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Collaboration and interaction: Modelling explored

Patricia Cartwright
Aquinas Campus, Australian Catholic University
Josephine Ryan
St Patrick's Campus, Australian Catholic University
Patricia Hacker
Aquinas Campus, Australian Catholic University
Elizabeth Powell
Jo Reidy

St Patrick's Campus, Australian Catholic University
The paper will explore the implications of a two stage program designed to give students a more explicit understanding of academic discourse. In Stage one, Supporting Academic Writing Explicitly (SAWE), which took place in 1999, lecturers and academic skills advisers worked together to demonstrate to second year Education Students the actual steps they, as experienced writers, took to complete the set assignment for the unit. The project experimented with ways of using the traditional context of the lecture to teach writing. The project culminated with students discussing the final drafts of essays written by their lecturers and advisers (after students' essays were submitted). Student evaluations showed that modelling was valuable for inducting students into the discourse of an academic community. However, it also demonstrated that, for modelling to be most successful, students need to be active participants in the process. The collaboration between the advisers and lecturers proved very successful, giving team members a forum for an on-going conversation about literacy related issues. Stage two, Case Study: Supporting Academic Writing Explicitly (C:SAWE), which took place in Semester One 2000, attempted to make modelling a more participatory process, and to more closely integrate theory with practice. The paper will report on both stages of the project and explore implications for the teaching and learning of academic writing.


For the past two years collaborative teaching has been a feature of the work of English Education lecturers and Academic Skills Advisers from Australian Catholic University, Aquinas and St Patrick's Campuses in Victoria. This collaboration was assisted by small Australian Catholic University teaching development grants, and resulted in the completion of two projects, SAWE (Supporting Academic Writing Explicitly) in 1999, and C:SAWE (Case Study: Supporting Academic Writing Explicitly) which was undertaken in Semester 1, 2000. In both instances, the projects aimed to provide students with a more explicit understanding of academic discourse by having English Education lecturers and Academic Skills staff work together during lectures to demonstrate and discuss the requirements and conventions of particular aspects of academic writing. This paper will focus on the C:SAWE Project, but a brief overview will be provided of the SAWE Project, as the results and recommendations from this project provided insights for the C:SAWE Project. Considered together, the projects reveal much about the teaching of academic writing to tertiary students.

Background to the project(s)

Our conception for the first project was a result of often repeated conversations about students' academic writing in meetings and staff rooms at the university. Among lecturing and academic skills staff there was anxiety about students' academic writing, that it often seemed to be based on too little reading, was not clearly argued and was poorly documented. Moreover, lecturers doubted whether students really understood what was wanted. The academic skills advisers confirmed that students whom they saw often seemed not to know, for example, what reading might be expected for an essay or research topic, or what kind of writing might be required. For the project team the need to respond constructively to the situation seemed more urgent since the students we were concerned about would become teachers, soon to be responsible for teaching writing in primary and secondary classrooms.

Our perception of students as having difficulty with their writing tasks is one which has received considerable scholarly and practical attention both internationally (Gibbs, 1994; Swales, 1990) and in Australian universities (Chanock, 1994, Golebiowski, 1997; Golebiowski & Borland, 1997) during the last decade or so. Researchers have argued that many students are unclear about academic writing requirements. For example, students are unsure about what is expected when they are asked to 'analyse' (Caterall & Martins, 1997, p. 129), or they do not have a deep understanding of the purposes and practices of citation (Buckingham & Nevile, 1997). Significant in the thinking about tertiary writing, and important in our projects, is the idea that students need to understand the nature of the discourse community or communities of which they will become a part, and learn to use the patterns of language allowable in that context (Bartholomae, 1985).

Students are often puzzled and discomforted by the talk they hear in the classroom or lecture theatre. But, their puzzlement cannot be solved by simply teaching them a set of new vocabulary, with accompanying definitions, as this overlooks the contextual and discipline basis of the words and terms. Frequently, what emerges is a tense relationship between students' own attempts to use a language that they are familiar and comfortable with, and the pressures to conform to the language and writing conventions of academic disciplines. The result of this tension, in the initial stages of learning to write for the academy, is that students feel overwhelmed by the demands on their language and literacy capacities, and seriously doubt their abilities in this regard. In addition, their initial problems with academic writing can be interpreted as a 'lack' of skills in writing for the academy, with students being seen as under-prepared and under-skilled in terms of requisite communication and literacy skills (Higher Education Council, 1992, p.45).

