The Academic Skills Project

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1. Background:

Following a successful Enhancement Themes Funding Application, three PhD students in the School of History introduced a series of academic skills workshops for History undergraduates in 2012. In the summer of 2014 the scheme was expanded, via CAPOD, to all Arts Schools. The aim of this Academic Skills Project was to create a framework for subject-specific academic skills to be delivered to a large number of UG students via high quality workshops delivered by PGR students, creating benefits for both cohorts.

In the summer months of 2014, Directors of Teaching were briefed about the scheme, PGR School Coordinators were recruited and trained, and the project infrastructure was established. The School Coordinators in turn recruited PGR workshop leaders to design and deliver the sessions, and advertised the programmes to UG students at the start of the AY2014/15 session.

The Schools taking part are:

  • Art History
  • Classics
  • Divinity
  • Film Studies
  • Geography and Sustainable Development
  • History
  • IR
  • Management
  • Modern Languages
  • Philosophy

2. Structure:

The project ran in each participating School through the following structure:

structure

CAPOD’s role:

  • To take an overview of the project and provide continuity between Schools.
  • To provide financial backing.
  • To provide opportunities for ideas dissemination between participating Schools.
  • To evaluate the success of the project.
  • To provide quality guidance via our Academic Skills tutors.

The structure of having PGRs deliver subject-specific academic skills was welcomed by University of St Andrew’s Psychologist, Dr K Maver who researches in the field of personal and social self-categories and identity. He welcomed the “discipline-based social-identity” which relates to the use of deep-learning approaches:

 “We argue that this is also modified by the normative effect – that is, it matters what they think is normative for students in their discipline. We speculate that again this could work either way: if you identity as a student in a discipline and see deep learning is normative, you are more likely to engage in deep learning; reciprocally, if you already engage in deep learning and see that as normative, then your identification [as a student of the subject] will increase. IF we are right, then the current strategy being used for the academic skill project is quite close to optimal, and either making the courses discipline free, or losing the interactive element, would reduce the effectiveness.” [email correspondence, 15/10/14]

3. Programmes:

The Schools’ academic skills programmes ran across broad themes (comprehension, analysis, rhetoric), but often presented as subject-specific topics. Many of the School Coordinator’s arrived at their programmes through extensive discussions with module coordinators, PGR tutors and Directors of Teaching to identify skills gaps within the Schools. Examples of this specificity include:

  • Group work (Management)
  • Critical Engagement and Research Skills (Modern Languages)
  • Thinking critically – thinking Geographically (G&SD)
  • Visual Analysis Trip (Art History)
  • How to argue like a Philosopher (Philosophy)
  • How do I watch film? (Film Studies)
  • Analysis and use of different sources (Classics)
  • Researching in IR (IR)
  • Speaking Skills (Modern Languages)

4. Engagement:

Exact numbers  of students engaging with the Academic Skills Project are not known as record keeping by School Coordinators and Workshop Leaders was not 100% accurate.

However, a strong indication can be taken from the number of workshop evaluation forms returned (the true number of students attending will be higher).  In total 787 feedback forms were returned. These help show the engagement of participants by School. The School with the largest engagement was International Relations, that had 32% of their sub-honours students (194 students) attend at least one workshop.

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  1. Impact:

Ideally, the project should show a correlation between workshop attendance and academic performance. In reality it is hard to demonstrate a causal relationship due to the large number of other variables involved in academic performance. Discussions have taken place between Head of Student Development, Catriona Wilson, and Dr Kenneth Mavor (School of Psychology and Neuroscience), about capturing more robust pre and post intervention data should the project be rolled out to Science schools.

 

In the absence of additional hard data, an indication of impact is provided in the observations of participants, Workshop Leaders, School Coordinators and Directors of Teaching.

6. Evaluation:

6a. Participant evaluation:

“What is expected of me is much clearer now. I feel more comfortable and confident about beginning my academic studies here.” [Student participant]

Participants rated the workshops highly in terms of objectives, material, presenters, structure and timing. They were also very positive about the workshops’ relevance and the likelihood of making a change to their behaviour as a result. Amalgamated data from the 787 returned evaluation forms is below:

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Selected quotes:

“I will be more selective in how I read sources.”

“The prospect of coursework is terrifying. This was so helpful and reassuring. A++”

“I will look at sources differently and be able to choose them better.”

