22 SES 13 A, Support, Supervision and Critical Thinking
While research shows that critical thinking is recognised as a core skill within Western universities (Curzon-Hobson, 2003) there is growing concern that the changing face of HE means that many students are struggling to adjust to criticality-based requirements (Bennett Moore et al., 2010). Moreover, it has been argued that ideas of critical thinking are bound to social experiences, cultures and practices (Atkinson, 1997) and there have been calls for academics to reconsider critical thinking within their own practice to aid students’ appreciation of criticality from socio-culturally located perspectives (Hammersley-Fletcher & Hanley, 2016). However, there are real challenges facing academics here. The ‘student-as-consumer’ approach, prevalent within the UK, has been argued to promote passive instrumental attitudes to learning (Woodall et al., 2014) and have a significant impact on learner identity (Bunce et al., 2017) – both of which potentially limit the perceived relevance of/engagement with critical skills. The HEPI survey (2017) identified ‘a significant gap between what university applicants think higher education is like and the realities of student life’ (p.5) and highlighted a number of areas in which student expectations were perhaps unrealistic. Indeed, the survey noted that while the vast majority of students (95%) expected a greater focus on independent learning at university, they also felt they would have a significant amount of one-to-one contact and support. Such findings point to a disconnect between students’ experiences of education before and during their university experience and point to the need for further examination of practice in this area.
This paper draws upon qualitative findings from an ongoing UK-based research project to both discuss the relevance of these issues and consider the challenges they pose for academics. The Critical Reading and Writing (CReW) project was developed following reflections by the research team on students’ perceived lack of readiness to engage with criticality-based assessment requirements. The project itself is focuses on supporting the development of critical reading/writing skills and enhancing academic practice around critical thinking for first year undergraduate students undertaking a core module at a UK university. It was developed and embedded within a first-year module focused on sport pedagogy that already had a strong focus on critical inquiry. Through the development of an interactive workbook, tailored activities and coordinated delivery (across lectures, seminars and tutorials) the project sought to: foster enhanced understanding of critical thinking among students; increase their capacity and confidence to engage in critical debate; and facilitate the development of key criticality skills that would aid their capacity to meet assessment requirements. Research activities were designed to run alongside the project activities, to ascertain the perspectives of students/staff and consider areas for development.
A pilot phase of the CReW project (involving 218 students) initially ran from October 2017 to February 2018, with a second phase of delivery (following some edits and revisions to resources etc.) taking place with a new cohort of students (n=250) between October 2018 and February 2019. The research activities comprised semi-structured online surveys (pre- and post-delivery) and student focus group discussions, as well as reflective conversations between staff. These activities were deemed appropriate given the emphasis placed on making space for student voices when evaluating practice in HE (Browne, 2010) and the value of researcher reflexivity within action research projects (Baumfield et al., 2013). The pre-delivery survey asked students to reflect on their current confidence/perceived competence with criticality-based requirements of academic study and consider what support they felt they needed in this respect. The post-delivery survey repeated this format, but also asked students to reflect on what they had learnt and identify aspects of the project that worked well or could be developed. In each iteration of the project, following completion of module delivery, focus group discussions were undertaken with selected students. In these, students were given the opportunity to expand on their survey answers and consider key aspects of project delivery. Data generated throughout both years of the project (survey responses, focus group transcripts and fieldnotes) were collated and analysed to identify key findings and points of interest. Responses to closed-questions within the online surveys were used to generate descriptive statistics (i.e. the frequency of a particular response or the percentage of the total data set this represented). The qualitative data (open-ended survey responses, focus group transcripts and field notes) were analysed thematically using a constructivist grounded theory approach (e.g. Harry et al., 2005) to ascertain students’ views regarding the project and identify pertinent factors for project development. Within this paper, the discussion focuses primarily on the qualitative findings and the perspectives of staff and students relating to (a) the perceived value and significance of critical skills within university study and (b) the relevance of developing critical skills within context. In seeking to understand the broader context, Bourdieu’s tools of field, habitus and capital (e.g., Bourdieu, 1985, 1986) are drawn upon to provide a valuable framework. In particular, they serve to facilitate an understanding of the structure of the higher education field, the positions of individuals within this and the various resources (capital) at play.
Critical thinking has also been identified as a key factor relating to student ‘readiness’ (Watanabe-Crockett, 2018). Yet, as evidenced through the findings emerging from the CReW project, it would seem to be an element of academic practice that many students struggle with. Overall, perspectives of the CReW project were positive, but engagement varied across the cohort and the level of ‘buy-in’ could be seen to influence the benefits accrued. In this respect, there is some support for the assertion that, in the current climate, many students adopt a more instrumental view to learning (Woodall et al., 2014) and that the student-as-consumer approach may well ‘foster a culture whereby students seek to ‘have a degree’ rather than ‘be learners’’ (Bunce et al., 2017 p.1959). Drawing upon Bourdieu (1985, 1986), we can perhaps argue that this hints at a space of conflict or contestation at the boundaries between fields, in which individuals are required negotiate constrasting values and expectations. Nonetheless, the findings from this research also reinforce the value of academics working to enhance students’ criticality skills, not least in order to facilitate their acquisition of relevant capital (Bourdieu, 1986) and help them to find their place within the complex landscape of higher education. Moreover, findings from the CReW project also hint at the value of allowing critical skills to be developed/practised in the context within which they are to be utilised. In this way, we can recognise the ways in which projects such as CReW might support academic staff to equip students as they navigate through the broad HE field.
Atkinson, D. (1997) A critical approach to critical thinking in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 71- 94. Bennett Moore, Z., Faltin, L. & Wright, M. (2010) ‘Critical Thinking and International Postgraduate Students’, Discourse 3 pp.63-94. Bourdieu, P. (1985) The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups. Theory and Society 14.6, 723-744. Bourdieu, P. (1986) “The forms of capital” In: Richardson, J. (Ed) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, New York: Greenwood Press, pp: 241–58. Bunce, L., Baird, A. & Jones, S. (2017) The student-as-consumer approach in higher education and its effects on academic performance, Studies in Higher Education, 42:11, 1958-1978. Curzon-Hobson, A. (2003) ‘Higher Learning and the Critical Stance’, Studies in Higher Education, 28(2) pp. 201-212. Hammersley-Fletcher, L. & Hanley, C. (2016) ‘The use of critical thinking in higher education in relation to the international student: Shifting policy and practice’. British Educational Research Journal. 42(6), pp. 978-992. Harry, B., Sturges, K.M., & Klingner, J.K. (2005). Mapping the process: An exemplar of process and challenge in grounded theory analysis. Educational Researcher, 34(2) 3-13. HEPI (2017) Reality check: A report on university applicants’ attitudes and perceptions. Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Reality-Check-Report-Online1-2.pdf Watanabe-Crockett, L. (2018) 28 Life Skills That Define Student Readiness [Infographic]. Available at: https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/28-skills-student-readiness-infographic Woodall, T., Hiller, A. and Resnick, S. (2014) Making Sense of Higher Education: Students as Consumers and the Value of the University Experience.” Studies in Higher Education 39 (1) 48–67.
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