No need to fit round pegs into square holes

September 1, 2000

Tutors need to tune in to students' writing, not make it conform, Carys Jones tells Jennifer Currie.

The world of academia is a tough nut to crack for most students. Many see themselves as aliens who will only survive if they learn the rules.

But some rules, such as those for academic writing, are so far removed from A levels or access courses that students can easily flounder.

Carys Jones, a lecturer in language education at King's College, London, is a two-way specialist. She tries to acclimatise students to academic writing, but more importantly, she is trying to acclimatise academia to the diverse experience of the students.

"Those on the inside of an academic culture do not always realise how alien it can be for outsiders. Students arriving at university for the first time often think that they have to follow unwritten rules to fit in," she says.

Students express themselves through their writing, and they need to find a way of getting their voice heard, says Jones.

"It is taken for granted that meaning in writing is clear," says Jones. "Yet many students come to university from non-traditional backgrounds and do not understand even things such as the titles of academic essay questions, for example, which can be very misleading.

"The most obvious addressee in student academic writing is the tutor-reader for the student-writer, and the student-writer for the tutor-reader. Language is seen as an idealised system where words and sentences are impersonal."

Students will smother their own writing styles in order to conform to what they perceive is a set standard, says Jones. "Seeing a student as a novice is to look at things too simply," she says. "Their past experiences need to be recognised.

"For this reason there needs to be more interaction between students and teachers. Personal experience can enrich an essay or tutorial. In many ways it should be the students who are teaching their teachers."

Jones believes that students who are not from the traditional straight-from-school background will be instrumental in shaping the higher education of the future. But this will require understanding on the part of the tutor.

"When you ask your student: 'What do you mean by this?', you should really try to unpack what your student has written and to understand the context in which it was written. There needs to be more sharing and communicating of ideas so that the expectations of students and tutors will not be mismatched."

Citing research by her King's colleagues, Brian Street and Mary Lea, Jones gives three examples of what she calls "hierarchical" learning. There is the narrow "study skills approach", which sets up the uniform assumption that students will all learn to use language in the same way. Jones describes this as "student deficit" as there is little student input. The second example is "academic socialisation". This assumes that students will conform to the norm. Universities are imposing, inflexible monolithic structures that fail to accommodate the needs of the student because the student is too preoccupied with accommodating the demands of the institution. The tutor is expert and the student must be inducted into the academic structure.

"Students' ways of writing are not valued," says Jones. "It implies that the student's own knowledge, identity, perceptions, perspectives and meanings are denied by the dominance of higher education institutional practices."

Jones favours a third approach, known as "academic literacies". Here students and tutors draw on their differences of opinion and experience to explore what each expects. Taking account of the yawning gaps between the expectations of the two will lead to greater understanding, says Jones.

She encourages tutors to focus on their own teaching and learning as well that of their students.

"The tutorial system could be better organised so that tutors realise and nurture relationships with students. I'm not saying that tutors aren't aware of the importance of this already, but focusing on it might help them and the students," Jones says.

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