(Extracted from a Draft Working Paper)
In the belief that student success in learning requires an awareness of one’s own epistemological belief structures one recent project, the POISE project, sought to acknowledge and reinforce the diverse cultural contexts in which learning occurs. It aimed to provide a toolkit to enable a consistent, supportive and transformative orientation to study, as a core provision for ALL students across ALL programmes of study. POISE was an institutional-wide change initiative, in partnership with the Higher Education Academy Change Initiative that reflects the global nature of the professional education BPP University offers to its undergraduate and postgraduate students in Business, Law and Health.
The original aim of POISE was to facilitate engagement with a POISE ‘toolkit’ by each student, and each member of faculty, in order that they “hear their own voice”. In doing so they become aware of their own unique epistemological belief structure and therefore of the uniqueness of others’ equally valid perspectives. This is vital for a higher education institution to actively demonstrate interest in individuals as learners and that such interest is fundamental to facilitating successful educational experiences. Each individual voice is as valid as anybody else’s and when heard students will be able to shape the delivery of teaching and learning activities. This happens because faculty become increasingly aware of diverse perspectives and students ability and willingness for greater engagement with fellow students’ unique frameworks. Given this loftly ambition the project team, a mixture of faculty and students, began identifying the themes in the epistemological literature and linking these to those areas of student ‘need’ of which we were already aware. We felt it was essential to develop a framework for student and faculty engagement based on the literature in order that future materials or issues would be contextualised. We were seeking to avoid the development of diverse and disconnected resources. The aim was to produce a ‘framework’ that would allow opportunities to engage in a ‘dialogue about beliefs’.
The notion of binaries presents an opportunity to engage in a ‘dialogue about beliefs’. We suggest that it is appropriate to establish the beliefs about learning that underpin a student’s (or faculty member’s) approach to learning and teaching, rather than to identify a ‘problem’ and tackle it with an intervention in isolation. For example, if it is believed that a student is not fully aware, or in tune with, the institutions guidance on plagiarism, it would be useful to introduce this dimension of academic practice by first exploring the question of whether knowledge is based on authority or reason. Without a fundamental understanding that the western academic tradition expects students to develop their own reasoning skills and to acknowledge pre-existing authority in a particular way, one cannot effectively explore the detailed nature of academic referencing, citations and intellectual ownership. Based around five dominant themes in the epistemological literature it was decided that we would use POISE (as an aide memoir or pneumonic) and follow a similar pattern, this resulted in the following matrix:
||Belief statements (after (Schommer, 1990))
|Quick or not at all
||Learning is quick or not all (Quick Learning)
|Authority or Reason
||Knowledge is handed down by authority (Omniscient Authority)
|Innate or Acquired
||The ability to learn is innate rather than acquired (Innate Ability)
||(Dweck & Leggett, 1988)
|Simple or Complex
||Knowledge is simple rather than complex (Simple Knowledge)
|Certain or Tentative
||Knowledge is certain rather than tentative (Certain Knowledge)
After a sequence of internal workshops, complemented by thought-provoking events arranged by the Higher Education Academy as part of the HEA Internationalisation Change Programme, the team began to generate an expansive and highly ambitious ‘cradle to grave’ approach which required production of comprehensive learning support resources. However at an internal design workshop in January 2013 we determined that our enthusiasm to support the student experience in every way possible, although laudable, had created unrealistic expectations for our initiative. We determined that we needed to regain our focus on the original project aims concentrating on creating a solid foundation from which to build effective resources which relate to specific parts of the student experience (i.e. those concerning learning transitions, successful integration into learning communities and improvement of the effectiveness of student learning environments). Through further staff and student focus groups these ideas were developed and refined. It was determined that the original framework grounded in the literature was inaccessible to students, and perhaps the majority of faculty, and so the five dimensions of epistemological belief were re-cast as ‘open questions’
||Quick or not at all
||Is hard work enough?
||Authority or Reason
||Who has the answers?
||Innate or Acquired
||Who is responsible for my learning?
||(Dweck & Leggett, 1988)
||Simple or Complex
||Is there a simple answer?
||Certain or Tentative
||Is there always a right answer?
