An online learner participatory project

An online learner participatory project:
a constructivist approach to the learning of research report writing
This presentation introduces an online learner participatory project set up for the international
post-graduate students in the National University of Singapore (NUS). The main aim of the project is
two-fold: 1) to help the students learn research report writing through engaging them in making their
own discoveries about the organizational structure and language use in research papers in their own
discipline and 2)to create and expand a shared online resource for research report writing.
The majority of the international postgraduate students attending NUS need to take an academic
writing course, which helps them to improve their overall language proficiency, learn the academic
writing conventions and writing skills. The post-graduate students may have excellent fundamental
knowledge in their own discipline and some research experience, but they have considerable difficulties
in writing up their research. Two major problems identified were: 1) lack of awareness of the
conventions of research reports in their own discipline and 2) lack of collocation competence, i.e. a
sufficiently large and significant phrasal mental lexicon accessible for their language production and use.
While it may be easier to overcome the first problem by encouraging students to read more
journal papers in their own disciplines and develop their awareness of “logical moves” (Swales & Feak,
2004) in the various sections of research papers, the second problem of lack of collocation competence
seems hard to surmount in the short term and this insufficiency could lead to three specific problems in
students’ language production. Firstly, it often leads them to “create longer utterances/paraphrases
because they do not know the collocations which express precisely what they want to say” (Michael
Lewis, 2000), thus producing what Morgan Lewis (2001) labels “intermediate” sentences. The second
problem is that when students have grasped the basic meaning of a word but do not know its
collocations (word combinations), they may assume that word combination/distribution in the target
language is the same as that of its translation equivalent in their mother tongue, producing
grammatically correct combinations that violate word grammar—combinations that are allowed in the
native language equivalents, but not allowed in English (Yang & Hendricks, 2004). A third problem is that
lack of collocational competence and not knowing the collocational possibilities of words results in overuse of a few general items of which learners are sure, for example, overusing the adjective ”good” to
express all positive meanings, e.g. a good research/design/analysis, etc. The result is an oversimplified,
flat, uninteresting style that fails to express the variety of ideas they want to communicate and one that
lacks “writing sophistication” (Singleton,1999:51). For the international post-graduate students who are
required to publish research papers in English, both problems, especially the second one, which is
related to their language use, poses a significant challenge.
It is in this context that the online learner participatory project was launched. The students taking
the academic writing course were each asked to select three research papers from a top ranking
research journal in their own discipline and form a group with another two to three students from the
same discipline. Their task was to read the papers carefully, identify and discuss the logical moves in
each of the sections of the research papers and extract useful collocations from these papers and
categorize them, as far as possible, under expressions related to each “logical move”. The example
below shows a few entries taken from the students’ project:
Section: Introduction
Logical moves identified
Indicating the importance of the
Indicating a research gap
Stating the objective of this research
Related collocations
highlighting the importance of, provide a valuable insight…, have found
numerous applications, …have the potential to …,
…expand the range of…
Little research has been conducted to…, There is a lack of investigation
regarding…, Few studies have corroborated…,
…might require a more complex process involving…
This paper proposes a modeling method…, … propose the utilization of …,
The present study sought to test the following hypotheses: …, We propose a
refinement of the…,….. have been explored as alternatives to overcome…
Students made use of the dropbox platform (or any other platforms they agreed upon) and met
regularly for discussion to work collaboratively on the project. When they completed the project, their
categorized collocations were collated and uploaded into google docs, the link of which was made
known to all graduate students as resource for them when they wrote the research report for the course
and research papers beyond the course.
As the idea of learner participatory project was new and students generally had no idea about
“logical moves” and “collocation” before they attended the course, scaffolding was provided in two
ways: 1) the project was designed as a collaborative one to ensure peer support. 2) various e-media to
help students “construct” knowledge and acquire expertise necessary for carrying out this project were
provided. The e-media used as scaffolding included “Breeze tutorials” giving general introductions on
research report writing and collocation in language learning, online collocation resources and online
demonstration through the use of the camtasia software, to name just a few.
