Tips: Systematic language training through a series of programme courses – an example

Here is an example of how systematic language training – reading, writing, managing academic texts – have been implemented in all courses of a 1-year study programme that concludes with an independent project. We hope it will inspire you.  

The programme in the example consists of four course modules and ends with an independent project. The general language problems that have been identified previously and that have prompted the series of language exercises described here are about being unfamiliar with academic texts, lack of strategies to approach large quantities of text (such as “brick” textbooks or a large number of scientific articles) and inability to formulate coherent arguments in writing.

The first week of the first course includes a writing exercise that is handed out on Thursday afternoon and due midday on Friday. In other words, the students need to do it straight away. The aim is for them to practice planning their own work even when there are no scheduled activities and to produce a text under pressure. However, it is an easy assignment where they are asked to describe their experiences within the subject area of the programme.

At the end of the first week, the teacher introduces an assignment where the students are asked to skim an introductory textbook (app. 400 pages). The idea is for the students to familiarise themselves with the main concepts and terminology.

Two weeks later, they need to pass a digital examination assignment with multiple-choice questions based on relevant terminology. To pass, they need 17 correct answers to 20 random questions. The message here (that you need to get almost all questions right) is that you must prepare properly! The students will have three tries during a three hour period and the best result counts. When the assignment is introduced, the students are randomly divided into groups of five and asked to schedule group meetings to plan and discuss the content of the book during the period leading up to the examination. (During this period there are also other, scheduled activities, both for the individual student and the group, so it is not possible to devote the entire time to individual reading.)

Prior to two scheduled supervisor sessions, the students are offered to submit written questions as a group about anything that is unclear. The sessions include all the student groups. During the sessions, the questions are discussed with a teacher who leads the session. The questions need to be fairly precise and based on the content of the book. Questions such as “What is the book about?” are rejected, as are questions from individual students that have not been discussed in the student group. If there are no questions, there will be no session.

The purpose of this setup is to allow the students to practice structuring their own time, coordinating with a study group, formulating questions and discussing things that are unclear with other students, and finding a good rhythm in their studies.

In the second course, the students are also divided into groups of five and work with a case. As a mandatory side-assignment a bit into the course, the groups are given five scientific articles that they divide between themselves. The task is for each group member to write a summary of the article that they have been given. The instructions say that the summary should comprise approximately two pages and that a good idea is to focus on three questions: What is the study about? How was it conducted? What is the conclusion?

The individual texts will then be shared with the other participants in the group, who will read them, discuss them one at a time within the group and suggest how it may be improved. Following this, each participant will make the final edits and submit the text. To pass, the text needs to be reasonably coherent and capture the main gist of the article. Weak texts will be returned with general feedback on where it fails to deliver. The idea with the exercise is to introduce a strategy on how to read academic texts, practice giving and receiving feedback, and practice writing.

Students who are identified as having particularly weak language use will be contacted to receive face-to-face feedback and discuss possible difficulties as they move forward in the programme, e.g., the independent project. Focus should be on concerns as the student moves forward, not critiquing their language flaws. They will receive suggestions on how they can practice their language skills and tips about available resources, for example, via the library.

In the third course (which has a similar structure with group work), the students get to work with two articles each. The assignment now is to read both articles, choose a question to focus on based on something in the articles and discuss it in a short text. This is followed by peer feedback, revision, submission to get graded (only two possible grades: pass or return for resubmission) and general feedback.

The design of a final course seminar make use of the fact that one person in each student group have been assigned the same articles. In the seminar, students writing about the same articles will form crossover groups and discuss a question related to the articles. Each group will present insights from their discussions to the other groups at the end of the seminar.

The purpose of this tasks design is to increase the level of difficulty (they have now become accustomed to the process and tried a strategy for understanding the articles) and to introduce an element of discussing academic texts in a slightly less intimate context than their own working group.

In the fourth course, which is a course on research methods, the language training is mostly focused on text volume. Each working group is assigned a scientific journal and given the task of going through and systematising the 50 (sometimes 100) most recently published articles.

The task is to classify them based on some given parameters, which means that they have to familiarise themselves with the articles’ choice of empirical field, type of methodological approach and a few more subject-related topics. The assignment involves creating a register of the articles they have been working with and presenting, both in writing and orally, a compilation of what the published research (in the journal they have been assigned) is about, what kind of research questions, which methods are used, and finally they must select a couple of particularly interesting or representative articles and present them.

The oral presentation is led by a person in the group who is randomly selected through a draw in class. In other words, everyone in the group needs to prepare.

The purpose of the task from a language training perspective is to practice searching for and reading academic texts systematically, selecting and drawing conclusions, and presenting comprehensive material.

Combined, the series of language related assignments mean that the students in a programme-wide progression get to practice reading, understanding and writing academic texts, handling large quantities of text, as well as discussing and presenting texts. When they begin their independent project, they have systematically worked on practicing relevant language skills. Students with weak language skills have been identified early on and have been able to receive advice and guidance on how they can practice their language skills.

The example comes from the 1-year Master’s Programme in Project Management.

/Tomas Jansson, UPE