By the time students get to university, it will probably have been a few years since they came across an illustrated activity book.
But Writing Essays by Pictures is no ordinary activity book. With a nautical theme, it casts essays as icebergs and sources as sea creatures in an innovative attempt to introduce first-year students to the practice of academic research and writing.
Author Alke Gröppel-Wegener, senior lecturer in contextual studies at Staffordshire University, based the handsomely presented book on her essay-writing sessions with art and design students.
After raising nearly £2,000 from supporters on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website to fund an initial print run, the book was launched this week and it is hoped that wider distribution will follow.
It opens with the call for students to think of their essays as icebergs, with a focused argument “above the water” backed up by research and thinking below.
It then introduces students to reading, note-taking and critical thinking strategies, inviting them to carry out practical, creative activities along the way.
It suggests that readers try drawing pictures while they examine sources, rather than taking notes, and encourages students to walk a familiar route at a quarter of their usual speed while taking notes on what they see around them, in an attempt to demonstrate the level of engagement that texts require.
The book advises students to categorise sources by thinking of them as different sea creatures, and to judge their academic rigour in terms of the depth at which they live in the ocean.
Other suggested learning techniques include writing poems that condense source material and creating greeting cards as reminders of texts.
Dr Gröppel-Wegener said that she had developed her use of analogies and activities as a way to address, in an engaging and non-threatening way, the lack of confidence around academic writing that she found in first years.
“Giving students images that they might remember better, like the fish and the iceberg, will hopefully help them to remember what they meant and to understand the explanation better,” said Dr Gröppel-Wegener, a bookmaker and printmaker by training. “I thought that, if it was something students could add things to, it would not just be something that is a reference, it would be their own and they would want to keep it.”
Dr Gröppel-Wegener argued that the book could prove useful across a wide range of subjects.
“People who like to think visually are not only found in arts and design,” she said. “There might be more in art and design, but I try to explain things for everybody and hopefully there are a lot of people who can respond to it.”
Dr Gröppel-Wegener rejected the idea that creating an activity book represented “dumbing down” of academic practice, arguing that she was simply “framing it in a different way”, and that better critical thinking ability would flow from stronger research skills.
But she acknowledged that her approach would not suit every learner.
“When I am teaching, I am aware that this approach doesn’t work for everybody; some people don’t work with metaphors at all,” she said. “I always use this as one option.”
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