Developing Academic Literacy in Context: a cross-national investigation
Whilst the development of sophisticated literacy has always been a fundamental aim of higher education, the responsibility for its development has often been left to the individual student. Students are of course expected to exit tertiary education programs with significantly greater fluency in academic discourse, communicative competence and capacity for critical analysis than they enter with, but whether immersion is sufficient to ensure achievement of the desired level of development is a matter of debate (and this crucial debate is all too often ignored!). Many institutions of higher education, however, have long recognized the need for some form of explicit teaching of the various linguistic and cultural norms of academia and the professions, but how to achieve greatest efficacy and efficiency of such teaching needs much discussion. Amongst the wide variety of approaches taken in the teaching of academic literacy, instruction contextualized within disciplinary subjects is increasingly recognized as a fruitful approach. The University of Wollongongs (UoW) practice in this area has achieved significant improvements in students academic writing, and has also been shown to make significant improvement to overall learning and student retention. This paper reports on a research project that is testing the transferability of UoWs approach across national borders and analyzing its potential to achieve similar outcomes in different contexts. The project is a collaborative venture between the UoW in Australia and colleagues in the UK and the US - at Queen Mary University of London, Coventry University and the Open University as well as the Universities of Stanford, Cornell and Iowa State. The paper outlines the positive preliminary results achieved to date in three concurrent trials of contextualized teaching within various subjects in the three quite different partner institutions in the UK. It also discusses what these outcomes mean to the project as a whole, and indicates future directions in the quest for satisfactory answers to the key questions driving this research namely, to what extent can the teaching and evaluation procedures used at UoW be replicated in other/different contexts, and can similar improvements in student writing and learning be obtained in any context through the application of practice used at UoW.