Apr 162015

It was a day like any other day on the pre-sessional EAP course I teach. I was with my second group, who I had for the Academic Speaking and Listening classes. The usual mix of nationalities. Mostly MA students, but also one undergraduate and two PhD students. It was a relatively “standard” Academic Listening lesson. We talked a bit about the lecture they had attended the day before and the notes they had taken during it. Then I led into the listening and note-taking task that was to follow. I don’t remember anymore what exactly we did, but we discussed the topic, which was perfectionism, whether it was something good or bad, etc. When I thought they were ready, I instructed them to listen to the short lecture and take notes. Everything looked normal. We were several weeks into the course and the students knew what they had to do. I was standing near the computer and making sure the technology was working well and occasionally glancing at the students making sure everything was fine, without being intrusive…

Suddenly, I had the feeling that something with one of the PhD students was odd, but I didn’t know what it was that made me feel like this. My eyes went from one student to the other, then I glanced back at this particular PhD student. Her head was lower than usual. She was looking at her book and writing, but then I saw it… tears were dripping down from her eyes onto the pages of the book! I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do. I looked away, looked at the other students. I didn’t want her to notice that I had noticed that she was crying. I thought that maybe she was homesick or had received some bad news, as it happens sometimes. But then it hit me. It was the lecture that made her cry!

The lecturer was talking about research into perfectionism, about the downsides of perfectionism, how it can lead to burnout and other negative psychological effects, etc. This student, I knew, was a perfectionist! I had noticed from the start that she was trying too hard to improve her English, her note-taking skills, her every skills. She was often disappointed with herself and her performance, even when I told her it was good. She came to see me after the lesson, sometimes, to ask me how she could improve… So, I had already been worried about her a bit. How would she cope with the pressure of doing a PhD I asked myself, but I hadn’t found a way of talking with her about this other than reassuring her during tutorials.

Now, the tears were falling more frequently. She had taken out a tissue. Should I tell her she could stop and go to the bathroom? Would she want others to know she had been crying? I decided not to do or say anything just now. When the lecture had finished, she had regained her composure. The students had to compare their notes, then they talked about the topic. Were they surprised to hear about the drawbacks of being a perfectionist? etc. The PhD student was participating in the discussing in her group with two other students. She seemed fine now. I decided I would talk with her after the lesson.

She told me that she was a perfectionist, and that she had put so much pressure on herself when doing her MA in her home country that she even had to be treated in hospital for some time as it had affected her physically and psychologically. She had had a very difficult time. And now, this lecture had brought all the memories back plus the worries about the PhD and how she’d cope, with her family and boyfriend also being far away. We talked for a bit, including about some coping strategies if she felt the pressure mounting again, I reassured her again and explained that the University also offers help in such situations. After that, I also occasionally sat with her and her friends during lunch and we chatted. I knew telling her it wasn’t necessary to be a perfectionist wouldn’t help. All I could do was to help her relax about this course a bit and let her know now who she could turn to when she felt she needed help.

I try to make lessons relevant and interesting. However, I had never thought the content of an academic lecture would make a student cry. That morning, when I was expecting it to be a “normal” lesson on listening and note-taking skills, this student reminded me of what we know as teachers but can sometimes forget in an intensive course when there is so much to get through: that we always need to be aware of the fact  that we are working with people each of whom brings their own baggage with experiences to the class, some good, some negative, and that this will affect their studies. And this is why it is so so important to take time to get to know one’s students on a personal level too (besides their language and academic learning needs) and establish good rapport and an atmosphere of trust.

Academic Reading & Note-taking — On Print or on Screen?

 EAP, Technology  Comments Off on Academic Reading & Note-taking — On Print or on Screen?
Apr 112013

Annotated textI’ve been thinking about my EAP students at the pre-sessional course I teach in the UK in the summer and how to approach talking about reading and note-taking with them. I don’t want to say “teaching” because my students are mostly young adults and the majority already have  a first degree from a university in their own country, some already a Master’s. As they come from different educational backgrounds or “cultures”, it will be interesting to see how they have approached reading and note-taking so far (in their L1) and how this transfers to their practise in English (their L2).

It is not enough to teach classical note-taking skills

In the past pre-sessionals, I did emphasis the importance of note-taking when reading and checked during tutorials whether and how students were taking notes of what they were reading for their project work. Note-taking skills are also addressed and practiced in the reading lessons. Universities, moreover, often have special self-study or self-help pages, which students can be referred to. Additionally, there are websites such as UEfAP, that offer tips and exercises on how to go about academic reading, note-taking, and other skills.

