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This issue of CDTL Brief discusses various issues and aspects of Independent Learning, incorporating views from NUS faculty and a student.
January 2008, Vol. 11 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
The Bookends of USP Learning: From WCT to ISM
Dr Johan Geertsema, Dr Andrew Leng, Dr Lo Mun Hou &
Dr Barbara Ryan
University Scholars Programme

Most students' tenure in the University Scholars Programme (USP) is 'bookended' by two learning experiences. In their first year, USP students enroll in Writing and Critical Thinking (WCT) modules, which introduce them to the genre of the academic essay. These modules treat writing and thinking as inextricable activities, enabling students to engage critically with texts and issues. USP students subsequently (usually in their third and fourth years) embark on advanced curricula, of which a key part comprises Independent Study Modules (ISMs). In these one-on-one classes, each student works closely with a faculty member on a topic devised by the student.

Seen this way, WCT modules and ISMs mark the start and end respectively of a student's time in the USP. WCT modules and ISMs are very different kinds of classes in many ways; one introduces or initiates; the other is a kind of culmination. WCT classes are small, but not quite the individualised experiences ISMs are. Moreover, while writing classes are highly interactive, they are nevertheless guided by the writing professors (i.e. all four of us). ISMs, as the name suggests, expect students to be independent and very self-motivated. Indeed, unlike the intense and regular nature of WCT modules, students taking ISMs only meet their faculty members a handful of times during a semester, leaving students to do most of the work on their own.

Despite these differences, WCT modules and ISMs share much ground in terms of skills, goals and developmental templates, and we want to sketch, in this article, some of the continuities between these two kinds of USP classes. To begin with, the most obvious way in which these two types of classes are on a continuum is that WCT modules introduce students to the protocols of academic writing and research. The specific skills taught in writing classes prove indispensable when students write the longer papers that are the culmination of their ISMs or their honours theses. Most writing modules, for example, include sections devoted to helping students develop research skills, ranging from the slightly mundane (e.g. using library databases), to the technical (e.g. citations).

But useful skills introduced in WCT modules go beyond the technical. For example, students in WCT classes explore the key idea of "motive", which Gordon Harvey defines as "the reason, which [a writer needs to] establish at the start. why a reader.might want to read an essay on this topic." A motive is therefore the puzzle, problem or question that the essay grapples with. This concept translates easily to larger research projects like ISMs; indeed, "motive" is what students must confront most immediately as they draw up ISM study plans.

Many students feel challenged by this responsibility; they wonder, "how can I know what I am doing before I do it?" But just as Harvey distinguishes motive (the question) from thesis (the answer) in an academic essay, an ISM project can likewise be thought of that way. To see why, it helps to realise that a student may not know the answers at the start of an ISM. That student does need, however, to have a sense-through some preliminary research if necessary-of what his or her questions are and why those questions are intriguing. Put differently, students in ISMs cannot know in advance what their findings will be, but they need to know why the investigation is worth undertaking.

Since "motive" is a useful concept in both WCT modules and ISMs, it follows that WCT instruction on how to generate motives proves useful when students are conceptualising their ISMs. Question development constitutes the beginning of serious academic writing. Yet more is required of students to also learn that writing forms part of the process of generating ideas that produce a research question. In WCT modules, prewriting exercises to help students generate ideas include activities such as 'free writing', annotating and peer review. The process of crafting a research question thus involves interacting with a text (or texts) and with fellow-students (i.e. other minds). A growing familiarity with this process leads students to a vital discovery-originality involves and requires exchange. The realisation that critical learning is dialectical paves the way for ISMs of high calibre.

In this sense, WCT modules do not simply introduce isolated (technical or even conceptual) skills that happen to come in useful later in ISMs. Rather, WCT modules introduce the very idea of critical thinking as an underlying principle for all academic activity. In WCT modules, instructors help students find, probe and ponder readings assembled by a working scholar to guide young learners through new conceptual terrain. Later in ISMs, students are expected to demonstrate the ability to not only make original discoveries from high-level scholarship, but also to locate pertinent research and justify its use. This aspect of an ISM could be the most daunting. But WCT modules lay the groundwork for it by emphasising the interrelatedness of independent learning, thinking and writing.

