ACADEMIC LITERACY, A BARRIER TO LEARNING? THE VIEWS OF ENGINEERING STUDENTS
It is consensual, that academic literacy, which is being currently defined both as the mastery of written language in higher education (HE) and the specific reading and writing practices within fields and disciplines, involving a variety of communicative practices, and textual genres, constitutes a strong barrier to students learning and achievement. In fact, what and how one reads and writes to learn and communicate knowledge in HE contexts have particular features, which require students to adapt to new ways of understanding and organizing knowledge and to switch their writing styles and texts acquired at secondary education to others proper of such new settings. To learn and to be successful in academic context students have to deploy a repertoire of practices and genres different from those they bring to the University.
Several models have been adopted to help students to adapt their practices to those of the university and to “fix” problems that are frequently identified. In spite of the approach, all agree that it is crucial to start by understanding students perceptions of the academic literacies features, and of the kind of barriers that those particular features pose them when they have to write and to interpret, for instance, a scientific article, or a technical report.
Within this same perspective, this article discusses data from a broader study whose main goals were:
1) to understand the role of reading and writing in the teaching and learning processes of HE students;
2) to contribute to characterize academic literacies in a particular context.
The achievement of these objectives has gone through, from the perceptions of a group of 30 students:
(1) the identification of the degree of awareness of the features of academic literacy, particularly in what concerns the texts that they have to read and write;
(2) the identification of the specific barriers that textual genres comprehension and production puts to HE students;
(3) the characterization of how personal (vernacular) reading and writing practices are factors of academic achievement.
The research has been conducted with students of an Integrated Master of Textile Engineering, using a questionnaire of 35 questions (5 open and 30 in Likert type scales), organized around three major themes that correspond to the above presented goals. Until now the responses were treated with descriptive statistics, through measures of central tendency such as means, medians and modes.
As preliminary analysis, it is possible to ascertain that students are aware of the specialized nature of academic reading and writing tasks as well as of the genres that circulate for learning in HE context. Students are also able to identify the linguistic and macro structural textual features that put them problems and constitute barriers to their learning.
The data obtained so far corroborate other studies, including those that conclude about the privilege given to writing over reading in HE, and about the barriers that particular texts writing (mainly reports and scientific articles) pose to students.
Particularly relevant for the design of interventions that aim to help students overcome the barriers is the fact that the texts that students identify as giving them more difficulties are those that are more distant from the classroom: This means that students are supposed to master the reading and writing of texts that they do not encounter frequently in the classroom pedagocial process.