LSE academic developer Dr Esther Saxey reports on the ways in which LSE departments are encouraging the development of students’ academic skills, with a particular focus on International History’s new Thinking Like a Historian course
Several LSE departments have created specific projects to develop first year students’ academic skills. During this vital transitional year, academic skills are key to students’ ability to re-orient, and study in higher education. Vivid accounts of this appear in a study by Christie et al (2016); at a research-intensive university, students describe how the academic writing and critical skills developed during their challenging first year enabled them to become ‘100% dedicated’ to completing their degrees.
The format and delivery of LSE skills courses varies between departments, reflecting the variety of this kind of support across the sector. Philosophy & Argumentative Writing (PAW) is a five week seminar course, and students complete assignments, including writing abstracts for their own essays. Legal Academic Writing Skills (LAWS) delivers content through lectures, but both LAWS and Social Policy Academic Writing (SPAW) offer one-to-one-clinics, where students can discuss their feedback or essays they’re currently writing. PAW is compulsory for Philosophy undergraduates, while SPAW and LAWS are opt-in.
Thinking in a discipline
Many academic skills questions are also questions of disciplinary content and orientation. Questions that may appear generic (What’s an argument? How do I provide evidence?) can open up the foundational questions of the discipline (see Lea and Street’s example of ‘structure and argument’). One of the first questions used in PAW’s opening seminar sits squarely on this overlap: What are the conventions of philosophy as a discipline? This is partly a pragmatic concern for a first-year student – how should I act in a seminar, what tone is appropriate when writing an essay? But the pragmatic question shades into a disciplinary issue, one which is also asked explicitly during the PAW’s first seminar: What do philosophers do?
One LSE scheme that thoroughly integrates disciplinary questions with academic skills is the International History course Thinking Like a Historian, first delivered in 2015/16.
For it, a significant redesign of the department’s skills provision was undertaken, by Head of Department Janet Hartley and others, including a focus group to gather student input. Thinking Like a Historian was then launched by organisers Dr Aurélie Basha i Novosejt and Dr Jeppe Mulich (pictured below), offering more contact hours, more structure, and highly interactive workshop sessions. The course is optional for IH students, but tied as often as possible to core courses; for instance, sample essay questions from a core course are used for one Thinking workshop exercise.
As the title suggests, Thinking Like a Historian orients students within a particular disciplinary approach, while also developing students’ skills. The course is built around a set of key questions: Why did I choose to study history? Why do historians argue? What use is history? Aurélie described how the course interrogates historical concepts and terminology (objectivity, historiography) while also engaging students in fundamental academic skills (how to read an article for argument, how to approach essay questions).
One of the other key aims of the course is to develop a sense of community among first year IH students. Often, their core courses are shared with interested students from other programmes and departments, which can make it hard for them to connect to fellow Historians during their crucial first year of study. So Thinking was keen to give them a sense of the specificity of their discipline, and a chance to meet their peers. One way to achieve this was holding sessions in the Parish Hall, with students sitting at café-style tables and working on group activities.
In addition, many academics from IH present their research on the course, which familiarises students with departmental faces and the exciting research work taking place. They get a taste of several specialisms, allowing them to make more informed choices for their second year courses.
The academics discuss research processes, as well as outcomes; as Aurélie suggests, they show ‘how the sausage gets made’! When students are debating the use of primary sources, two academics show very disparate examples from their own work, to broaden the students’ sense of what is possible.
The organisers are keen to evaluate the first year of the course, and to consider changes. Some successes are evident: attendance and participation has been very strong (particularly considering the current timeslots, from 5.00 to 6.30pm on Thursdays and Fridays).
The impact of the course on student development is harder to judge, particularly as some central concerns of the course may impact on students more fully in later years of their degree. Aurélie has spoken to third years who ‘wish they’d had this kind of course’, but she is less sure that first years grasp its full value.
Certain aspects, however, have been immediately useful. Participants have reported understanding their feedback comments more fully, because they have been introduced to disciplinary terminology. The organisers haven’t ruled out the possibility of returning to some of the key issues – particularly around the processes of historical research – and delivering them as dissertation support sessions.
For the School as a whole, the opening of LSE LIFE (featured in last week’s LSE LIFE: the offer takes shape post) will expand possibilities for similar projects. Amongst other things, LIFE’s large teaching spaces will support sessions of small group work around café-style tables, as used by Thinking Like a Historian. LSE LIFE will also support collaborations between academics, library experts, and LSE LIFE’s own team of learning developers, to develop students’ academic skills and induct them into disciplinary thinking.
Christie, H., Tett, L., Cree, V. E. and McCune, V. (2016), ‘It all just clicked’: a longitudinal perspective on transitions within university, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 478-490.
Lea, M. and Street, B. (1998), Student writing in higher education: an academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 157-172.