Learning-led disciplinary literacy in science education

Author: Narelle Hunter

Hunter, Narelle, 2020 Learning-led disciplinary literacy in science education, Flinders University, College of Science and Engineering

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This doctoral research investigates how expertise is framed within a discipline, developed in a learner, and communicated to a variety of audiences. In a time where expertise is undervalued in governmental and industry contexts, this PhD seeks to replace ridicule with understanding, aligning language between experts and non-experts, to produce a shared understanding in a time of climate-change denial, antivaccination rhetoric and general distrust in science and scientists.

The original contribution to knowledge offered in this doctoral research is the creation of an innovative gauze through which to view disciplinary literacy in the sciences. This way of thinking and way of seeing provides a framework through which educators can further develop disciplinary literacy programs by understanding how learners develop literacy within a discipline. The exegesis component of this thesis contributes original knowledge to the field of Science Education by investigating why disciplinary literacy is integral to addressing the access of science to the broader community. This originality is modelled through an e-learning tool which form the artefacts of this thesis. The combination of artefacts and exegesis – e-learning tool and interrogative research in disciplinary literacy – creates a transformative model for reading, writing, thinking and translating knowledge.

The use of writing within the curriculum is summoned and amplified to promote deeper understanding of topic content and helping students to make connections with intricate concepts. This research explores how writing develops in undergraduate science students, with the framing research literature suggesting that through the process of writing itself scientists develop a greater understanding of scientific processes as they interpret and make meaning of data. The results presented here indicate that students only access a narrow set of learning skills and resources available to them, resulting in little improvement in writing skills throughout their degree program.

Additionally, educators are not providing the variety of writing experiences to undergraduate students to prepare them for their future needs. Focusing on communication between experts within a discipline, students graduate without being able to effectively communicate with a wider audience. This lack effectively limits employment opportunities and the reach of their research.

Without the wider frame afforded by reading and writing across a range of genre, students are limited to communicating their understanding of a concept using language and genre specific to the field in which they are situated and learning writing skills without wider reflection on the context and consequences of that dissemination. Instead of scientific writing forming a part of undergraduate education, it is most commonly developed during post-graduate or doctoral studies through an apprenticeship model by co-authorship, imitation, feedback from advisors and peer review. These apprenticeship models are successful through postgraduate education in part due to smaller cohorts and the ability of supervisors to invest more time with an individual student. But because of limitations in scope and scale, this model is not feasible for large undergraduate cohorts. Large undergraduate topics not only have many students, but each has a varied background in writing experience. Therefore, I chose an innovative and creative approach and mode to develop a solution to this problem, allowing students an opportunity to model the types of writing performed by scientists in the workplace.

Through digitization, the ability to incorporate interactive e-learning tools that focus on writing is now achievable. Within the scope of this project, I developed interactive e-learning tools to teach undergraduate science students how to write within the scientific genres of Scientific Journal Article, Impact Statement and Discussion Paper. Providing opportunity for students to use a combination of explicit and interactive teaching methods, students were guided in writing development and afforded an opportunity to practise in a low risk setting, while receiving feedback. Based on the model of apprenticeship, examples of writing were sourced from biology academics at Flinders University, providing real world examples of scientific writing performed in the workplace. Results indicate small gains in scientific language, improvements in structure and increased confidence in writing ability from previous cohorts. With approximately 94% student engagement with the e-learning modules and over 10,000 views, students were encouraged to attempt e-learning modules several times to assist in the development of assignments.

The research presented in this doctorate has resulted in the development of a theoretical model that describes how learners move from novice to expert. Linking student learning strategies and behaviour to assessment outcomes, educators are enabled to design appropriately scaffolded curricula to support students as they develop a disciplinary identity. Importantly, encouraging transdisciplinary learning makes a transfer of communication skills possible, resulting in the improved accessibility of science.

Keywords: Science Education, Disciplinary Literacy, Disciplinary Identity, Science Communication, Higher Education, Student Learning, Communication Skills, Writing

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Science and Engineering
Supervisor: Professor Jamie Quinton