Explicit Teaching and Assessment of Genre Conventions in University Education: An Example from Biology

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper argues that explicit teaching about the conventions of relevant genres is a necessary aspect of university education. This teaching, it suggests, should be integrated into the curriculum being studied by the student and should be contextualized to suit the content and assessment within that curriculum. The paper provides evidence that such teaching makes significant contributions to students' development of genre knowledge and their ability to meet disciplinary expectations and speeds up what has otherwise been seen as a 'lengthy apprenticeship.'

Introduction

Debate has been taking place about the teaching of genre, about whether to explicitly teach the genres in which students are expected to write or whether to allow acquisition to occur naturally or even whether acquisition will take place in written genres without teaching (Reid, 1987; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995). For the most part, this debate has focussed on the primary and secondary school setting (Reid, 1987); however, Berkenkotter & Huckin, and others (Martin, Christie & Rothery 1987, p.67; Christie in Berkenkotter & Huckin, p. 154) extended the debate about whether or not to teach genre conventions in the university setting. They argue that university students also need explicit instruction if they are to escape the slow process of "immersion in the discipline and a lengthy apprenticeship and enculturation" (Berkenkotter & Huckin, p.13) that is the usual process by which the best of students acquire knowledge about the structures and characteristics of written genres. Others have called this slow process 'osmosis,' the absorption of knowledge about disciplinary conventions, and have been engaged in providing instruction that circumvents this process (Skillen & Mahony, 1997; Skillen, Trivett, Merten & Percy, 1999).

However, much of the thrust in explicit teaching of genre conventions in the university setting focuses on classes in rhetoric or composition as the vehicle for teaching (see U.S. college and university course offerings). This paper argues that instruction in the conventions of genres in which students must write is a necessary element of university teaching and learning: it empowers students in theft journey into academia and into disciplines, it allows them to sidestep the slow process of osmosis, and to make the most of their intellectual potential. The paper also argues that instruction is most successful when it is provided inside curricula, as an integral part of the learning and teaching of a discipline or subject. A case study of the teaching of genre conventions in a freshman Biology course is presented which provides evidence that integrating instruction inside curricula produces significant outcomes in terms of students' learning of genre conventions.

Methods

The study involved the integration of instruction in two core subjects of a freshman Biology curriculum in two successive academic years. The methods employed in the study involved three steps: instruction in the conventions of the genre, assessment of the cohorts' writing at different stages of their course, and analysis of the results achieved by the whole cohort.

Instruction

The specific genre that students were required to write in was the scientific report, specifically a Biology report; this was required in nearly all written assessments throughout the year. Instruction in this genre was provided inside the curriculum in a number of ways:

* via standard classroom teaching (carried out jointly by learning and literacy specialist faculty and Biology faculty);

* via web-based teaching (with materials produced jointly by learning and literacy specialist faculty and Biology faculty [see Trivett & Skillen, 1998]);

* via the use of annotated exemplars of the genre in classroom and web-based teaching;

* via the use of peer marking sessions that enabled students to be the 'other' or the 'reader' of a text; and

* via detailed feedback on their attempts at writing in that genre. …