For the designers of the projects, an important position within the debate about academic literacy is to reject the deficit theory that tends to reduce writing to a set of discrete skills to be learned. Rather, we believe that generic reading and writing skills should be integrated with discipline-specific knowledge. International writers like Delpit (1992), Swales (1990), Gee (1996), and Cartwright and Noone (1999) in the Australian context, argue that students need to have the skills and knowledge to operate successfully in various academic contexts. Our projects were based upon this view: students will be assisted in their learning when we make explicit to them the skills, conventions and expectations of academic reading and writing in the particular discipline in which they are operating. Cope and Kalantzis (1993) argue that explicit modelling of the target genre is essential for apprentice writers: 'For those outside the discourses of power and access, acquiring these discourses requires explicit explanation; the ways in which the "hows" of text structure produce the "whys" of social effect' (p. 8). We wanted all of our students, not simply those who were struggling with their academic writing and reading, to have further explicit knowledge about the rather demanding forms of academic discourse. Although our target group was composed of mainly second year students, many appeared to be apprentice writers in relation to the kind of paper we wanted them to write: in the case of SAWE an academic essay which involved discussion of an educational issue; and in the case of C:SAWE a case study on literacy learning. In both instances we saw the students as being inexperienced in locating themselves in the field of educational discourse. We aimed to make the demands of the discourses explicit.

The second common element to the projects was collaboration between lecturers and academic skills advisers. Both projects, like previous collaboration at RMIT (Elliot, 1997), which had been a stimulus for our initial project, were based on collaboration between lecturing and academic skills staff within and across campuses about academic reading and writing as being crucial for the projects. Indeed, the planning of the C:SAWE sessions meant the team was much engaged in discussing various perspectives on the case study. The collaboration enabled us to acknowledge and give voice to our teaching purposes, explore and interrogate our theories on teaching and learning, share and discuss our successes and our uncertainties, and continue to work on 'the creation and maintenance of satisfying and productive work environments' (Smyth, 1995, p.96). This collaboration of lecturers and advisers during lecture time meant that the project brought the academic support staff into the centre of the formal lecture program.

The SAWE Project

In the SAWE project, we demonstrated the actual steps experienced writers take to complete a significant example of academic writing, in this case the major essay for the English education unit that students were undertaking. Our team of discipline-focused lecturers and academic skills advisers enacted the interaction between the teaching of discipline-specific knowledge with more generic academic skills that writers on tertiary literacy have seen as desirable. Swales (1990) argues that students need knowledge of the discourse community within which specific academic genres are situated. We, therefore, wrote the essay with, or more precisely, just ahead of the students. We did crucial aspects of the process in front of them. On each campus, students saw a lecturer and an academic skills adviser working on the essay independently of each other. We saw our process as providing students with an insight into the ways in which writers in the field debate issues of significance. While we did not plan that the lecturer and adviser would necessarily provide different points of view, we did expect that the students would see the ways in which the disciplines, including education, depend on the canvassing of opposing viewpoints as ways of coming to 'final' positions. We hoped that the SAWE process would be an effective way of inducting students into the discourse community of which we were 'full members' (Swales, 1990, p. 220), and the students relative apprentices. Further details of this project can be read elsewhere (Ryan et al, in press).

Outcomes of the SAWE Project

Briefly we found that the complex nature of academic writing was not easy to model in brief presentations, especially where students were not on an equal footing with us in terms of reading and understanding. Indeed, many students did not begin reading until a week before the essay was due. In addition, attempting to model a genre within a lecture format works against the interaction that is a significant part of a writing pedagogy. Findings from SAWE suggest that the institutional pattern of limiting tutorials has potentially negative consequences for student learning (Gibbs & Jenkins, 1992). We certainly found that having students and lecturers and advisers composing together would have been a task better suited to tutorials where interaction is much easier to encourage. In terms of Australian Catholic University's Strategic Plan, we were teaching but the students were not sufficiently learning. Nevertheless despite these limitations, the project can be said to have enhanced the sophistication of discourse discussions between students and teaching staff and among students. A very successful aspect of SAWE was the collaboration between English Education lecturers and academic skills advisers to model ways of approaching academic writing.

The C:SAWE Project

The C:SAWE project aimed to build on the insights of the SAWE project, and continue to work in improving students' academic reading and writing. For the C:SAWE project, the lecturers and advisers worked in pairs on each campus and conducted a series of four voluntary sessions held during the second hour of a two hour lecture block. Our aim was to involve students in discussing, with experienced writers, the complexities of preparing and composing a major assessment task of the unit, a Case Study. As with SAWE, we saw this approach as a flexible mode of delivery in that students had the freedom to choose independent learning or to be involved in the group sessions. We also saw the project as a more effective way of improving student writing than the brief, ad hoc, one-to-one interactions lecturers typically have with students when discussing aspects of their academic writing. Further, by integrating academic skills advisers into the teaching program, their time and expertise were shared with a greater number of students. The University's Strategic Plan encourages creating 'environments...that bring students to construct knowledge for themselves' (p. 8), and we considered that the focused, purposeful sessions achieved this aim.

