The Fishscale of Academicness

cover illustration

The concept in a nutshell

Developed to address the problem students seem to have in distinguishing between different types of sources, The Fishscale of Academicness attempts to raise the awareness that not all information is the same (especially on the internet). Really the idea is to (momentarily) forget about the content of a source and specifically look at the type of sources that a literature search ‘spews’ out. The vehicle for this is a number of activities that encourage students to imagine the sources they find as sea creatures, i.e. describe their provenance in visual terms – and then rank them in terms of their ‘academicness’.

Where can I find out more?

You can get an overview of the Fishscale concept, with an academic commentary, in the Only Connect ‘un’book edited by Andrew Walsh and Emma Coonan (2013). Click here for the chapter.

I like the idea, can I use it to teach?

Yes, this is an Open Educational Resource. We have developed a number of different teaching and learning resources which are available under a creative commons license:

    • A prezi that can be used to present this concept to a group of students. This has mainly images in it, so the presenter needs to be familiar with the concept in order to make this work in a class context. There are, however, a number of tasks included which can be done with the group.
    • A prezi which explains the concept. This is meant to be used as a stand-alone resource, which could be linked to a Virtual Learning Environment, as a refresher or as a stand-alone. This does not include prompts for activities, but there will be a document that suggests some tasks that could be included.
    • Handouts you can use for the activities: Fishscale Handout Source was developed to give students space for designing the sources, there is a frame for the sea creature, a little label (to get students to come up with a name, or to add the in-text citation, an opportunity to check their commandment of the appropriate referencing systems) and a larger box (for them to verbalise their reasoning – why is this source that sea creature?). Fishscale Handout Depths is for marking at what depths a source (or a number of them) would live.
    • A pdf to print to make your own booklet(s) – simply print this Fishscale BW Booklet Inside (making sure your double-sided printer doesn’t flip your pages the wrong way) and this for the cover  Fishscale BW Booklet Cover (using a slightly firmer paper, 160gsm works well), fold all the pages in the middle and use a long-arm stapler to staple them into a booklet.
    • Or, a print-on demand colour version of the booklet which can be ordered via Blurb here:

The research project – developing and testing an OER

Once we developed these resources we set about testing them – across levels, disciplines and institutions. The outcomes and conclusions of this research are currently being written up, check back here for links to the papers once they come out.

For a report on the Fishscale in action within a number of different disciplines, check out our collaboratively authored article “Exploring ‘academic depth’ in Higher Education” in Innovative Practice in Higher Education Vol 2(2) here.

For an analysis of the drawings the art, media and design students produced – and how these designerly tasks can help support academic practice – check out ‘Design Tasks Beyond the Studio‘.

How the Fishscale was developed

The idea of The Fishscale of Academicness is based on a presentation by Dr. Clare Penketh that I attended at the Flying Start symposium at Liverpool Hope University in 2010. In this presentation Clare used the quote of “Reading at degree level is like learning to fish in deep water” by Professor John Bean to illustrate that the sources her students should encounter at degree level (such as peer-reviewed journal articles) are different to the reading they encounter in everyday life (emails, facebook, newspapers, etc.).

I used this concept (with her permission) to develop a lecture on reading at degree level for my first year students, which quickly developed to address the issue of how to ascertain the provenance of sources, something my students seemed to have a particular problem with. As part of my other developing Tactile Academia projects, I soon introduced a designing activity into my lectures – giving small student groups sample sources and asking them to imagine those sources as sea creatures, draw them, show them off to the whole class and (most importantly) explain why this creature for this source.

As a very small-scale pilot project I compared the bibliographies of the essays students wrote for me to the previous year (lecture but not the activity) and found that both the range of sources used and the quality of sources used had improved (as had overall essay marks).

At this stage, I couldn’t share the presentation, though, as it was made up of images ‘liberated’ from popular animated films. However, I managed to secure some funding from Staffordshire University with which I hired a recent illustration graduate to illustrate this properly.

To find out more about the work of our Fishscale Illustrator, check out his website.


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