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Developing students’ academic and professional literacies through engagement with text and practice: Perceptions of lecturers in a health sciences faculty
Arona Dison, UWC
The concept of ‘academic literacies’ is rarely used in health education, which tends to be oriented towards the ‘competencies’ needed by health professionals. While the term ‘academic literacy’ is used in my context at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), it is often used by lecturers to describe a generic form of literacy which is expected to be taught in an English for Academic Purposes course in first year and then applied to disciplinary courses. At the same time many lecturers are concerned about students’ writing, their ability to integrate material and to relate theory and practice.
In this paper, I briefly explore a line of argument that the concept of literacies can provide a valuable lens for understanding and facilitating students’ engagement with academic practices in the health sciences. Furthermore, as well as developing academic literacies, students need to begin to develop the literacies needed for practice as health professionals. Secondly, I report on interviews with lecturers on the academic and professional literacies needed by students in the various health professional programmes in the faculty concerned as well as practices that lecturers described which aimed to develop these literacies. Thirdly, I share experiences from an ongoing participatory case study of integrating academic literacies into the Occupational Therapy curriculum.
The component of research that was conducted across the professional programmes was done through semi-structured interviews with one lecturer from 5 of the 8 undergraduate professional programmes offered in the Faculty. These are Nursing, Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy (OT), Social Work and Dietetics. Lecturers were selected on the basis of their interest in learning and academic literacy development of students. They were asked which academic and professional literacies were needed by students in their programmes and how they thought they should be developed. I have analysed the data through identifying which literacies were valued, and clustering them into 6 broad dimensions of literacy that were valued across the different disciplines. In this paper, I also flesh out how particular literacies manifest themselves within the genres and practices of the various professional programmes, drawing on excerpts from the data.
The lecturers who were interviewed thought that it was the responsibility of the departments to develop certain literacies explicitly in their curricula or at least to reinforce the work done in the English for Academic Purposes course. However, from my interactions with lecturers in the faculty, I am aware that these views are in the minority. This research has also highlighted some of the difficulties associated with engaging content lecturers to consider literacies as part of their curriculum and pedagogic practices. I would like to use the findings of this research to raise awareness amongst lecturers in departments about which literacies are seen as most important in their professional programmes. Also important would be to stress the need to integrate the development of these into the curriculum and sequence and scaffold students’ development of these literacies. In the forum I would like to stimulate discussion about the contribution of this project to possible further research and practice, as well as feedback on engagement with theory.
Arona Dison is employed as a Teaching and Learning specialist in the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences at the University of the Western Cape. She did her doctoral study on research capacity development of individuals at applied research centres. Her current research interests are academic and professional literacies and professional identity formation of students.