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Carnegie Mellon Qatar research wins Best Paper award
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Carnegie Mellon Qatar research wins Best Paper award

A research team from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), a Qatar Foundation (QF) partner university, received the Best Paper award for 2019 from the Journal of Information Systems Education (JISE). The paper arose from a multi-year research project called Scaffolding Literacy in Academic and Tertiary Environments in Qatar (SLATE-Q), which was funded by Qatar National Research Fund. Silvia Pessoa, Maria Pia Gomez-Laich, Divakaran Liginlal, and Thomas Mitchell authored the winning submission.

The paper is one of seven published articles and 20 local and international presentations to arise from the SLATE-Q project. Beginning in 2016, SLATEQ’s goal was to work with information systems faculty members to create clear and precise guidelines for writing assignments, and to develop materials to use in writing workshops to make expectations explicit for students.

The team also worked with the students, documenting both successes and challenges, and brought these findings back to the faculty members to finetune subsequent writing assignments. Pessoa said, “During the course of our project, we have developed a set of tools for faculty members: Here’s a challenge that students may face, and here are some materials that you can use to help them overcome that challenge.”

Gomez-Laich describes how SLATE-Q’s scaffolding process has helped students develop their writing skills: “In a case study, for instance, students tend to summarise the case instead of analysing what is happening. The framework guides the student through common challenges so they can c o n s t r u c t s t r o n g e r arguments.” The idea for SLATE-Q arose out of a previous QNRF research project, led by Pessoa, that documented the literacy development of the CMU-Q Class of 2013 over four years. Pessoa found that students can face challenges understanding what the professors are looking for in analytical and argumentative writing assignments in different disciplines.

She believed that a clear, welldefined system of communicating expectations would enhance learning and writing development. For the SLATE-Q project, Pessoa brought together a large team of applied linguists and disciplinary faculty members, including Gomez-Laich, Mitchell, and Michael Maune (now at MIT), as well as principal investigators Liginlal, Selma Limam Mansar and Susan Hagan from CMU-Q, Ryan Miller from Kent State University, Sally Humphrey from the Australian Catholic University, and Ahmar Mahboob from the University of Sydney.

In 2015, the project received a grant in Cycle 8 of QNRF’s National Priorities Research Program. On the second year of the project, the team also worked with CMU-Q’s Cecile le Roux to scaffold writing in her organisational behaviour course.

Over the three-year project, the team worked with 11 faculty members to design scaffolding materials that would clearly outline writing expectations. They analyzed student writing post-intervention, reflected on the outcomes, and applied what they learned in following semesters. As the SLATE-Q project reached its conclusion in 2019, the team decided to make their findings publicly available.

“We don’t want SLATE-Q to be just a research project,” said Pessoa, associate professor of English at CMU-Q and the lead principal investigator of the project. “We want to help faculty members change the way they guide students to develop their writing skills.” They recruited students to build a website of tools and materials based on the project’s outcomes and on their work on history writing with CMU-Q history professors Benjamin Reilly and Aaron Jacobson (formerly at CMU-Q). While the website includes materials specific to CMU-Q courses, Mitchell notes they also created a section for a wider audience.

Although the QNRF-funded research has drawn to a close, the team is planning to continue their work. Pessoa, Mitchell, Gomez-Laich, Liginlal and le Roux were also finalists for CMU’s 2019-2020 Teaching Innovation Award.

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