Julie Moore: How do Engineers say that? Encouraging academic independence in ELT (Session 1)

This is my first academic English session for the conference! I had intended to attend more, but as I have mentioned in previous posts, the best-laid plans of mice, men and conference participants… It is also the first talk of the day for the ESP SIG Day. We are shown the timetable and I realise I may  be back in this room again after the coffee break! That’ll save getting lost… 😉 Apparently they are also being recorded…

How do Engineers say that? Encouraging academic independence in ELT

Julie starts with thank-you’s and asking the audience to complete the feedback form at the end, and introduces herself.

She is going to talk to us about dealing with mixed-discipline classes and how to encourages students to be more independent. She asked us who are practising EAP teachers and most hands went up except mine – yet! She also asked about management roles and materials developers. Still not me… 😉 She acknowledges that we all want to get different things out of the day. (For me? to learn more about EAP!) She compares us to a mixed-discipline EAP class – going on to different things, with different objectives. The teacher/presenter has to (try to) keep all happy.

She shows us a wordle (word cloud) of the different subject areas of students on her courses. Some are more heavily represented than others, but there is a huge range. The course coordinator often doesn’t know till the last minute who will turn up. Institutional constraints mean they can’t be split up but must be taught in the same class, all with different needs, wanting to learn different things.

Principle no 1:

Identify key, transferable academic principles, features, skills and language: things that will be useful in any discipline. What will be useful to all of my students?

Principle no 2:

Give the students a clear rationale: explain to the students why you have chosen these things and why they are useful. This is a step that often gets missed out but is very important, as students may  not see the relevance. Materials writers should make it clear to teachers and students, teachers to their students.

Principle no 3:

Encourage students to apply general classroom ideas to their own discipline via independent study. We will see an example of how we can encourage students to do this.

E.g. 1 OUP Advanced writing module: A sequence of tasks leading to a writing task

Looking at the task of writing a critical response. Traditionally we teach essays, and essays do come up across discipline, but less common in hard sciences, but the other genre that occurs across disciplines is a critical response/critique/review. When Julie thinks of a critique she thinks of English literature, but students can critique all kinds of things, especially at advanced levels.

This activity presents students with examples (five in the book, three shown on screen), short examples of critique writing from different disciplines. Students asked to think about which discipline they are studying, topics discussed and stances taken. Within the examples, some of the language is in bold.

The first example is a science-y kind of subject. The review is a bit critical, a bit supportive – “significant uses”  but them it expresses limitations “not entirely consistent”: so this is getting students to think about how we evaluate.

So students start to see here that this style of writing occurs across disciplines. This is the very first task. You are showing them upfront that this something that all disciplines need to do. All the examples won’t be directly relevant to the student, but they can see the relevance of the activity. So this is an example of engaging the students upfront.

Identifying skills and features

Julie shows us a lesson sequence, with task headings that are focused on transferable features/skills rather than topics. This draws out skills and language, and how to use abstracts for writing and research. This may be from looking at examples not related to their discipline but then the final task is an independent research project where they are encouraged to find examples related to their discipline and focus on those abstracts. Which features studied in the lesson occur in the abstract and identify the language for describing aims.

But will they really do it? Maybe some of the conscientious ones. But the others won’t bother. Julie says that the important thing is to require students to report back. “Next class bring back what you have found, so you can report back” – that stops it being a throwaway task. (This fits right in with my thoughts/feelings/approaches re autonomy!) 

In a class of 14 students in Julie’s class, there were a total of 23 abstracts, ranging from law, business, electronic engineering, film studies, TESOL – quite a range. What they found was 12 used personal pronouns “I” and “We” – interesting as we often tell students not be personal but in this context, talking about aims, it IS common: important for reading and writing as well. 10 examples of reference to the text itself – “this article” and “this paper”. They also found some verbs for describing aims, some overlapping with what had been discussed in the above sequence from OUP and some new. E.g. examine, discuss, analyse etc

It got the students thinking about similarities and differences between theirs and other disciplines. With all these tasks, the discussion is more important than anything else, giving students time to explore their own discipline in relation to others, giving them the skills to start doing this themselves: transferable skills, helping them to move towards a more autonomous position. You help them develop the skills to explore and analyse for themselves.

(I love this!! So inline with my beliefs!)  

Five minutes for questions: (paraphrased…)

Q Are your students mostly post-graduate students? A lot of my students probably wouldn’t have that sense of their own discipline. 

A: The book we were working on was for Advanced level, so aimed more at post-grad students. You could do it a little bit. One of the reasons we focused on abstracts is that they are freely available, so even if they aren’t attached to a uni yet and don’t have access, then it’s still possible for them to start to explore a little bit. They can still explore texts from their own area.

Q: Presumably you as the teacher could bring in a pile of abstracts to help them, as they may not have the skills to find these themselves. 

A: Yes, you could absolutely.

Q: I was just reflecting on what you were saying about throw-away tasks – I think I’m guilty of this – I think a lot of that comes from nervousness thinking that we need to know about all the disciplines. I’d get nervous that I’d get all these abstracts back the next time and none of them would fit together etc. Any advice for setting up that second task?

A: I think for me it’s just about having confidence in what you do know and being perfectly happy to admit what you don’t know. E.g. this law student who brought in bizarre abstracts that I didn’t understand because of the legal language. All I could say to him was “that’s interesting” but other law students had brought more conventional ones and we explored the reason behind the differences and we came to the conclusion that it was a specific journal with a specific style. Release control, not worry too much and be able to admit that you don’t know. I don’t think you always have to have an answer. You just deal with the things you can deal with.

Audience member comment: Students enjoy explaining at a higher level what they know to students from a different background, when you put them in groups to discuss.

Students are a wonderful resource!




2 thoughts on “Julie Moore: How do Engineers say that? Encouraging academic independence in ELT (Session 1)

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2014: Bringing all my posts together in one place! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  2. Pingback: My top 10(+!) EAP resources | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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