The various rationales and the evidence supporting the use of the online learner participatory
project are delineated as follows. First, learner collaboration on the project draws on the social
constructivist theory, which has an overarching focus on “the interdependence of social and individual
processes in the co-construction of knowledge”(Palincsar, 1998). It has been hypothesized that peer
collaboration draws upon the multiple ways from individuals involved in structuring knowledge and is
therefore more facilitative to effective learning (John-Steiner & Mahn (1996). In the process of carrying
out this project, it was observed that students were able to share strategies used and came up with
different schemes of categorization of collected collocations based on their understanding of the logical
moves in research papers. Even contradictions and conflicts of ideas that emerged in the process were
taken up as learning opportunities when learners questioned their own beliefs and methods and tried
out new ideas. As a result, none of the students engaging themselves in this project had any confusion
about the concept of word combination as collocation, unlike what had happened in an earlier individual
version of the project where a number of students still tended to include isolated words in their
collection, an indication of lack of understanding of what is collocation. Peer interaction and
collaboration thus served as one facet of scaffolding that offered an ongoing peer support structure in
the process of managing the project.
Second, the use of various e-media also provided another facet of scaffolding that rendered
support to the learners taking part in this project. The e-media in the form of breeze tutorials offered
teacher explanations of some fundamental conceptual knowledge about research report structures and
collocation and demonstrated useful strategies for learning and using collocations. The online
collocation resources provided an ideal reference tool for students to employ in their language
production. With these supporting materials easily accessible online, students enjoyed the flexibility of
using them anytime and anywhere at a pace most suitable to their learning style. Students made
positive comments on the usefulness of the breeze tutorials in helping them clarify doubts and gain a
better understanding of important knowledge and acknowledged that the online collocation resources
could serve as reference for “life-long” learning.
Finally, involving the learners in the project ceded control of learning to the learners
themselves by offering them opportunities to become aware of the structure of research papers in
their own discipline and to make discoveries about language use. In the process of working on
the project, learners developed a better fundamental knowledge related to research report writing
and the role of collocation use in their language production. At the completion of the project,
they came up with collocation resources immediately relevant to their own needs, which they
were more likely to use when they wrote up their own research. On one hand, this helped form a
bridge between what they learned and what they could immediately use, helping learners see the
applicational value of the project, which was important in the creation of significant learning
experiences. On the other hand, learners took over some responsibility for learning and
developed some form of learner autonomy in the process. Through the use of the online learner
participatory project, they displayed five important levels of learner autonomy (Nunan in Benson
& Voller, 1997:201)by developing awareness of their much needed area of improvement,
actively involving themselves in the learning process through learning from various sources and
peer interaction, gaining control over a learning task and adapting it to their own needs, creating
their own strategies, methods and tasks to facilitate their language use and most important of all,
going beyond the classroom by transferring what had been learned to wider contexts.
Benson, P., & Voller, P. (1997). Autonomy and Independence in Language Learning. New York: Addison
Wesley Longman.
John-Steiner V, Mahn H. 1996. Sociocultural approaches to learning and development. Educ. Psychol.
Lewis, M. (2000). There is nothing as practical as a good theory. In Michael Lewis (Ed.), Teaching
Collocation(pp.10-27). Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.
Lewis, M. (2001). Third conditional again! Isn't there anything else? New Routes, 12. Retrieved Mar 6,
2007 from
Palincsar, A. S. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of
Psychology. 49:345.
Singleton, D. (1999). Exploring the Second Language Mental Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Swales, J. M. & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills
(2nd ed). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Yang,Y., & Hendricks, A. (2004). Collocation awareness in the writing process. RELT, 3, 51-78
Selected learners’ collected collocations can be seen at
Some e-media in support of the project:
Breeze tutorials :
What is collocation?
Why should we learn collocations?
How to use the online collocation dictionary
Daily collocations at!/CollocationYY
Online collocation dictionary at:
Just the word at: