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Reading and Writing Skills in Higher Education: lecturers' opinions and perceptions

Ana Paula Cabral & José Tavares
Departamento de Ciências da Educação, Campus Universitário de Santiago - Universidade de Aveiro, Portugal
E mails: José Tavares (tavares@dce.ua.pt  ) Ana Paula Cabral (apcabral@dce.ua.pt)

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Lisbon, 11-14 September 2002

Abstract

The purpose of this session is to discuss teachers' opinions and perceptions on Reading/Comprehension and Writing skills of their students and on their role towards these abilities

Based on a questionnaire directed to faculty members from four Portuguese state Universities*, we aim to examine the level of competence teachers consider their students have in these skills. to what extent these skills are taken into account in evaluation, the main difficulties of their students and if teachers develop any strategies to promote their students' proficiency In these fields

These data was also analyzed bearing in mind the results from a questionnaire directed to 1,000 students of these same faculty members on their specific levels of competence in these skills, the strategies they apply in their daily academic tasks and the role these skills play in the students academic performance and success.

*University of Aveiro, University of Algarve, University of Porto and University of Minho (about 25% of the science and engineering lecturers)

Reading Comprehension and Writing in Higher Education

The students' skills proficiency in specific content areas has always been a strong issue for Educational researchers in Higher Education. In fact, many studies have examined the specific performance rates of the students in Calculus, Physics, Chemistry and other scientific fields In order to determine transition asymmetries, competences and university success rates.

However, these approaches have only been concentrated on the results of such studies rather than on the deep causes for the several problems detected. Students' difficulties in the multiple courses and school years, their significant lack of integrated study methods and the lecturers' lack of efficient pedagogical methods or motivational strategies are usually pointed out as the main causes for failure and university drop-out. In fact, direct diagnosis and intervention methodologies for the evaluation and remediation of academic skills have been the focus of many research works specially directed to educators, psychologists and to the research community (Upcraft 1989 ; Pascarella & Tertenzini 1991; Pauk 2001).

Instead of only focusing on such specific skills we aim to emphasize the role of some basic skills in the students' daily academic tasks and learning process. Moreover, the development of essential intellectual and study skills namely Reading, Writing and Reasoning are stated to be the basics for the success of any college student (Fairbairn and Winch 1996). In fact, many problems and learning disabilities may have a deeper and underlying cause beyond teaching strategies and students' motivational degree.

Reading/Comprehension abilities allow students to access knowledge, understand and elaborate concepts always integrating information from lectures and reference books' content. When lecturers are asked to refer to their students' skills proficiency they frequently mention that students do not read analytically, can not distinguish between important and unimportant ideas, can not adjust their reading to the different materials they encounter, do not seem to enjoy reading and hence approach texts unenthusiastically. The ability to read well is no longer something which college instructors take for granted in their students. Students seem to have more and more trouble reading. Since reading is comprehension, students who cannot acceptably reconstruct the author's main idea, supporting ideas and supporting facts as well as some critical evaluation of those things, cannot read for the purposes of their course, regardless of what types of material they read outside of class.

Besides understanding the content of textbooks, articles and essays, students must be able to criticize and evaluate ideas always in a critical reading and thinking learning attitude. Therefore, students must develop techniques for reading, understanding and remembering what was read, using concentration to deal with all types of reading assignments. This role is reinforced by Writing as a communicational tool used for conveying ideas, lecture note taking, studying outlining, summarizing, etc.

In fact, competences in both Reading and Writing but specially in writing have been considered to be of fundamental relevance to contemporary undergraduate education. However, as far as writing is concerned, when students have to write at a university level, there is a gap that has to be bridged because students' problems are deeper than the surface level. They include difficulties in grammar, punctuation and style, in knowing what is expected from them and from the text because different subjects have different requirements. (Creme 2000).

There is a common incorrect belief that writing is writing and that if you are taught the basics, you are either good at it or you are not; that either you can do it or you cannot. The key for becoming a successful writer at university is associated with the comprehension of what is required and what is involved in the process of completing assignments. (Vardi, 2000) In all academic courses, students must write and all teachers should encourage them to do it well. Students must be conscious that their final grades will depend, not only on their knowledge and understanding of the subjects but also on how well they write. Some studies have indicated that if two students are equal in ability and intelligence, the one who is better at conveying thoughts effectively in writing will score the higher marks

When it comes to the stage of evaluation these two skills even play a more determinant role in understanding the aims and structure of tests (explanation of concepts and logical formulations and expression of critical thinking), in participating in class (sense of opportunity and speed and content correctness) and assignment taking and project developing (organization, pertinence and synthesis). (Bailey and Vardi, 1999).

Research study aims

To discuss the role of these two skills in Higher Education we studied the students' competence in these fields by analyzing the specific strategies and techniques they perform during their learning and study tasks and, on the other hand, the lecturers' opinions and perceptions on their students' proficiency levels in these skills and on their role towards the promotion of these skills.

Our aim was to conduct a study to examine the lecturers' expectations and perceptions of their first-year science and engineering students reading, comprehension and writing skills at four Portuguese state universities. We intended to analyse the level of competence lecturers attributed to their students' performances, the main difficulties students face during their daily writing tasks according to their lecturers and to examine to what extent these skills are taken into account in evaluation and to determine if lecturers developed specific strategies to help their students with their daily assignments in order to promote their proficiency in this field.

These data was also analysed bearing in mind the results from a questionnaire directed to the students of these same faculty members on their specific levels of performance in these skills and on the role they play in their daily academic tasks. This study was also specially conducted with first-year students mainly because when entering the university students are immediately faced with a multi-faceted task of learning new contents, learning new ways of understanding, interpreting and organizing the new knowledge and learning new ways of writing their knowledge.

This questionnaire directed to the students aimed to identify the Reading and Writing habits of the students, the level of importance attributed by the students to these activities, to point out the main strategies applied during Reading and Writing and their main difficulties, to compare the level of expectations (before coming to the University) with the students' perceptions about several fields including Reading and, finally, the level of competence of the students in these two areas with their academic performance .

Methodology

Based on two questionnaires directed to science and engineering lecturers and their first-year students from four Portuguese Universities.

The questionnaire directed to the lecturers was filled in 100 lecturers (20.7% of 482 science and engineering lecturers) from four Portuguese Universities University of Aveiro, Porto, Minho and Algarve. The questionnaire directed to the students was filled in by 1000 students of the same universities (about 24% of the total number of first-year students from science and engineering).

The collected data from the questionnaires was analysed using the statistical treatment software Social Sciences Statistical Package- S.P.S.S.11.0 (frequency, descriptive, correlational and inferential tools and parametric and non-parametric statistical tests) based on the scales provided to the subjects and a content analysis for the open-ended questions included in the questionnaire associated with the main difficulties of the students and the strategies applied by lecturers during class.

Results and Conclusions

According to the majority of the lecturers, the students have an intermediate level of competence in both activities although they seem to have a better performance in Writing than in Reading/Comprehension. However, the students in their questionnaire consider that they have an intermediate level of competence in both skills but that they have a slightly better performance in Reading/ Comprehension than in Writing.

In fact, this contrast between the perceptions of the lecturers and the students came somehow to confirm the idea presented in a study conducted by Lea and Street (1998) in which the authors assorted that one of the reasons why students have, for example, problems in writing is that their expectations of writing differ from that of their lecturers.

Data also allowed us to conclude that, according to the lecturers, the students main difficulties in Reading are associated with the comprehension of questions, data, demonstrations (81.3%), vocabulary (8.5%), with Reading-aloud (4,2%), with the understanding of the connections between ideas (2.1%) and in understanding abstract concepts (2.1%).

Also according to the lecturers, the students' difficulties in writing are connected with: orthography (46.4%), sentence building and articulation of ideas (19.8%), grammar rules (5.1%), punctuation (5.1%), coherence (4.3%), syntax (4.3%), synthesizing (4.3%), vocabulary (3.4%), concord (3.4%), Scientific discourse (5%), speech clearness (1.6%) and structure (1.6%).

The findings associated with the value attributed by lecturers to their students writing correctness in reports/papers/exams show us that 41% of the subjects reveal that they give no importance to the way students write, 25% attribute approximately 10% of the final mark to the writing performance of the student, 14%

attribute 20%, 4% around 30%, 1% around 40% and 8% 50 or even 60%.

When asked about if they performed any strategies to help their students with their assignments through feedback instructions or direct instruction to promote their proficiency in this field, 47% answered that they developed such type of strategies and 52% that they did not. The types of strategies developed are mainly associated with feedback in orthography/ spelling and grammar (41.1%) (42,8% of which with direct- "face-to face" feedback (correction meetings), supply of "how to write "bibliography at the beginning of the semester (5.8%), presentation of task outlines and limited answer space (5.8%), written answer justification in exams and reports (5.8%), organization of class summaries/outlines for the students (5.8%), asking students to rewrite and correct written works (2.9%), decrease the use of multiple-choice exams (2.9%), sentence structure and meaning analysis with the students during class (2.9%) and creation of personal lab reports and notebooks/portfolios (2.9%). In fact, Bailey and Vardi (1999) argued that feedback on assignments is one of the major tools that markers can use to improve students' ability. However, our data indicate that this feedback to students on their writing is not a widespread and institutionalised procedure in the analysed reality. This way, there seems to exist a correspondence between the strategies developed by the lecturers to help their students to overcome their writing problems and the diagnosed needs of their students in this field. This effort towards academic expertise demands not only the lecturers' commitment as subject experts but also their involvement as learning mediators, namely by developing three kinds of expertise that according to Chanock (1995), are needed to help students improve their academic writing: expertise in discipline, expertise in language and an understanding of how the discipline interacts with language.

Implications of the study

The value of this research lies in providing information on the lecturers' perceptions and opinions not only on their students' competence, daily performance and difficulties but also on the lecturers' own performance as feedback providers, instructors and assessors.

These results can lead us to a wide discussion on the importance and implication of these skills for the students' academic performance and achievement and on the role of the lecturers as promoters and facilitators not only of content knowledge but also of basic skills for lifelong learning and success.

We argue that academic discourse must be intensively taught to students who must share their perceptions and expectations on the writing aims and approaches through the development of specific interaction ways. On the other hand, lecturers who must make their writing expectations, opinions, demands and understandings explicit and accessible to students in order to help them to get acquainted with university writing skills. Lecturers must develop specific strategies to give effective feedback and intensive support to their students. Advice and specialised guidance should be encouraged and students' participation in all kinds of support programmes should be a true priority for transitional experiences providing students with some help not only on writing proficiency but also on reading and study skills attainment.

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Acknowledgments : Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia , Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian and Unidade de Investigação " Construção do Conhecimento Pedagógico nos Sistemas de Formação"

This document was added to the Education-line database on 23 September 2002