However, none of the resources I have seen so far looks specifically at reading and note-taking skills for articles and books that are available in digital format. Also, none of them show what kind of digital tools can be used for reading and note-taking on screen. And finally, what kind of differences there are if any between reading and note-taking on printed/copied articles or pages and reading and note-taking on screen on the PDF document. This is, of course, not to say that there isn’t any research on this. There is, for example, plenty of research on reading online and the difference (e.g. cognitive) between reading online and on print, particularly when reading text with hyperlinks. However, although this is very interesting, in this post I am more interested in the practical or, if you want, technical side of reading e-texts.

My own experience

When doing my diploma course (DELTA), most of my reading and note-taking was on paper. I did do some research and reading online but the school was not subscribed to any online journals, all the books and journals were in print format in the school library.

As an MA student, I had the choice, which had me think about the best way of reading and note-taking.

Stage 1

I had access to plenty of online material, however, in the beginning, I printed out all the articles I was going to read in detail and proceeded to take notes on them with highlighters and pencil. On the front page of each article, I would, at the end, briefly summarize the article and/or write keywords so I could, at one glance, see what it was mainly about and when and where in my assignment to use this particular article. At this stage, it was extremely efficient. Towards the end of an assignment, when I needed a reference or information here and there, and, thus, only needed to dip into some articles, I read and highlighted relevant bits on screen, sometimes also adding some notes, which, however, took much longer than doing it with pencil on paper. Where the digital versions of printed articles came in very handy, though, was again when I needed bits of specific information and didn’t know exactly in which article there was anything relevant. I would simply search on my computer with the search tool called “Spotlight” (on Mac), which indexes all the computer’s content and is extremely efficient in finding relevant material. Once I had the search results, I would open the articles and could immediately see where the search term (word or phrase) was used and read around it. This saved me hours of searching and reading compared to printed articles or books.

Stage 2

The method above meant printing hundred of pages of articles and book chapters. So I started reading and highlighting more on screen using tools such as Preview (Mac; comes pre-installed), Adobe Reader (Mac, Win; free), and Skim (Mac; free).  Each of them has some different features and there functionality can change over time and, but all of them have similar annotation tools such as highlighting text with color; adding notes and symbols; and drawing circles, rectengulars, and other shapes around text. Some save the annotations separately and allow one to export them, others overwrite the original PDF file. It is more a personal preference which of them one chooses to us.

Annotations Skim

What I didn’t like

After using this method for one or two courses, I noticed that I missed the “third” dimension: the possibility of browsing quickly through pages and seeing my annotations almost at one glance, making different stacks, and, most of all, having a visual image and memory of what is where.
So, I went back to printing and annotating on paper…

Stage 3

Because of circumstances, I lived away from home when doing my dissertation. This meant I had no easy or free access to a printer. So, I adopted a “no paper” policy and didn’t print out out even a single page, not even when proofreading (which did worry me a bit). But it went surprisingly well this time. Perhaps because I had got used to working digitally over time, and because I had, now, an iPad and the GoodReader app (~£3,20/$5.00), which, combined with the free version of Dropbox (which I had been using since the start of my MA), helped me organize my reading and allowed me to read and annotate my articles anywhere I was and synch between devices (in this case my iPad and MacBookPro).

GoodReader also allowed me to send the annotations to myself via email. I created a copy of my dissertation outline file with all the headings and sub-headings and would copy and paste the highlighted sections  from the articles into the appropriate sections in my outline. When I was writing a particular sections, I had this document open and could easily read and transfer the information, paraphrase, summarize, or copy from there (if I wanted to directly quote someone) into the actual dissertation text file.
(WRITING: In a different post, I will describe how I went about writing my dissertation and which tools I used for that.)

So, this is how I went about reading and annotating (electronic) articles and books. I’ve talked with other colleagues on the course and know that many, just like I, started experimenting with different ways of note-taking using different sets of tools while doing the MA course.

My Students

Last year, all my international students on the pre-sessional course in the UK had a laptop and a smartphone, and more had iPads compared to the previous year. However, only one student in my main class showed me electronically annotated articles. All the others had their notes in their paper notepads. Whether this is a conscious preference or whether they don’t know how to use their devices to annotate PDFs I don’t know but want to find out this summer and spend some time to explore with them ways they can use their devices to read and annotate.

How to go about integrating “electronic” note-taking skills?

I’d love to hear from other colleagues how they go about making students aware of such note-taking tools and how they integrate practising using these in their (EAP) classes considering the restricted time available.