Lecture time was considered to be the most practical time to work with the students, as there we had access to all of the students at once, and this made it possible to have the academic skills advisers and lecturers working together. The lecture time was also chosen for the program because recent cost cutting had meant that the tutorial time had been decreased from two to one hour per week and the students given a second lecture hour instead. We hoped that a program, which was so directly connected with students' assessment requirements, would be a way of making the potentially distancing lecture context engaging (Biggs, 1999). As will be seen, this structure was modified somewhat in regard to the possibilities and constraints of each of the campuses, and the numbers of students involved in the project.

A significant result from the SAWE project was the recognition that, for some of our prospective teaching students, some academic tasks are seen as remote from their need to be able to manage in the classroom. While we would reject the 'technocratic rationality' view of teacher education that foregrounds the competencies required for classroom teaching (Beyer & Zeichner, 1987), we do nevertheless recognise that we need to find ways of engaging students in their learning, so that they can clearly see the integration of theory and practice. A Case Study appeared to offer that opportunity.

The task of the Case Study was deliberately chosen to involve undergraduate Education students in looking at educational practices in light of the theory that was being presented in lectures and tutorials. The SAWE essay task also asked students to consider the integration of theory and practice, but, to the students, this essay task seemed removed from what they perceive actually happens in the primary classroom. The Case Study, however, specifically directed students to observe, experience and reflect on a child's literacy learning in the context of the school and program in which the child is learning. We asked students to visit primary schools to collect and analyse data relating to the child's reading and writing abilities, to relate this analysis to the theory and practices of literacy learning discussed and read about during the unit, and to write a critical reflection about what they had learned about literacy teaching and learning from the Case Study.

The Program as it happened

The C:SAWE program consisted of a series of four sessions which focussed on particular aspects of the Case Study. While the particular sessions were different on each campus, broadly we selected aspects of case study discourse to discuss with students. Given that we finished up with different results according to the campus where the research took place, the following will look at each campus separately.

Aquinas Campus

Sixty students took part in the project at Aquinas campus. Three of the four sessions took place in the second hour of a lecture session, with the lecturer and academic skills adviser taking half of the group each for discussion focusing on the structure of a case study. Students were given published case studies on related areas of literacy learning in order to provide them with models of different ways of writing up the 'results' of case study research. These provided a focus as they called on students to make connections between their data collection in primary schools and the ways in which the research was presented in the published case studies. The fourth session took place in tutorial times, with approximately 20 students in each group. The lecturer and academic skills adviser attended each of the three tutorial sessions. These sessions focused on particular concerns the students may be have had synthesising their data with the literature in the field. Small discussion groups were formed, with the lecturer and academic skills adviser, separately, providing support and advice to small groups or to individuals.

St Patrick Campus

At St Patrick Campus there were more than three times the number of students in the group. This meant that even when there was a lecturer and two academic skills advisers available they were working with at least sixty students at a time. Circumstances meant that on two occasions the groups were much larger. The sessions consisted of the lecturers and advisers discussing, lecture-style with visual support, elements of published case studies, highlighting the ways in which experienced researchers managed to look at an individual case in the light of the literature in the field. Students asked questions and completed various activities that attempted to give them practice in the discourse. Tutorials were not used to discuss the case study because the limited tutorial time was needed to deal with the rest of the unit content. The large numbers involved on the city campus seemed to make the flexible program of Aquinas difficult to achieve. Students did not in general decide to do independent research, opting to rely chiefly on the lecture sessions for input and information.

Program evaluation

It was apparent that the smaller class sizes at Aquinas enabled the interaction that was such an integral part of the project. When the large lecture group divided into two smaller groups, there were still only 30 students in each, a number that allowed for discussion, questions, and the interaction that can be constrained in a larger group. The smaller class sizes meant that students were not inhibited in asking questions, and querying aspects of their particular school, or child. The smaller class sizes also enabled students to improve their writing, and it was much easier to work one-to-one, small group, or even with the large group in modelling how the case study should be written. For the fourth session, when the academic skills adviser attended each of the three tutorial sessions, it became even more apparent how the smaller class sizes facilitated discussion and exploration, as students readily articulated particular aspects of their case study and explored areas of concern. They were thus engaged in dialogic inquiry (Wells, 1999) that enabled the students to construct their understanding of the art of teaching through reflective practice, drawing for guidance and assistance upon their readings of the literature, their notes from lectures and tutorials, and from their practical experiences and observations in the primary school classroom.

