22 SES 03 B, Development and Expertise of Staff and Students
Although not general practice in some regions, for example, Confucian Heritage Culture countries, socio-cultural learning theories stress the importance of learning as a social activity, as learners construct their understanding either collaboratively or individually, with the support of a more knowledgeable ‘mentor’ who guides the learning process (Vygotsky 1978, 1986, Mercer 1995, Walsh 2006). Learning is seen as a joint enterprise with, rather than transmission from, the ‘more knowledgeable other’. The interpersonal process of discussion taking place on a social level during the completion of tasks leads to an intrapersonal one as the student reflects on what has been learned and internalises it (Vygotsky, 1978: 56).
This paper describes students’ perceptions of the advantages, disadvantages and points of interest in a Masters course in Social and Contemporary Issues in Education at a UK university, which was taught using a social constructivist approach.
Students taking the course comprised approximately two thirds South East Asian and one third European nationalities. Ages of the students ranged from 22- 59. Each time the class met, two to three students presented, individually, a ‘mini-conference paper’, comprising a position statement with supporting arguments, endorsed by appropriate references. The statement and arguments had to reflect a current educational issue, as perceived by the student. The presenter was then provided written and oral feedback from the other students, in a short discussion session, facilitated by the tutor. The presenter subsequently re-worked his/her statement and arguments taking into account the feedback and posted them on the student VLE. The amended statements were then used as part of the final assessment.
The research informing this paper aims to ascertain students’ views about this approach to learning and whether they feel it has been effective. From a sweep of the course evaluations, it became clear that this strategy for teaching and learning appeared to be a new experience for all the students, the majority of whom said they found the classes stimulating and enjoyable. Concern was expressed about the lack of clear direction from some of the students, who felt particular anxiety, not only about presenting in a foreign language, but also about creating their own position statements, without guided direction from a university tutor. Others stated that they took pleasure from being able to decide their own area of interest and research it for themselves. The feedback that they received in class was described as helpful for their learning by the majority of students.
The research study, which will take place from January to April, will investigate more deeply students’ perceptions of the constructivist approach to learning. They will be asked to respond to a survey, containing a mixture of closed and open questions about their experience in the constructivist classroom. Subsequently, a sample of 10 students, reflecting the proportional nationalities in the class will be interviewed to explore what they perceive as advantages and disadvantages of this approach with regard to their learning. Inductive analysis will identify key themes regarding the students’ perceptions and whether there are any relationships between students’ cultural backgrounds and their responses.
In informal conversations with the students there has been some evidence of similarity in responses among those of similar cultural backgrounds. However, using the evaluations as a starting point, the research study aims to investigate whether the experience of working within a constructivist context has given the students, particularly those from South East Asia, confidence to work autonomously. The results of the study will enable us to begin to develop better understanding of the needs of South Asian learners, as well as those from a less ‘traditional’ educational context.
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