• June 2nd, 2020

Tertiary students must fit into their discourse communities

One of the most prevalent challenges that students at higher education institutions face with their studies is ineffective written communication.  The new academic environment of higher education institutions requires students to communicate in a new, specific and scientific way in order to logically and eloquently express their ideas, either in writing or orally during presentations or discussions.  

What students lack are academic writing skills, especially in their first year of their academic journeys.  More often than not, lecturers complain about the poor expression of ideas in written work and reports. Lecturers face problems in comprehending the answers students give in their essays and reports, especially in courses that require extensive discussions and analyses of information or data. 

In order to ameliorate the students’ challenges with written communication, higher education institutions have established what I will collectively term Communication Skills Centres. The centres are known by different names in different universities. The mammoth task of these Communication Skills Centres is to do damage control by teaching students academic writing skills over a certain period of time. Some of these courses are semester courses or year-long courses.

 Also, the duty of these Communication Skills Centres is to transition students from high school education to the higher education environment where good academic writing is the lifeblood of academic success. The Communication Skills Centres have made concerted efforts to improve the academic communication skills of students. In some cases the centres have mounted intensive courses that have yielded positive results. It is equally true that some of the courses have proved disastrous as students’ work continue to exhibit serious flaws of academic writing after taking the courses. What is disheartening in some cases is that even postgraduate students who under normal circumstances are expected to have mastered the academic writing skills, still face difficulties as they cannot produce work that is free from errors of a basic nature. Some academics have explained the students’ errors as fossilized errors which are difficult to remove from the students’ discourse.

Revealingly, research has shown that students who exhibit excellent academic writing skills are the ones that score tremendous success in their courses. Students in this category present their written work comprehensibly and explicitly. These students have also understood the dangers of plagiarism, the academic sin of using someone else’s ideas and words without acknowledging the original source. The students also tread with caution in making claims in their construction of knowledge as they use hedging or tentative language which protects them from criticism. In other words, these smart students avoid sweeping statements and generalisations which leave their claims open for undue disapproval. What they consider most is the kind and amount of evidence they use to support their argumentation and claims. They make their readers clearly see whether they are presenting facts, specifics, opinions, conjectures, inferences, or assertions or claims. In addition, the work of these students reflects that research was done and that sources were properly referenced, following the conventions of the disciplines or the reference styles prescribed by their institutions, such as the Harvard, the Chicago style and the American Psychological Association (APA) style.

Conversely, students whose academic writing is weak tend to perform poorly since they cannot express their ideas eloquently and coherently. Students in this classification often present sloppy work which is incoherent or disjointed. There is evidence of patchwork plagiarism where students have just cut and pasted information from the internet. This affects the logical flow of ideas in their written work. In such types of work, there is no evidence of an academic style that the students have followed. This group of students is the direct opposite of the former group which uses a scholarly approach in writing their work and projects. 

In addition to attending remedial writing courses at the Communication Skills Centres, weak students are advised to study the writing styles in their areas of specialisation.

 By reading and studying a number of theses and dissertations written in one’s area of specialisation will make one conscious of the academic style that is typical in that discipline. They also need to read a lot of literature in their fields of specialisation. For instance, there is a difference in presenting information in the construction of knowledge in social sciences and pure sciences. 

Research shows that researchers in humanities and social sciences use more quotations than researchers in science and engineering. This means that students have to identify with their professional group so that what they write is acceptable to that group of scholars. Put differently, different disciplines form different discourse communities which set criteria of how knowledge is created and communicated in these communities. The discourse communities set ideologies that have to be strictly followed by researchers and writers in these communities. It can be said that these discourse communities have different rules of their games. Students have to follow these rules in order to fit in the academic communities. They fit into these discourse communities by adopting the academic styles of these communities. There is no way students will succeed when they go out of the parameters of their academic communities.

 This fact of the existence of discourse communities has led some institutions of higher education to abandon the omnibus approach of general academic writing. Such institutions have created academic writing units for specific discourses communities, for instance, Communication Skills for Law; Communication Skills for Commerce; Communication Skills for Arts; and Communication Skills for Medicine.

Whatever mode a higher education institution may opt for, the generic or the specialised form, there is abundant evidence that supports the claim that academic communication skills are the cornerstone of knowledge creation and communication.

Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com

Staff Reporter
2019-06-07 10:28:37 | 11 months ago

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