22 SES 05 A, Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education
In higher education, most disciplines require their students to accomplish an academic thesis as a final challenge before awarding them with a degree. This is especially true for the social sciences and humanities. Not only can the bachelor thesis be seen as the culmination of one’s educational achievements, but also as a learning process which holds high potential for the development of key competencies (Spronken-Smith & Walker, 2010). During their bachelor thesis or final study project, students often widen the boundaries of their knowledge, develop skills for managing time, resources and motivation, learn to solve complex problems and cope with frustration and procrastination (Howitt, Wilson, Wilson & Roberts, 2010; Friedman et al., 2010). Mostly, these abilities can be classified as key competencies or 21st century skills (as defined by e.g. the Partnership for 21st century Skills, 2009). They are especially helpful when facing the challenges of a changing labour market. In sum, the bachelor thesis holds high potential for the development of key competencies which ultimately lead to employability, one of the major goals of the Bologna Declaration (Schaeper, 2009).
From a pedagogical point of view, different questions arise when looking at the learning process during the bachelor thesis: How can key competencies be addressed and properly fostered? What do educators do to support the learning process and do they actively foster the development of key competencies? If so, how?
To answer this question, this paper draws on the concept of research-based learning as its main theoretical foundation. The type of learning occurring during the process of writing a bachelor thesis “mirrors the research process” (Bignold, 2003, p. 6) and can thus be qualified as research-based learning (or inquiry/enquiry-based learning) “in which asking questions, thinking critically, and solving problems are encouraged” (Friedman et al., 2010, p. 766). Research-based-learning can be seen as an ‘umbrella term’ (e.g. Deignan, 2009) overlapping with several other known learning principles, such as problem-based learning, self-regulated learning or project-based learning (Bignold, 2003; Spronken-Smith & Walker, 2010). First, The paper aims at clarifying the characteristic aspects of research-based learning in order to derive recommendations for the support of learning during the bachelor thesis, resulting in the development of key competencies. Second, the paper discusses different ways of actively fostering key competencies in higher education, focusing on the advantages of reflection on action (Schön, 1992). It discusses different approaches how reflection can be supported to facilitate the development of key competencies (Boud, Keogh & Walker, 1985; Jones & Shelton, 2006; Korthagen & Vasalos, 2005). Third, an explorative approach is used in which the author investigates (good) practices in several degree programs in the humanities and social sciences. The question is how the support is designed and conducted in order to help students cope with the difficulties emerging in the process and to foster the development of key competencies.
Taking into account the changes the European Higher Education Area underwent because of the Bologna Declaration, the study focuses on the way thesis writing is supported in higher education and identifies pedagogical potentials for the development of key competencies. As the bachelor thesis is a learning experience that exists in almost all study programs throughout Europe and different studies suggest that European students face similar challenges when dealing with their final study project (Todd, Bannister & Clegg, 2004; Meuus, van Looy & Libotton, 2004), the findings of this paper can be useful not only for improving the pedagogic support in Germany, but throughout Europe.
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