On its own, a realisation of that magnitude might be hard to grasp or implement. But here again, WCT training transfers seamlessly into many ISMs insofar as the former foregrounds incremental writing/thinking strategies. In WCT modules, each student crafts three progressively more challenging papers whose pedagogical function is formative and cumulative. To ensure that writing techniques learnt in previous assignments form the basis of techniques used in subsequent papers, WCT modules require:

  1. 'Close' Reading (focused analysis of a key extract/passage)
  2. Comparison (comparative 'close' reading)
  3. Independent Research Paper that includes 'close' reading and comparison

Because ISM students must simultaneously explore and narrow a field of research, it can be beneficial to agree on 'close' reading tasks early in the semester. These focused-hence manageable-tasks require first-hand engagement with a primary text. But they also facilitate inquiry about other primary texts and secondary sources. Once 'close' reading skills are in place, comparative tasks facilitate controlled widening of an ISM's focus. In Semester 2, Academic Year 2005/2006, this strategy helped an English major hone her broad interest in 'nostalgia in C.S. Lewis' to the more practicable task of comparing representations of nostalgia in passages from his science fiction and his more popular children's fantasy, by using comparative 'close' readings of passages from these works as a basis for making larger comparisons. The result was an argument chosen for presentation at the USP Academic Fest in 2006.

Not every ISM will be presented in that collegial setting. Yet every ISM can be a collegial experience insofar as USP students learn, in WCT modules, how deeply intellectual work is enriched by peer review, networking of information and friendly support.

Collegiality may seem extraneous to independent study. But studies have shown that this is certainly not true at the Ph.D. stage. Sternberg (1986) demonstrated that ABDs (All But the Dissertation)-Ph.D. candidates who have finished all their requirements save their dissertations-are less likely to drop out if they feel a sense of social affinity with classmates. Graff (2000) developed Sternberg's research by arguing that doctoral candidates are socialised to succeed-or fail-on their own because "the message they get is that if you are any good, you will already know" (p. 1192). This attitude is purposefully countered by the academic exchange and dialogue fostered by WCT modules. These networks make it easier for ambitious undergraduates who might not realise the value of collegiality to seek guidance from peers confidently. Collegiality exists in several identifiable forms in WCT modules; indeed, they are built into most WCT modules. For example, the feedback students get from their classmates on IVLE forums and in draft workshops is crucial to WCT coursework, and one-to-one draft conferences with instructors and tutorials at the USP Writing Centre are valuable means for students to engage in academic exchange. But students are stretched further if classmates brainstorm, before conferences are scheduled, about how best to make use of instructors' limited time. Even the 'lore' (and gossip!) that more advanced students may transmit to students about to embark on ISMs can be valuable, if in different ways. As suggested above, the collegiality and camaraderie that foster a sense of others' ability to contribute may not at first seem like a pedagogical objective. But by learning in a small-class setting what one knows and what one does not know, and how best to seek support, WCT modules add a vital skill to young learners' independent study repertoires.

We have argued that there is a mutually reinforcing pedagogical relationship between the critical reading, writing and thinking processes and skills introduced systematically and incrementally in the USP's first-year WCT modules, and those necessary to ensure the successful completion of an advanced ISM. Thus learning that the formulation of a genuine 'motive' is the indispensable starting point for a viable WCT assignment prepares students to devise a larger- and perhaps more open-ended-research question for an ISM with greater confidence. Equally to the point, we contend that by offering a rich combination of formal frameworks and informal, peer-support networks, USP modules 'book-end' students' individualised skill-development and learning achievements.


Gordon, H. (1991). "Elements of the Essay". (Last accessed: 6 November 2007).

Graff, G. (2000). 'Two Cheers for Professionalizing Graduate Students'. PMLA, Vol. 115, No. 5, pp. 1192-1193.

Sternberg, D. (1986). How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation. New York: St Martin's Press.

 First Look articles

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Inside this issue
The Art of Not Learning: Two Versions
The Bookends of USP Learning: From WCT to ISM
Using Wiki to Write Lectures Notes Independently and Collaboratively
A Self-directed Learning Experience
Flashcards and the Leitner Cardfile System: A Useful Tool for Learning Human Anatomy Independently
Self-learning is Self-reliance
Service Learning: Where the World is Your Classroom