22 SES 10 A, Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education
The undergraduate dissertation is ubiquitous in Education Studies final-year programmes within the UK. Some claim it to be the ‘gold standard for British higher education’ (Healey, 2011). Research devoted to the undergraduate dissertation is, however, lean and rarely focussed upon the telos of the study but upon interpersonal processes like the ‘lived experience’ (Todd, et al., 2004) or ‘staff-student relationship’ (Derounian, 2011). Our paper, in contrast, seeks to elucidate the sorts of philosophical assumptions underpinning the dissertation by raising questions concerning empiricism, instrumentalism and dualism.
A scrutiny of dissertation handbooks indicates that it is unusual for empirical enquiry to be proscribed: ‘Education Studies dissertations are not normally empirical because such work does not easily enable students to achieve the Learning Outcomes for Education Studies’ (Winchester, 2012). On the contrary, the majority of universities seem to encourage or expect the education dissertation to be of an empirical nature. Our concern is that what underpins the determination to embrace it in one institution but avoid it in another is rarely made explicit. If underpinned by philosophical empiricism, that is, the epistemological claim that all knowledge is only obtainable through sense perceptions (Hume, 1996), then the empirical dissertation is founded upon questionable ontological and epistemological assumptions where ‘non-verifiable’ values are set adrift (Ayer, 1971). If deemed post-empirical, to permit ‘interpretative readings’ but without clear connection to the central empiricist understanding of what verification entails, then there are dilemmas reminiscent of Cartesian dualism (Pring, 2000).
There is, furthermore, a link between empiricism and instrumentalism (Horkheimer, 2004) insofar as dissertation handbooks imply that beyond the subjective value-interest of the student the purpose for writing a dissertation is immaterial. We argue that the copious technical directives students are required to follow often seem to outweigh the purpose of the dissertation itself, and that while many of these procedural requirements clarify regulations and are clearly expressed in deontic modality (you ‘must’), we suggest that they are merely instrumental and have replaced broader - moral, ethical, spiritual, political - reasons for constructing an argument (Tubbs, 2005).
The final section argues that students should be taught, therefore, about argumentation explicitly and suggests that this would help resolve the common but false dichotomy between ‘empirical study’ or ‘desk study’ (Gloucestershire, 2012), ‘field based enquiry’ or ‘document based enquiry’ (Bath Spa University, 2012). Not only is argumentation identified in QAA standards as being at the heart of Education Studies (QAA, 2007), but Toulmin’s model, that opens with the requirement for a claim, should we argue oversee the more judicious use of particular and relevant empirical or non-empirical methods (Toulmin, 1958). This is because claims may relate to facts (‘statements that can be proven to be true or false’) but also to values (‘a judgement about the worth of something’); to policy (‘normative statement about what ought to be’) or to interpretation (‘about proposals on how some data or evidence are to be understood’) (Hart, 2002). The approach may then avoid a tendency, as we see it, towards philosophical empiricism.
Andrews, R. (2010) Argumentation in Higher Education: Improving Practice through Theory and Research. London, Routledge. Ayer, A. J. (1971) Language, Truth and Logic. London, Penguin Bath Spa University (2012) ¬ED6001: Education Dissertation Student Handbook. Bath, Newton Park. Derounian, J. (2011) Shall we dance? The importance of staff-student relationships to undergraduate dissertation preparation. Active Learning in Higher Education (12) 2, 91-100. Gloucester, University of (2012) EDS333: Education Studies Dissertation. Available at: http://www2.glos.ac.uk/mda/2011-12/undergraduatefields/eds/descriptors/eds333.asp (Accessed: 14 Dec 2012) Hart, C. (2002) Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. London, Sage. Horkeimer, M. (2004) Eclipse of Reason. New York, Continuum. Healey, M. (2011) Rethinking the undergraduate dissertation. In The Guardian 28th June. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jun/28/flexible-dissertations-for-undergraduates (Accessed: 15 Jan 2013) Hume, D. (1996) Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. Oxford, Clarendon Press. Mill, J.S. (1969) On the liberty of thought and discussion. In M.Warnock (ed.) Utilitarianism. London, Fontana. Pring, R. (2000) The ‘False Dualism’ of Educational Research. Journal of Philosophy of Education 34 (2) 247-260. Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) (2007) Available at: http://www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Pages/Subject-benchmark-statement-Education-studies.aspx (Accessed: 10 Dec, 2012) Quine, W.V.O. (1953) From a Logical Point of View. New York, Harper & Row. Todd, M, Bannister, P. & Clegg, S. (2004) Independent inquiry and the undergraduate dissertation: perceptions and experience of final-year social science students. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 29 (3) 335-355. Tubbs, N. (2005) Philosophy of the Teacher. Oxford, Blackwell. Winchester, University of (2012) Dissertation: Preparing a Proposal. Available at: http://www2.winchester.ac.uk/edstudies/courses/ES3002%20Final%20Year%20Project.htm (Accessed: 14 Dec 2012)
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