Starting a university degree can be something of a culture shock. Students enter university after spending years in a closely structured school learning environment. They discover that there’s a different expectation in higher education: the onus of learning falls mostly on them.
In South Africa, another complication arises for those students who speak English as a second (or even third) language (ESL speakers). That’s a large number, given that English is only the country’s fourth most commonly spoken home language. They are not learning in their mother tongues. And “code switching” – the alternation between their home language and English, while fairly common in school classrooms, isn’t practised in most university lecture halls.
In some subjects, like the Sciences, ESL students find themselves negotiating not only the language of instruction and communication, but also the unfamiliar terminology of the discourse. This demand on their cognitive attention places a huge strain on students’ ability to adopt deep approaches to learning inside and outside the classroom. They have to expend a lot of energy on decoding the material they must learn.
We wanted to know what might be done in South African universities to scaffold independent and effective learning among students who are second language English speakers. So we focused on an area that many lecturers probably ignore: the practice of note taking.
We found that when ESL students were taught to personalise their notes and incorporate content from various resources, they were better able to form links and connections between new knowledge and their current understanding of concepts.
During apartheid, English was taught only at a basic level to black pupils. With the shift to democracy in 1994, pupils learned in their mother tongues until Grade 5, when they are around 11 years old. Thereafter teaching and learning is expected to be done in English.
There’s been a global, ongoing debate about the link between the language of instruction and successful student learning. And recent research has shown the benefit of teaching pupils in their home language.
Different research has also revealed just how prevalent code-switching is in some schools, all the way through the final Grade 12 year. It’s especially common when teachers want to explain complex content but extremely rare at university. This means ESL students lose another plank of support.
Learning is very much an independent activity at university. Students are expected to use resources like textbooks or research articles to supplement the material that’s covered in class. However, this becomes an extra burden for ESL students. They have to spend excessive amounts of time decoding the content before they can begin to make sense of it.
University courses tend to move fast. ESL students may try to keep up by using surface learning strategies like rote learning, since their limited exposure to English means they struggle with comprehension and meaning-making. They risk building only foundational concepts instead of deepening their understanding, which profoundly affects them in class and out of class learning.
These students are also affected during tests and exams, where their lack of language fluency affects their ability to interpret and answer questions appropriately or satisfactorily. All of this increases their risk of failure.
Our research suggests that improved note-taking practises might help these students considerably.
The value of writing for learning
Research has shown that the process of writing can be used as a tool to stimulate and encourage deep learning approaches. Lecturers traditionally take little responsibility for the quality of notes that students produce during lectures. Students receive little, if any, feedback about their notes. But these notes are important, serving as an “external” storage mechanism for information and knowledge. Their quality is critical for learning.
With limited support, first year students tend to fall back on their school experience to guide them. They end up learning the skeletal points provided in lectures, although these are usually just guidelines for content covered in class and don’t represent the breadth of material lecturers expect students to understand.
Our research was conducted with three first-year cohorts of an introductory biology course at a South African university, over three academic years. The students attended a series of writing workshops that focused on the development of their reading and writing ability. The workshops were also designed to develop critical thinking skills: students learned how to identify the main line of argument, construct an effective argument and take meaningful notes relevant to what they understood from lectures.
The students also had weekly assignments in which they had to provide observations about experiments conducted during laboratory sessions. Here they needed to answer in short paragraphs, which honed the development of their critical thinking through writing. Each week they also had to read and answer questions based on articles. And they had to write one essay per term in which they provided an argument for their opinion on any topic in science.
Teaching assistants were trained to provide feedback. Students used this feedback to reconstruct and transform their class notes into something far more personalised.
The results were encouraging. Our findings indicate that students who personalised their class notes generally performed better on assessments.
The process of writing to reorganise and refine their notes proved to serve as a scaffold and enabled the development of processes associated with a deep approach to learning. Students were able to independently find gaps in their knowledge. This allowed them to develop the necessary insights to improve their level of understanding and, consequently, their academic performance.
Training and support
We recognise that students need to take responsibility for their learning. But it’s just as important for academic staff to play an active role in incorporating skills development that helps to bridge the gap between students’ school and university experiences.
This could be done through academic development workshops that focus on developing critical reading, comprehension and note-making. The learning from these workshops can be deepened if lecturers embed such training in the context of their courses.
This training could be provided at the beginning of first year. The progress and development of students’ writing skills could then be tracked and supported through the course of the year, giving them a feedback mechanism.
In this way the students’ skill in writing can be used as a tool to scaffold the development of their cognition.
Our research shows that lecturers can play a vital role in transforming the quality of their students’ notes – and, ultimately, their academic performance.