22 SES 02 A, Paper Session
The final thesis is generally recognized as “the achievement in which student demonstrates the skills and proficiency she/he has acquired during the entire education” (Gunneng & Ahlstrand 2002, 1). This study focuses on Bachelors’ level final thesis in the field of social work. Objective of this research is to compare pedagogical design of Bachelors’ thesis in three European Higher Education Institutions (HEI) and analyze these cases within European Higher Education Area and especially in reference to European Qualifications Framework (EQF).
EQF defines the learning aims for eight different levels of European educational system, sixth level being equivalent to Bachelors’ level. EQF exercises influence over national educational systems and traditions (Méhaut and Winch 2012). Complicated stakeholder networks and interests exist are related to national educational systems (Deissinger 2015; Kuhlee 2017). Also, there are several paths toward European level policy objectives (Grollman and Ruth 2006). This article aims to recognize and describe some of the existing final thesis designs in Europe. We wish draw attention to (i) analytical understanding of different final thesis designs and their several dimensions, (ii) role of the final thesis within a given degree program and its’ relation to learning aims (professional skills, generic/transferable skills); (iii) dynamics of European policies and other factors (academic traditions, etc.) shaping our understanding of good and acceptable final thesis design.
Strijbos, Engels and Struyven (2015) have defined three clusters of generic skills relevant for Bachelors’ degree programs. These include (i) cluster of conceptual skills, containing the generic competences thinking skills, creativity, problem solving and information processing; (ii) the cluster of personal skills, containing the generic competences critical reflection, lifelong learning and social responsibility; (iii) the cluster of people skills, containing the generic competences teamwork, leadership and communication. (ibid. 2015).
If we understand final thesis “as the achievement in which student demonstrates the skills and proficiency she/he has acquired during the entire education”, these generic skills should be in the center of learning aims for final thesis. This comparative study will demonstrate how three HEIs aim to achieve these learning aims central to any Bachelors’ degree program.
In this article, pedagogical design is understood a consisting of two practices: socio-material design and epistemic design (Goodyear and Carvalho, 2014; Markausis and Goodyear, 2017). Socio-material design refers to physically situated aspects such as space, place, artefacts, tools and socially situated dyads, groups, teams, roles, divisions of labour and organizational forms (Goodyear and Carvalho, 2014, 59). Epistemic design defines task structures and knowledge-oriented structures of the course or assignment in question (Goodyear and Carvalho 2014, 61). Other questions relevant to epistemic design include: what kind of knowledge is needed in order to conclude the task, what kind of knowledge should be produced in order to complete the task, how to get the access to the knowledge needed (Goodyear and Carvalho 2014, 61-62).
In this article we analyse socio-material and epistemic design of final thesis in three cases. As a research question, we ask: (i) what are the differences in epistemic and socio-material design between our three cases? (ii) to what extend do European higher education policies define final thesis designs in these three cases?
This article employs a comparative case study (CCS) approach (Bartlett and Vavrus, 2017). We compare three final thesis designs in three HEIs in three different European countries. While two of these countries are EU -member states, third is a member in EEA and applies EQF. Primary methodological choice, also in comparative research, is often considered to be between qualitative and quantitative methodology (Hantrais 2009, 54-5; Hantrais 2014, 135). However, with educational design defined as a practice, we wish to apply methods of practice-based research that do not fall clearly either on qualitative nor quantitative side of the methodological argument (Reckwitz, 2002; Tsoukas and Chia, 2011). CCS considers comparisons on three different axes: horizontal, vertical and transversal (Bartlett and Vavrus, 2017, 3-5). On horizontal axis we have the three final thesis designs in three different European countries. Final thesis design serves as a unit of analysis and it is understood as consisting of two main elements: socio-cultural design and epistemic design. On vertical axis, we understand HEIs operating in local, national and European contexts. While local community creates the direct context for educational institutions, national and European context exercise regulatory influence on HEIs and in their pedagogical design. On transversal axis we have ideas and traditions, influencing modes of thought and understanding what final thesis is and how it should be designed. Data consists of student and staff interviews in all three HEIs. Additionally, documentation on thesis process is applied. Altogether 19 individual and group interviews were conducted between fall 2017 and spring 2020. Our analysis maps the final thesis design in each of the three cases. Pedagogical design of the final thesis is presented as consisting of sites. Each site is understood as a nexus of interconnected practices, bringing together practice and knowledge (Nicolini 2014, 603). For instance, supervision session where student and professor, or wider ensemble of students, peers and academic staff come together to discuss final thesis process is considered a site. Through mapping of pedagogical design we are able to present similarities and differences between the cases. This primary analysis on horizontal axis makes it possible to shift our attention to vertical axis (significance and influence of EQF and EU’s higher education policies at large) and transversal axis (significance and influence of factors such as academic traditions, connections between labor market policies and practices on education, etc).
At this stage, only the horizontal axis of expected results is discussed. Data analysis shows significant differences in pedagogical design between the three cases. In case 1, socio-material design of final thesis stretches over four semesters. Also, socio-material design includes giving and receiving feedback with peers, feedback from academic supervisors and feedback from language teachers. Work-shops on research methodology run alongside studies and they are part of the studies. Students have access to librarians for help and support. Furthermore, students work on the final thesis both within study units and within final thesis seminar (peers and academic supervisors) where final thesis is discussed both as a plan and as a report. Case 2 is not empirical in nature. There is no teaching or supervision available on empirical research methodologies. Final thesis is conducted during nine weeks of the sixth semester on the studies. Students have a possibility to work with partner organization, but co-operation is not required. Case 3 is oriented towards professional practice. Students work on the thesis through little over one semester, initial work starting during the end of previous semester. While case 3 resembles the case 1, significant difference exists: case 1 is focused on the specific professional field, in this case social work. Case 1 has a wider labor market focus. In the context of EQF, these findings raise questions and topics for further research. While all these degree programs aim for same learning aims defined by EQF, the roads leading towards this shared goal differ significantly. How do these different socio-material and epistemic designs relate to learning aims? Which skills (generic skills; professional skills) do different final thesis designs support? How do these learning aims relate to professional and academic qualifications these Degree programs provide?
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