their discipline-specific contexts. The workshops also encourage Personal Development Planning (PDP) processes, such as goal setting and reviewing progress to facilitate this reflection.

When a series of study skills lectures was arranged as a pilot scheme within one academic department, to better link study skills to the teaching of content, teaching staff were honest in stating that they felt confident in delivering subject knowledge but felt that academic skills was a different area of 'expertise'. Markers know what a good essay looks like when they see one, but articulating the process involved in producing a good piece of academic writing is a challenge, particularly when, for academics, writing in this way has become second nature and transparent. According to Cortazzi and Jin, "[F]or skilled practitioners - such as academic staff - many aspects seem obvious but are rarely made explicit" [1997: 77], and we are in danger of trying to 'teach to ourselves'. This is a particular problem when we start to factor in the sheer diversity of the students currently in our classroom: at present, 16% of Bristol's current student body are overseas students, 12.9% are from low-performing schools, 7% are mature students and 14% are drawn from the lowest social classes.[ii]

Therefore, the principal lesson we have learned in introducing international students to UK pedagogy is that we need to make educational expectations and techniques more explicit to our entire student body. New initiatives combining the work of staff in the University's International Office, Student Development Unit and Education Support Unit have seen a successful new programme of introductory seminars on academic skills for incoming overseas students, and an innovative new programme of Introductory Week skills sessions and a supporting study skills booklet was made available to all incoming first year students at the start of the 2007/08 academic year. The second lesson is that we should not be teaching this pedagogy from our own limited perspective on what 'works' with regard to academic skills, but rather explain what gains marks and what doesn't and then encourage students to relate this to their own educational background and practice, building on what they already know and constructing their own methods for learning. In this way, we acknowledge our students' difference and diversity, whether cultural, social or educational, and encourage them to value the skills that they have already developed to succeed in gaining a university place.

The real challenge remaining for any member of staff engaged in teaching academic skills is to step outside of their cultural, social and educational 'continuum', becoming more aware of the values and assumptions that have shaped them, and which are often taken for granted: "[T]he first step in understanding others [is] an understanding of self, one's own culture and worldview" [Bodenhorn et al, 2005: 63]. In this way, we avoid becoming "discipline specialists who [...] may not necessarily be skilled in communicating what they do" [Todd, 1997: 184], and develop more inclusive teaching that acknowledges student diversity and fosters the development of academic skills that are relevant and useful to everyone in the classroom.

[i] A good place to start is Sheila Trahar's discussion paper Teaching and learning: the international higher education landscape, available from ESCalate, which contains many useful references.

[ii] Source: Accessed: June 4th 2008.

Works Cited

Bodenhorn, Nancy, DeCarla Jackson, Angela and Farrell, Rebecca, Increasing Personal Cultural Awareness Through Discussions With International Students, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 2005, 17:1, 63-68.

Cortazzi, Martin and Lixian Jin, Communication for learning across cultures, in McNamara, David and Harris, Robert (eds) (1997) Overseas Students in Higher Education: Issues in Teaching and Learning (London: Routledge).

Todd, Elizabeth S., Supervising overseas students: problem or opportunity, in McNamara, David and Harris, Robert (eds) (1997) Overseas Students in Higher Education: Issues in Teaching and Learning (London: Routledge).

Trahar, Sheila (2007) Teaching and learning: the international higher education landscape - some theories and working practices (Bristol: ESCalate).