A selection of comments from Aquinas students indicates their positive view of the program:

The classroom observations and group/tutorial discussions have been the most effective. One strength in the unit is having the work from the lectures and tutorials connect to the classroom observations.

I found this subject to be extremely worthwhile and enjoyable. The case study was probably the most beneficial, as I felt I could relate to the concepts introduced in lectures because I was able to observe them in the classroom, and then talk about them in tutorials. The aspects that were most effective were the ones that allowed us to be critically involved.

Once again, I have enjoyed the challenges of learning within and about literacy learning. I have really enjoyed completing the case study, and found the structure provided in lectures and tutorials most beneficial. The chance to get into the classroom and to commence to build a professional language and attitude was one that I believe will be a great building block for the future.

I particularly liked the idea of the case study and found that the lectures and tutorials provided insights into how to present a case study, as well as to how literacy is taught and learned in schools, which could then be placed against what I saw in the classroom.

The following comment specifically on the collaboration between the lecturer and academic skills adviser:

Incorporating the academic skills adviser allowed for the whole lecture group to be divided into smaller groups, allowing for more discussion.

Good idea, as we learnt different ways of presenting. She assisted us and gave us plenty of opportunities for questions.

Very helpful. Breaking down into smaller groups gave more time for questions.

Excellent, especially when we were talking about writing up the Case Study. It helped because it meant that you, in a sense, got to know her, which means that you might not be as reluctant to see her at other times.

She was extremely helpful with the structuring of our case study, and letting us explain where we were at so as to gain more idea of how to go about it.

Very good idea. This way you not only have the advice/point of view from the lecturer, but the adviser. More ideas can be gained.

I found it to be quite helpful, particularly as there are over 50 students in the class and Pat can't be expected to see all students in one lesson.

At St Patrick's, students were somewhat less than satisfied. They had listened to their lecturers and advisers discuss case study models but there had been less interaction in the sessions than at Aquinas. While they felt that it was valuable to have suggestions as to where to go with their papers, especially in terms of what to read, they were not engaged in the sessions in creating the new discourse. The majority of them saw the program as "quite helpful" (rather than very helpful as at Aquinas). They expressed frustration that the Case Study requirements were not as clear as they would have liked despite the presentations by lecturers and advisers. They were glad of the experience in schools but found the writing of the paper stressful.

Not enough detail on how to write a "case study.' I have never written one and was confused.

Some things were helpful, but I found some of the information actually confused the issue. And we were not given clear enough instructions of exactly what you wanted.

It seemed that the lecture format of the presentations meant that students were waiting for the input to be given to them rather than engaging in discussion of the task. They described themselves as waiting for more direction.

The sessions were helpful but more sessions were needed in order to gain a better understanding.

They expressed frustration because, as they saw it, the input came "too late." They had to make their observations in schools before they knew what to look for.

I felt I was on the back foot the whole time having done the observations without adequate background knowledge.

This was an interesting comment because on the other campus the students did not seem to feel so uncertain. It seems likely that a major reason for the students on the smaller campus feeling differently was that the lecturer with fewer students was able to provide early feed- back on the students' writing. She looked at a draft of the first section, commenting on particular areas that needed strengthening. Also, as said before, it seemed the large groups in which the case study was discussed, were less engaging for students. Some of the students at St Patrick's noticed that the input was more helpful on the occasions when the group was broken down from two hundred to sixty or so:

The days when the group was separated so we could look at the elements of the case study was [sic] excellent. It made it 'less daunting'.

Having the small groups discussing each segment of the case study during lecture time was excellent


To note the criticisms of the program is to undervalue the achievements. The students were almost universally positive about the value of the project, even if the St Patrick's students expressed more limited satisfaction. Our job next year is to find our way to provide explicit knowledge of academic discourse within the context of large classes and limited time.

In line with our goals for the Case Study: that it would be a more meaningful way of engaging them in the discourse of education than an essay, we were very successful. All parties found the Case Study to be a very valuable means of integrating classroom practice with the literature on literacy learning and teaching. It enabled students to concentrate on the literacy learning of an individual child, to collect reading and writing data for analysis, to place this analysis within the research on literacy learning and teaching, and to reflect critically on their own learning as a result of their involvement in case study research. Through the use of case study, we felt we had demonstrated to students the link between gathering data, reading texts, being reflective, and reflexive (Denzin, 1994).


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Contact details: Dr Patricia Cartwright, Australian Catholic University, Aquinas Campus
Phone (03) 5336 5390 Fax (03) 5336 5325 Email

Please cite as: Cartwright, P., Ryan, J., Hacker, P., Powell, E. and Reidy, J. (2001). Collaboration and interaction: Modelling explored. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 133-141. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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