The project also benefited from external feedback given by other higher education institutions during the HEA Internationalisation Change Programme and at the HEA sponsored workshop held by Newman University College in February 2013 entitled “Developing Culturally Capable Staff”. This feedback related to the foundation, but also the proposed framework, and delivery of POISE. We concluded that pneumonic designed to recall Pace, Ownership, Innateness, Simplicity and Exactness also served as a project title making POISE about producing effective resources built on the following foundation:
- PERSONAL – focussed on the individual;
- ORIENTATION – not ‘cradle to grave’ solutions;
- To the INTERNATIONAL – we define this as everyone’s context rather than a question of nationality;
- STUDENT EXPERIENCE – focussed primarily on their learning and awareness of the self as learner.
The original concept had aimed at facilitation of the dialogue between the individual personal student and student. That these questions should frame staff development effort for all tutors in order that they would benefit from a greater personal insight into their own epistemological belief and be better to support the transition from naïve to sophisticated belief systems held by students. The internal School structure of the institution prevented against such an approach and the project resorted to developing a standalone web-based resource. The five themes have emerged as a series of five web pages, each containing a dialogue between two different perspectives, which explore each of the binary opposites outlined above. Each short video (less than three minutes) introduces the broad concept through opposing dialogue.
As part of the project many excellent ‘talking heads’ resources were considered and indeed a search on YouTube reveals dozens of international students talking about their experiences. Our original intention had been to add to this body of shareable testimonies and commentaries with similar live videos of individuals talking. However as the project developed it became clear that the most powerful evidence was not an individuals statements but what emerged in dialogue with others, and so a series of short vignettes of two or more students discussing their learning was deemed more appropriate. Understandably some of the participants in our developmental workshops were concerned that their honest declarations would be judged by others negatively and early attempts to have individuals act out previously heard dialogues were unconvincing. We also identified that all of us, every one of us, will make a ‘judgement’ on seeing and hearing someone speak. We bring all our own personal histories and assumptions to bear. So we wanted to find a way of sharing these valuable insights, short snippets of students’ conversations about the POISE questions, without the person watching ‘jumping to conclusions’. We sought to avoid a tendency to say “ah, yes, Japanese students would say that“, or “that’s what British students always say about maths.“ So we decided to use cartoons. The voices are not as natural as one would like, but they are ‘neutral’. It is obvious that they are not ‘real people’, but the dialogue is. The words spoken are students words. In our workshops we have found that students and faculty watching the videos laugh a little at the ‘digital;’ voices on the first clip but soon acclimatize and start to listen to the actual dialogue. The dialogue between students has been only lightly edited and a transcript is therefore available for each video. This also means that as the technology improves we can always redo the cartoons for more and more natural voices.
It was anticipated that this would illuminate some well-documented (but evolving) cultural differences in expectations of study at higher levels and provide the student with a comprehensive personal ‘audit’ which they would use as the basis for discussion with their tutorial support. Faculty, having also engaged with the resource would be enabled with a common frame of reference and be encouraged to explore the similarities and differences in epistemological approaches of their approach with students, highlighting the impact this might have on learning practices. Faculty, the majority of whom are also Personal Tutors, would consequently be exposed to a greater range of supported and documented perspectives, moving beyond the anecdotal ‘challenges posed by International Students’ to a greater, and transparent, acknowledgement of the richness of learning and teaching opportunities contained within these different epistemological perspectives. It was also intended that existing institutional coaching and mentoring skills development for faculty would be used to support staff engagement with the POISE change initiative.
Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256–273. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.95.2.256
Perry, W. G. (1968). Patterns of Development in Thought and Values of Students in a Liberal Arts College: A Validation of a Scheme. Final Report. Office of Education (DHEW), Washington, DC. Bureau of Research.
Schoenfeld, A. H. (1983). Beyond the Purely Cognitive: Belief Systems, Social Cognitions, and Metacognitions As Driving Forces in Intellectual Performance*. Cognitive Science, 7(4), 329–363. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0704_3
Schommer, M. (1990). Effects of beliefs about the nature of knowledge on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(3), 498–504. doi:10.1037/0022-06126.96.36.1998