Faculty in focus: Mike Murphy on using student lab reports to teach Academic English

While teaching ESL university students can pose many challenges, faculty at UBC Vantage College have created an innovative approach to teaching both their Applied Science curriculum and English language skills.

Between Mike Murphy, an Academic English Instructor at Vantage College, and Gabriel Potvin, an engineering instructor in the Applied Science stream at Vantage College, the duo has drawn on each other’s’ expertise to form a unique approach to students’ lab reports.

Throughout the university term, their system requires students to submit five lab reports to Potvin for grading based on content, while three of these reports also get submitted to Murphy for feedback based on language skill. 

In this, Murphy uses a set of encoded tags to mark each lab report with feedback on students’ language use, including explanations.  Afterwards, students are asked to revise their reports based on this feedback and resubmit their reports for final grading.

“This approach has had a good response from students; they like receiving feedback on their lab reports that helps to improve both their writing skills, as well as their future lab report content grade from Gabriel,” says Murphy.  In fact, both he and Potvin have noticed a greater improvement in lab reports throughout the term from both a language and applied science perspective when this approach has been used.

“Through this language focused approach to lab report writing, you can enhance students understanding of the material while developing their ability to communicate a scientific result effectively,” says Murphy, explaining that the importance of such communication skills crosscuts all learners, irrespective of language. 

“This approach can help to change the mentality that language is superfluous to mathematical or science education.”

As well as focusing on spelling, grammar, and basic English language skills, this lab report system also allows Murphy and Potvin to teach through the lens of technical communication, helping students to improve the depth and quality of their analyses by working through individual and peer review activities.

“The lab reports serve as a natural point of entry for Academic English within the Applied Science curriculum.  Often the engineering sciences, math, and computer science curriculum circumvent language skills as they provide a language of their own that the student works with, such as ‘equations’, ‘formulas’, and programming languages,” adds Murphy.

“While these student lab reports are very centered around a specific topic or experiment, the quality of the report is strongly impacted by the language used in them.”

Already this approach to lab reports has been particularly well received when the pair have presented it at engineering education conferences, providing a promising outlook for how this technique can be used in the wider UBC community and beyond.

While Murphy has since relocated to Ottawa to take on a new role with Carleton University, Potvin would like to see this approach continued and the integration of language and technical content increased, recognizing the importance of strong technical communication skills in the engineering industry. He is currently looking into the possibility of integrating similar approaches into lab courses within the UBC Engineering department.

Mike Murphy: What defines Vantage to you?

"The collaborative, interdisciplinary nature among both faculty and students that is fostered by Vantage’s dual focus on improving language proficiency and developing a mastery and comprehension of discipline specific content."