“I’ll spend more time than I previously have structuring my essay research.”

“I’m much clearer about what’s expected now.”

“I’ll change the way I take notes.”

 

6b. Director of Teaching evaluation:

 “This should be ideally permanent in the Arts. It has proven to be very positively reviewed both by PGRs delivering workshops and students’ take up and responses.” [Director of Teaching]

7 Directors of Teaching completed the online evaluation form.

Directors of Teaching reported that they were mostly involved with advising on workshop content (6 said they were partly involved) and deciding on the workshop programme (1 very involved, 4 partly involved, 2 not involved). Some but not all Directors of Teaching played a role in recruiting PGR students, publicising the workshops and one stated that they were partly involved in workshop delivery.

The Directors of Teaching had a range of objectives from the programme:

  • Provision of academic skills to JH students
  • Supporting PGR develop their teaching skills
  • Helping students recognise that different subjects require specific skills
  • Focusing on International MSc students
  • Helping first years understand what tutorials are for
  • Increasing the approachability of staff (PGRs) by students

All the Directors of Teaching felt the project had been beneficial to the undergraduates and the PGRs who had taken part.

 6c. School Coordinator evaluation:

“I think it’s helped me understand our students better, improve my communication with students, and to manage expectations – of myself, students and tutors” [School Coordinator]

10 School coordinators took part in the project. 9 completed the online survey about their experiences.

School coordinators put varying amounts of time into the project, from 5 hours to 30+ hours. The average was ‘13-20’ hours. Some Schools reported less engagement than they would have liked from fellow PGRs to take part in the project. Frustration with participant drop-out rates was also reported, a common feature of any undergraduate development programme.

CAPOD support was valued by all School Coordinators. In order of ranked importance: supplying funding; photocopying materials; evaluating the workshops; consulting with CAPOD’s academic skills tutor; proving a project Moodle space; offering networking meetings.

School Coordinators each reported personal benefits from taking part in the project. The skill most mentioned as having been developed was curriculum design, followed by Teaching (2nd=) and Leadership (2nd=); Recruitment and Selection (4th=) and Team working (4th=). Budget management, event management and Marketing were also mentioned.

Selected quotes:

“I think we helped clarify what the School expects of its first and second year student, and we helped explain key concepts and techniques to help the students perform better in their modules.”

“It provided training that lecturers and tutors have said students need.”

“The students were very keen and seemed to be grateful for the existence of the project. The tutors were enthusiastic and committed to doing a good job, and recognised the value of improving the academic skills of our undergraduates.”

 

6d. Workshop leader evaluation:

“I think it has taught me about teaching to different levels of students” [Workshop Leader]

57 workshop leaders took part in the project. 21 completed the online survey.

The main motivator for taking part in the project was a wish to enhance the undergraduate learning experience, cited as being a factor by 80% of respondents, followed by having a different kind of teaching experience (60%), teaching at an earlier stage of their PhD (35%) and financial reward (25%).

Approximately 50% of workshop leaders were only involved with one workshop. 30% delivered 2 workshops, 15% delivered 3 workshops and 5% more than 3.

In terms of time invested into the scheme, 38% of workshop leaders invested 3-5 hours, with an additional 33% investing 6-10 hours. 25% invested more than 11 hours and 5% between 1-2 hours. Some workshop leaders commented that they invested more hours than there was budget to pay them for.

91% of workshop leaders thought that the project had a positive impact on the students who took part, and a large majority felt it had also been beneficial to them as a PGR student, with the skills most frequently cited as having being developed being teaching delivery, teaching design, team working and leadership. 91% of workshop leaders indicated that they would be willing to continue in the project should it run again.

Selected quotes:

“I heard from a number of tutors that mistakes in referencing were less compared to previous years”

“Students expressed frustration and confusion at the beginning of the class; understanding and relief at the end. Feedback attested to students’ confidence going forward.”

“PhD students who design and teach these courses should be remunerated properly for the time it takes to prepare such essential workshops.”

“A fantastic programme. Very happy to have taken part, and would love to see this continue to grow.”

 

 Conclusion:

The Academic Skills Project has had a successful initial roll out, with benefits reported by all parties. Over the summer of 2015 the project will be further expanded to Science Schools, and hopefully become embedded as a valued co-curricular programme.

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