A breakthrough with first years

By | November 1, 2019

This post relates to a session I ran with the level 4 Theology (incorporating Theology, Religion, Philosophy and Ethics students) module 1RS010 this week. Two of the learning outcomes for this module are:

  • Access primary and secondary sources, using electronic searches, in order to identify and explain key themes and approaches in the study of religion.
  • Identify, articulate and discuss the works of key scholars in the study of religion.

It’s a workshop I have run before, embedded in the module, and focusing on evaluating sources. I make several contributions to this module, with other sessions looking at why referencing is important in academic work (not just avoiding plagiarism, but also the power of reference lists and bibliographies in understanding whose voices have been prioritised by the author), and integrating sources critically into academic work. The learning outcomes for this specific session are:

  • To demonstrate knowledge of the different types of information sources available in higher education.
  • To demonstrate knowledge of the main attributes of these information sources.

Last year I ran a workshop with these outcomes and, although I felt the key messages had been conveyed, I felt there was a lack of engagement with the tasks I had set (my fault) and looked to overcome that. I had done an introductory presentation about evaluation, and then given groups a source to evaluate based upon that (some from text books, some from journals, some from newspapers). From discussing the task with the students in that session, I thought that I hadn’t provided enough structure and information within the instructions for the tasks, and had relied too much on the students taking in information I had given in the presentation to introduce the session. Also, I had split the cohort into groups and given each a single source to evaluate, and they had found it difficult without something else to compare it to. This year, therefore, I redesigned the worksheets and also provided more sources and gave each person in the group a full set of sources.

All resources were put in the VLE the week before the session, so the students could read ahead if they wished. I had 90 minutes, roughly split:

There were five sources used for the evaluation task, all found in searches for the term ‘fundamentalism’, and included an Oxford Handbook article on the topic (essentially a scholarly essay by someone experienced in that subject area), an encyclopedia entry, a journal article, a review article, and a newspaper article. (N.B. These sources are from subscriptions so may require logins.) A full list of sources can also be found at the bottom of the reading list for this module.

Asking the students to evaluate these with guidance such as checking if the source had a reference list/bibliography, and the affiliations of the author, proved much more fruitful than asking them to pick from the list in the presentation. It also led well into discussions about whether authors are writing from an academic research perspective, or from a faith-based perspective, or both. These discussions took place as I circulated around the class as the group worked on the task. Getting whole group feedback at the end proved a bit of a challenge, but I had the idea on the spot to ask them to hold up the source they felt matched the answer to the question. This worked really well as everyone held up a source and we were able to pick up on the fact that there was no consensus and how in academic work this is often the case and that it doesn’t matter, as long as you can justify why you picked it. Some held up two sources, as they couldn’t choose, and again we were able to discuss how that is okay and that a combination of sources generally produces a stronger argument.

I then demonstrated how I had found each of the sources, and linked it all to the assignment they had been set (to write a short essay on a key thinker in religion). A later session is going to be in a room with PCs so I can assess how they are progressing with finding sources for themselves.

This session needs a good amount of preparation. I had print outs of all of the sources for each of the 24 students prepared in advance by our university print services department, and I had to ensure that the resources and session outline was put in the VLE in advance, to ensure anyone requiring specific font size or paper colour, or extra time to read through the sources, had the chance to prepare. I stressed throughout that they were not expected to read each source in depth, that this was an exercise in evaluating whether it was worth investing the time reading a source in depth (amongst other things).

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