Project: online asynchronous academic communication workshops for Imperial students

Image of Rebecca White

Andrew Northern and Rebecca White

For a number of years, the Centre for Academic English (CfAE) has run a suite of academic communication workshops called Communicating Science Successfully (CSS).

These workshops were developed in response to three factors:

  • Feedback from teaching staff in academic departments
  •  Student need observed by CfAE teachers in our courses and workshops
  • Student requests for further support in particular areas.

Our CSS workshops are grouped so that they can be accessed according to need:

When we moved online, we made these workshops asynchronous, meaning they are available upon registration as a boxset through Microsoft Teams and SharePoint and can be accessed by students and academic staff across the university 24/7 from any location and completed at their own pace. In this way, we serendipitously managed to achieve our long-held aim to support all Imperial students, on all campuses, no matter their timetable. You can hear more about our approach here.

We were keen to keep the interactive nature of the workshops, so each workshop consists of bite-size Microsoft Stream videos which are embedded into a Microsoft Form with follow-up interactive activities. The workshop videos include captions for accessibility, as well as Forms quiz questions to check understanding and add an element of “gamification”. Once students have completed the questions, they have the opportunity to attend a live Q&A session on Teams, where they have a chance to chat with a CfAE teacher and ask questions. The advantage of this learning design is that it’s iterative: students can watch the videos, receive instant feedback from the concept-checking questions, watch the videos again, and then, where necessary, get further live support from CfAE teachers.

A screenshot of one of the online asynchronous sessions

 

An additional benefit of these workshops is that that they allow for easy embedding into degree courses at all levels, meaning students can benefit from expert input on the key academic communications skills and conventions they need to excel in their course assignments. Several departments (including Computing, Mechanical Engineering and the NHLI) are already taking advantage of this and we welcome further requests from departments to include links to these workshops on their online learning platforms. We also complement these workshop videos with tailored support for specific student cohorts within departments through live follow up sessions where CfAE staff answer students’ questions about their academic communication needs.

Michelle Mtuda

I am currently doing my MSc full time in Cardiovascular and Respiratory Health at the NHLI, and I was informed about the CSS sessions by a teaching fellow on my MSc course. I gave CSS a go because I knew that the ability to communicate science successfully is not something that comes naturally; I knew it required training and continuous practice. People may assume that it is just learning how to write English fluently with no grammatical errors, but it’s a lot more than that! Using CSS has really helped me tap into my critical thinking skills; especially now that I am moving up the education ladder, the way my mind operates also has to elevate to match that. CSS has been the perfect place to turn to help me evaluate my communication skills, especially with the robust and in-depth modules that are done at Master’s levels.

I have completed the following:

  • Writing a Lab report – I found this one particularly useful as one of my assignments was focused on conducting my own research and testing out my own hypothesis- much different to what I was doing during my undergraduate programme, and CSS provided me with key concepts that I needed to consider when communicating my findings. I realised good scientific communication requires planning and evaluative writing as opposed to just descriptive writing.
  • Listening Strategies – I believe listening strategies are fundamental to becoming an efficient student. Sometimes it can be challenging to absorb everything being taught during lectures or seminars. One thing I have found is that having a balance when it comes to note taking during teaching is key. Some students may prefer taking notes throughout the entire lecture, but with the help of CSSs Q&A sessions, I realised that can be counterproductive for me as I end up focussing on trying to get everything down as opposed to listening. CSS helped me identify an effective strategy that works well for me.
  • Reading Strategies- The reading strategies session was very useful for me. I was able to able to gain an understanding on how to thoroughly analyse each section of an article through CSSs strategies. I found myself asking questions about why and how authors came to certain conclusions in order for me to gain the overall picture which are questions that I would not have even thought of before.

My overall experience has been phenomenal. I was initially worried about getting the right support and “mentoring” from the college given the fact that most of my master’s degree has been done at home due to the pandemic and I asked myself if I was going to receive the same impact as I would face to face but I did – in fact more than I expected through the CSS sessions. The videos and quizzes were great! I feel that the best way for people learn is through being tested in some way as it allows the brain to recall more in future. I found the approach of using videos highly engaging and I was able to get most of the experience.

My academic communication has improved drastically through the course of the year. I now feel more confident in my writing, and I am seeing the rewards. There’s always room for improvement but I feel that the CSS has been able to provide me with a firm foundation when it comes to scientific communication and writing effectively. It has also laid a perfect ground for me as I begin writing my thesis, I have learnt that as well as thinking about me as the writer, I must keep the reader in mind and think about taking them on a journey through my research writing as opposed to using simple descriptive writing. Students at Imperial will most certainly benefit from the help that the CSS sessions can provide. They can receive adequate guidance and develop their critical thinking skills when it comes to essay writing and planning.

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