Academic cultures

Shifting the focus from students’ national academic cultures to target academic dsciplines when characterising learning styles

One of the aims of EAP programmes is to help international students adapt to the teaching and learning expectations of the academic culture they wish to join. It is assumed that the study practices they experienced in their own country will be different from those in the new context. In particular, their expectations about using and referencing ideas from authoritative sources may be different. I recently reviewed a teacher development framework, which recommended that EAP teachers take account of differences in academic cultures when analysing needs, preparing lessons and giving feedback to students. But I wonder how useful or even possible it is for EAP teachers to understand differences between academic cultures in ways that can be applied in a classroom.

I believe this recommendation may be carried over from general ELT, where the classroom focus is on word and sentence grammar to facilitate conversation about personal preferences and experiences. It is relatively easy to characterise differences in word and sentence grammar between different languages because at this level there are rules to follow. It is helpful for learners to compare grammatical structures in their own and the target language in order to be aware of language transfer, leading to typical mistakes.

When it comes to academic practices in longer texts, the value of direct comparisons between academic cultures can lead to stereotyping students, particularly those from East Asian cultures. Colin Sowden and Dilin Liu (2005) discussed plagiarism as cultural conditioning in an issue of ELT Journal. Based on anecdotal evidence from students, Sowden suggested that Confucian Heritage Cultures (CHCs) accepted exact copying of published sources as a mark of respect for authority. Liu countered by referring to published writing guides in China, arguing that the claim of cultural conditioning was based on incomplete understanding of the Chinese academic culture and led to unhelpful stereotyping. He also pointed out that an understanding of CHCs cultural practices around plagiarism was not useful in making decisions about what and how to teach use of sources.

I believe it is more helpful to think of academic cultures not in relation to national cultures but to disciplines and specific levels of academic study. Sowden’s students were moving from a Chinese school to undergraduate history studies in the UK. Their UK counterparts may experience similar problems in the transition from high school to a research-led academic culture at university. Academic cultures in different disciplines expose students to research at different levels of study. For example, Robertson, & Blackler (2006), asked undergraduate students studying science, geography and literature where they thought research was in their discipline. These authors reported the spatial metaphors that students used to describe research. For science students, it was up there in postgraduate degrees; for geographers it was out there in the field; for literature students it was in there in the library. These students had different levels of access to research and hence a different requirement for acquiring, using or transforming ideas from sources.

I documented my own experience of moving from an undergraduate degree in chemistry in New Zealand to a postgraduate taught degree in Applied Linguistics in Scotland in a short lecture for a coursebook on listening skills (Lynch 2004, pp27–35). I had studied some English modules on my science degree and written several literature essays. However, my assumptions about the essay genre did not fit my new academic culture. I received feedback which said I had written an ‘undergraduate essay’ without a clear explanation of the way in which postgraduate essays might be different.

A simple framework that I have found helpful in characterising academic expectations at different levels of study is SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes). Biggs (n.d.) describes the quality of learning at four levels: “At first we pick up only one or few aspects of the task (unistructural), then several aspects but they are unrelated (multistructural), then we learn how to integrate them into a whole (relational), and finally, we are able to generalise that whole to as yet untaught applications (extended abstract).”

The verbs associated with the framework are shown in the diagram.(Biggs 2003 p.48)
The verbs associated with the framework are shown in the diagram.(Biggs 2003 p.48)

Different levels of thinking and types of learning are required for undergraduate, postgraduate taught or postgraduate research degrees, which are likely to be discipline-specific rather than national acaedmic culture-specific, e.g. undergraduate chemistry students have to memorise more facts (multistructural) than postgraduate applied linguistics students before they engage with research (extended abstract), whichever national academic culture they originate from. Rather than focusing on the national academic cultures students come from, the SOLO framework shifts the focus to academic cultures of different disciplines and the extent to which they specify learning tasks at each of the different levels.

Biggs, J. B. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university. Berkshire: Open University Press.

Biggs, J.B. (n.d.) SOLO Taxonomy. Retrieved 15.2.20 from

Lynch, T. (2004) Study Listening. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robertson, J. & Blackler, G. (2006) Students’ experiences of learning in a research environment Higher Education Research & Development, 25/3 pp 215 – 229.

Sowden, C. & Liu Dilin (2005) Point & Counterpoint. ELT Journal, 59/3, pp. 226–243.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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