Stephen Merry

  • Fostering lifelong learning within a social constructivist environment

    Stephen Merry, David Skingsley and Paul Orsmond, Staffordshire University

    Research paper

    Themes: teaching methods, assessment methods, course and programme design, skills development and lifelong learning, graduate outcomes, employability, supporting learners

    Tuesday 8 September 2009, 16.00 - 17.00 in room 120

    In the 21st century higher education needs to provide a foundation for professional practice in which there will be a requirement to continually learn and engage with new ideas (Boud, 2008). Student-directed learning can be seen as a preparation for this (Wood, 2004) and engagement in investigative practical work is an authentic activity which can help students develop in these areas (MacKenzie & Ruxton, 2007). A more investigative framework might also help overcome some students’ adverse perceptions of practical work (Collis et al., 2007). This study concerned the development of a Level 2 module “Biomedical Analysis” in which three groups of 8-9 students worked to develop an investigative experiment which they subsequently performed and wrote up as the module assessment. The groups were not stratified so each contained a diverse mix of students. A constructivist approach was taken to the module delivery in which students’ learning was scaffolded by a series of face to face tutor facilitated group tutorials together with virtual discussion boards. To evaluate this approach all students undertaking the module were invited to complete questionnaires regarding the contribution of the groupwork to their scientific understanding and 12 of the students were also interviewed at the beginning and end of the module regarding their views of experimental investigation and learning. Interview data were analysed thematically (Cohen & Manion, 1994). Our data support and extend previous findings that investigative practical work develops a) students’ appreciation of the relationship between experimentation and scientific knowledge and b) students’ sense of their professional identity making them feel more confident concerning their final year project (MacKenzie & Ruxton, 2007; Skingsley et al., 2009). Findings were interpreted in the context of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998) which have the attributes of mutual engagement, a joint enterprise and a shared repertoire of resources.

    Our interview data indicated that the students’ groupwork in developing the investigative experiment met these attributes with group ownership of the experiment as a particularly strong interview theme. Within their community of practice students receive extensive feedback on their ideas from other group members and such complex feedback loops including feedforward benefit learning (Carless et al., 2006). A shared repertoire of resources regarding the experimental design was developed. The feedback within this study contrasts with the type of tutor feedback typically received by students which is often focused on specific attributes of individual written assignments rather than addressing overall professional development (Merry & Orsmond, 2008). The nuances of holistic professional quality are lost within tutors’ attempts to make marking criteria explicit (Orsmond et al., 2004; Sadler, 2009). Investigative group practical work should therefore be encouraged as a way of developing students’ awareness of their professional identity and the life-long learning skills that their careers will require.