Case study: Encouraging first years to engage with academic journal literature

It is common for university teachers to criticise students, and particularly those who have come straight from school, about the over-reliance on web-based sources of information.  A tendency for some students to simply ‘google’ for information and references can lead to the use of inappropriate and unreliable sources.  However, academic journal literature can be quite daunting for a newcomer to find, read and understand.

One idea is to guide students into this practice in a fun and supported way.

  1. Identify a fairly accessible journal – or range of journals – that may able to students and are relevant to the course.
  2. Provide students with a link to this journal(s) and give them advice on how to search within the journal site.  Suggest that they use search terms about things of particular interest to them.  For example, in a life sciences course this may be frogs, mangroves, climate change, mongooses or marine pollution.  For physical education or sports science students it might be their favourite sport – eg football, cricket, swimming, hockey, or an activity such as after-school coaching, girls in sport.
  3. Each student then finds an article that has some inherent interest to them – but which also reflects broad course themes.
  4. Then support them through a process of ‘finding out’ what is in the article.  They might begin by a one sentence summary.  Then perhaps look at the references – are they also from journals or also books or reports?  Ask them to look at the different sections of the article – what might be the purpose of each section?
  5. Progressively move on to the more challenging aspects of academic reading:  can they distinguish between the author’s argument/analysis and that of the references she is citing?
  6. Consider using some of the small but helpful ‘Youtube’ clips available on reading academic papers also.  These can help students to learn the ‘tricks of the trade’ when it comes to navigating academic articles.

Fostering engagement through course co-navigation

If we really want students to engage with course themes and the complex disciplinary knowledge being covered, perhaps we should ensure that they feel full and active members of the course – not just visitors passing through.  There are a number of ways in which students can be partners in course delivery and design.  A recent article by Huxham et al (co-authored with students) tells a story of co-navigation of a course:

A ‘natural lines’ approach to co-navigation of a course is, like its mountaineering namesake, a risky exercise.  Our use of the natural lines metaphor aims to capture an emerging approach to teaching and learning, that emphasises commitment, flexibility, dialogue, travelling together and working outside the normal (and sometimes stifling) classrooms (page 539).

In this example the teacher and students collectively rethought assumptions about ‘time’ and ‘space’ in terms of how the module was run.  So some lectures were moved outside of the traditional lecture theatre to encourage thinking differently about the actual content – for example, a day was spent in the Botanic Gardens not as a traditional field trip, but as an alternative place to discuss and engage with the same course material as if in the lecture theatre or seminar room.  Similarly, one lecture was given while walking along a beach – the same lecture, but the rough and unpredictable terrain of a local beach replaced the formal confines of the university building.

Notions of time were also reconsidered by agreeing to replace the traditional two lectures and a tutorial class times with a whole day of working and learning together.  The aim of this initiative was to give students greater input into how they engaged with the course – and greater control over their own learning.  It was not without challenges and unexpected hic-cups.  However, overall for most students it did enable the time and space to think differently about the disciplinary knowledge and to shape, challenge and reflect upon their own engagement with that knowledge.

Further reading

Huxham, Hunter, McIntyre, Shilland and McArthur (2015), Student and teacher co-navigation of a course:  following the natural lines of academic enquiry, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(5), 530-541