The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
This project built on previous work between MCT and WELS (formally FELS) on language use and student attainment at level 1, including in the production of TU100. It adopted a ‘language and learning’ perspective which proposes there is a deep relationship between how language is used and how an academic subject is taught and learned. In such a perspective, language is regarded as a complex meaning making system which language users exploit in order to make meanings in context. The approach is a ‘functional’ rather than ‘formal’ one, which means that linguistic analysis embraces the meaning or ‘content’ of the communication. In doing this, the focus is on three dimensions of language use: how language represents the field, how it builds interpersonal relationships, and how it constructs text. Using this model, students’ written texts and ALs’ TMA feedback were subjected to linguistic analysis at all levels working ‘downwards’ from the text purpose, text organization, paragraph structuring, sentence and clause relations, to word choice and grammar.
The conceptual frameworks that constitute the field of study are central to this model of language. In MCT, and STEM subjects generally, ‘natural’ language is by no means the only meaning-making system – computer languages, mathematics, and visual systems are important complementary systems. Nonetheless, ‘natural’ language performs a central role in orchestrating the other systems and it is this that makes a language and learning approach to attainment and retention on TU100 of potential interest for STEM subjects generally.
The project started by pairing a language specialist with each of the four participating TU100 Associate Lecturers (AL) in order to establish a shared vocabulary and understanding of the issues involved. This initially proved challenging for both parties, but gradually the participants developed new insights into the role of language in assessment and started to make progress through a series of face to face and online workshops and forum discussions. As the project developed, the focus expanded to include more areas of student and AL language use in assessment, including student answers to TMA questions, comments made by ALs on TMAs. The focus on student language use led to the development of Language and Learning checklists to help in marking selected assignment questions.
It was not possible to make any links between student language skills and retention, but the project has produced a considerable body of material on the role of student language skills in assessment, on how ALs can be supported in assessing and developing their students’ skills, and in describing the key language challenges facing students. It has also set the scene for further work to develop these points and improve how the University supports ALs and students in building their language skills and awareness.