Colleagues and I have long since been aware of the lack of proper research and appropriate source use in our students’ EAP and academic essays. We decided to offer a one-hour workshop on researching in the library at our university, and enlisted the help of an expert – the library representative for our subject area.
We thought it was a great idea!
But students were not so impressed. And their work didn’t improve much, either.
After the session, students’ feedback centred on the following points:
- the session was quite like a lecture, but not very interactive or with any opportunities for them to try things out for themselves
- they were bored and confused by the explanation of possible search filters they could implement with Boolean search strings
- the MLA Bibliography they were introduced to “only gave them references but not the actual articles”
- that “there weren’t (m)any books on their topic”
- the searches of databases etc. don’t work “properly” at home.
So what do students new to library research really need to know?
- What an academic text is. (I recently asked MA-level students to bring in an academic journal article on our overall topic, and many of them turned up with texts from news sources like BBC, or from magazines like Time!)
- The fact that searching a database of academic texts is not like an internet search; i.e. you shouldn’t ask the catalogue your question (“Ok google, what are the differences between British and American spelling?”), but search for keywords or tags related to the topic.
- The fact that their specific topic may only be dealt with in a chapter within a book, which may not be searchable (unless the library has digitalised contents pages) and so they may need to search for more general terms.
- The difference between bibliographies and databases.
- The fact that many published sources are not available for free on the internet and so you can only access the full texts if your institution subscribes to that publication and you access it through their server. (Yes, this might mean, dear students, that you will actually have to physically go into the library!)
- The difference between reports of original (empirical) research and meta-studies or other summaries, and the importance of reading the primary work.
- The importance of using up-to-date sources, especially in areas where research and understandings have developed significantly in recent years.
- How to use keywords / tags, and articles’ abstracts, or skim-reading, to judge a source’s relevance and appropriateness for their work.
- That something is not a fact just because it has been published – most academic work is about stance!
And so, I’ve come to the conclusion that a one-hour session might not be the best way to introduce students to the academic research community. A quick introduction to the specific institution’s library is a good idea, but that this clearly needs to be further supported within our teaching.
Over to you!
What kinds of tasks and activities do you get your students to do to help them to develop and train their researching skills? Please leave your ideas and tips in the comments below!
Much is said in published literature about the necessity of EAP students reading authentic academic texts, and also about providing scaffolding and support for them to do so. I believe lecturers and academic tutors teaching their subject content in English and/or on a CLIL-based approach will also need to help students digest the readings for their classes.
Still, I often hear complaints from teachers that they set preparatory reading, but then found in the lesson that students were unable to discuss or work with the ideas from the reading, despite their claims that they did actually read the text.
One way I’ve found to help students engage with the texts they are asked to read, then, is what I call ‘Reading Support Worksheets’.
Reading Support Worksheets can help students to focus on the parts of a text or the ideas and concepts mentioned, so that they are better prepared to discuss or work with these in their lessons. Also, directing students’ attention to what the tutor deems the key concepts, the things they want to focus on in their lessons, the reasons they chose this reading text, can ease the load on students to comprehend every detail in a text and perhaps ease their frustration at the time and effort needed to do so.
So how do I set up a Reading Support Worksheet?
I divide the text into manageable, logical sections, and pose questions or set quick tasks to guide students in the notes they should make whilst reading each section. Here are some of the question and task types I’ve used so far:
- What is the central claim presented in the introduction?
- What are the guiding questions and approach that this article is working with? How are these justified?
- Paraphrase the quote by xyz.
- Summarise the overall argument / point of paragraph xyz.
- What do these abbreviations stand for: x, y, z ?
- Give examples of xyz’s categories.
- Copy the diagram/table on page x and add two more examples of your own.
- Define xyz’s concept of xyz in your own words.
- What are the key terms used by xyz?
- On page x the example “xyz” is used to illustrate xyz. Explain the claim/theory/concept in your own words and add an example.
- Note the break-down into 5 steps/categories here.
- Contrast xy’s idea/claim/theory with yz’s.
- What is an xyz? Why is this important to understand?
- Draw a diagram to illustrate xyz.
- How to xy’s categories/ideas/key terms relate/compare to yz’s?
- Make a time-line in note form, charting the development of xyz.
- Name and describe in your own words two views on xyz.
- What is special about xyz’s model?
- Outline some of the measures taken to address xyz.
- What are the reasons stated to support the claim that xyz.
- Draw a flow-chart illustrating the structure of this section of the article.
- How is the data presented in this section? What central claim is the data used to support?
- What data analysis method was used in this study, and why?
- For each graph in this section, write down I) what it plots (i.e. what the x-axis and y-axis show) and II) what trends are illustrated by the data presented.
- What do you know about the “xyz” mentioned here? (If not much – find out more!)
- Extension: Choose one source from the bibliography of this article to read as your next source on input on our topic xyz.
I believe that this type of scaffolding helps the students to get to grips with the content of a text at a mainly descriptive level, leaving activities which require higher-order thinking skills such as analysis and evaluation for the lesson time.
Of course, the number of questions or tasks should be suitable for the length of text – remember, students should have the feeling that the worksheet is helping them to digest the text, and not adding extra work!
In EAP, questions or tasks can be added to get students to focus on the langauge or other academic skills as they are demonstarted in the text. For example:
- Write the bibliography entry for this text.
- Why do you think the title of this section is pluralised?
- Find transition words/phrases in this section that show xyz. Note their position within the sentence.
- Find synonyms in this section which mean x, y, z.
Why not try it yourself? You can share your questions/tasks in the comments below, and let me know how it works out with your students!