Teaching Critical Appraisal Skills to Postgraduate, English as a Second Language, Engineering Students

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Faculties of Engineering in Australasia increasingly enrol a culturally and linguistically diverse group of students into their postgraduate coursework (and research) programs, including international English as a second language (ESL) students. In the institution in this study, student demographics include Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Latin American, Middle Eastern and other groups. These students arrive in Australia with varied levels of English proficiency, cultural backgrounds and prior educational experiences, and limited training in the comprehension and critical appraisal of texts (eg. Ward, 2001). With this in mind, the Faculty of Engineering at Melbourne University enlisted the services of applied linguists to offer a discipline-specific English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course to address these issues, titled "Presenting Academic Discourse: Engineering". This paper reports on the development of this subject, and course evaluations and qualitative student feedback obtained during the four semesters of 2002 and 2003, during which the author coordinated and taught this course. The study focuses on the challenges and benefits of developing and integrating an applied linguistics and composition course into the postgraduate coursework curriculum of engineering.

2 APPLIED LINGUISTICS, CRITICAL THINKING AND ESL

The contribution of applied linguistics and EAP courses to Engineering, and to the teaching of critical thinking and critical appraisal, is not yet an area where there is educational consensus.

2.1 Applied linguistic contributions to discipline-specific concerns

In many fields, including Engineering, high international student enrolment has encouraged debate about the need for explicit teaching of writing and associated academic skills, such as critical appraisal in writing across the curriculum (WAC) and EAP courses (Artemeva et al, 1999; Bruce, 2002; McDaniel, 1994; Norgaard, 1999; Pantelides, 1999, Riemer, 2002; Swales et al, 2001). Although some applied linguists and ESL teachers believe they should limit themselves to teaching generic academic language (Spack, 1998), there is a growing body of theoretical work that contests this position and has shown the value of EAP teaching of the genres of the disciplines (Johns, 1997; Melles et al, 2005).

2.2 Critical thinking and EAP teaching

A range of skills form part of the brief of EAP programs, while critical thinking and appraisal has emerged as a focus at the intersection of EAP and discipline-specific needs. As Pally (1997) has argued, embedding critical thinking and appraisal in EAP courses rather than through workshops seems to offer distinct advantages to ESL learners. Indeed, in some tertiary ESL programs critical appraisal (Thompson, 2000; Pennycook, 2001; Benesch, 2001) has been framed in terms of social and political dimensions familiar within literary and critical discourse analysis (eg. Fairclough, 1995).

While the social, ethical and ideological dimensions of engineering projects are often of particular relevance, it is not this version of critical thinking and appraisal that is emphasised in genre-based EAP teaching. More pragmatic approaches to the critical appraisal needs of ESL students within genre-based teaching have questioned the relevance of such ideological teaching in EAP (Atkinson, 1997) and highlighted the need for practical accommodation to students academic needs (Allison, 1996; Swales et al, 2001). This pragmatic accommodation approach is represented, for example, in Swales & Feak (1994), in that discipline-specific critical reading and writing are seen to be intrinsic elements of the skills required in postgraduate academic writing and speaking.

Ballard & Clanchy (1984) provided a definition of critical analysis that addressed the potential conflicts students from non-Western cultures may have when asked to evaluate and critique established academic authorities - a task that can be culturally anathema. …