POISE Project: an institutional response to epistemological beliefs

November 4, 2014

(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:

Binary concept Belief statements (after (Schommer, 1990)) Scholarship roots Pneumonic
Quick or not at all Learning is quick or not all (Quick Learning) (Schoenfeld, 1983) Pace
Authority or Reason Knowledge is handed down by authority (Omniscient Authority) (Perry, 1968) Ownership
Innate or Acquired The ability to learn is innate rather than acquired (Innate Ability) (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) Innateness
Simple or Complex Knowledge is simple rather than complex (Simple Knowledge) (Perry, 1968) Simplicity
Certain or Tentative Knowledge is certain rather than tentative (Certain Knowledge) (Perry, 1968) Exactness

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’

Pneumonic Binary concept POISE Questions Scholarship roots
Pace Quick or not at all Is hard work enough? (Schoenfeld, 1983)
Ownership Authority or Reason Who has the answers? (Perry, 1968)
Innateness Innate or Acquired Who is responsible for my learning? (Dweck & Leggett, 1988)
Simplicity Simple or Complex Is there a simple answer? (Perry, 1968)
Exactness Certain or Tentative Is there always a right answer? (Perry, 1968)

 

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 “thats 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.

 

Bibliography

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:10.1037/0022-0663.82.3.498

 

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The research basis on which institutions respond to the case for learning support

November 1, 2014

(extracts from a draft Working Paper)

Following a review of institutional websites in October 2014 it is clear that the vast majority of UK higher education institutions have explicit policy statements relating to the provision of personal tutoring (80%) with the remainder stating such support in more obtuse references or in delegated documents at faculty or departmental level. Whilst the overwhelming preference is to use the term ‘personal tutors’ other refinements such as ‘personal academic tutors’ are also used alongside aligned roles such as ‘year tutor’ and ‘Dean of students’. Approximately 50% UK HEIs on their public webpages reference the use of personal development planning (PDP) alongside personal tutor support. At least 75% provide detailed web support for students defining the role of personal tutors alongside a range of other support services. It is noticeable that this is an active area of policy development with over 80% of policy statements having been updated in 2013 or 2014. The preference for over 90% of institutions is for a fairly traditional blend of personal guidance usually under the guise of:

  • Academic guidance
  • Academic support
  • Career planning
  • Pastoral support

This closely follows the benchmarking documents issued by Watts in 1999, when arguably there was more homogeneity in provision, who following an analysis of the role of personal advisers in post-compulsory education, stated the purpose of effective provision was:

  • Providing ongoing support in an established relationship;
  • Providing ongoing support in an established relationship;
  • Providing holistic guidance incorporating both academic and personal information advice and guidance;
  • Referrals to other support specialists;
  • Personal advocacy in the form of references and representation.

(Watts, 1999)

Higher Education Academy, in its work on widening participation, outlined a similar set of benchmarks with increasingly diverse communities in mind. The resulting recommendations suggest that personal tutoring comprises:

  • To provide of a stable point of contact within the University;
  • To provide guidance on higher education processes and procedures and expectations;
  • To provide academic feedback and development aimed at orientation of new students to academic demands;
  • personal welfare support;
  • To provide referral to sources of further information;
  • To build the institutional relationship and the sense of belonging.

(Thomas, 2006)

This ‘model’ of personal tutorial support was born at a time when institutions were largely ‘campus-based’ and many of them ‘residential campus-based’ with the vast majority of students living-in halls. It also originates in a highly selective environment when significantly less than the current target of 50% of school leavers attending further or higher education. The reality of plurality in provision surely require equally diverse responses. Ultimately institutions may need to relinquish ownership of its custodial relationship with the students and instead replace it with a system that empowers students to search for relevant support. The increasing diversity of the student body, drawn from all sections of society, regions, countries, nationality, and ages as well differing modes of study from online participation and distance study, to workplace and off-campus programs, surely questions the models of support but have stood scrutiny for so long. Given there is nearly universal agreement of the need for students to have access to ‘learning support’ this is the logical place to begin to assess provision.

Theoretical Models of Learning Support

The role of the personal tutor, under what name and guise, has been the subject of extensive writings although relatively little empirical research, with some subject or domain specific exceptions (Burk & Bender, 2005; Powell & Mason, 2013; Symonds, Lawson, & Robinson, 2007). Research focuses on cohort studies and deal primarily with subject skills specific support. There has been little research linking motivational and psychological factors with the operation of tutor support. Burke and Bender (2005) found that despite the formal support mechanisms in place students frequently relied on themselves and their informal peer networks. They also noted a gender difference with female students going outside the institution more frequently than their male counterparts. Studies addressing the needs of a particular demographic are frequently too generic to be of value in policy planning although some large international comparison studies to provide useful insights. Whilst the importance of student support services as a measure of institutional attractiveness alongside its academic, teaching and research profile is highlighted by studies (Kelo & Rogers, 2010) the actually uptake of services contradicts this assertion.

Studies relating to student support mechanisms have tended to focus on the question of retention and progress. One notable theoretical position by Vincent Tinto, described as Interactionalist Theory, is concerned with the early departure of students from colleges and universities. This work focuses primarily on the fear of failure by students and the failure of the institution to create a sense of community of belonging (Tinto, 1993). This work has been influential particularly in the US in influencing morals of student support but its emphasis has been on a traditional campus community despite that one empirical study could find only a single institution supported only 5 of Tinto’s original 13 propositions (Berger & Braxton, 1998).

More recent attempts by Ormond Simpson to develop theory of learner support in the context of distance learning is invaluable in basing its conclusion in the fields of learning and motivational psychology. Summoning Dweck’s self theory and Anderson’s advocacy for proactive support, Simpson suggests that there is a noticeable institutional benefit in the retention of students through development of alternative models of learning skills development and support. We should exercise caution however since Anderson suggests that remediation (intervention to support failing study skills) risk demotivating learners over time (Clifton & Anderson, 2002) and there is evidence that even learners who are made familiar with their personal learning style may not find any correlation with their motivation for learning (Jelfs, Richardson, & Price, 2009). There is broad agreement that study skills alone are insufficient and that motivation proves critical, with notable US research with school leavers identifying that students who receive self efficacy training have a higher retention rate than those receiving learning skills alone (Barrios, 1997).

Anderson and Clifton have advocated a “strengths approach” in researching the importance of self-esteem in the learning process. The premise is that individuals do best when they focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses and therefore focusing on those weaknesses may not be a particularly effective way of improving success. Rather they suggest that the identification and support for existing strengths, and understanding the means to transfer those skills for effective study, proves long-term gains. Anderson and Clifton identify some 30 strengths which can be explored in a face-to-face programme of encounters over number will of weeks (Clifton & Anderson, 2002) however Boniwell has suggested a nine-point approach for the relevant member of staff to use with individual students. This 9 point approach follows:

  1. Emphasising positive dimensional is during initial contact.
  2. Focusing on existing strengths and competencies.
  3. Identifying past success and achievement.
  4. Encourage “positive affect”, building on hope and aspiration.
  5. Identify underlying values, goals and motivations.
  6. Exploring personal stories, the rating one’s own life story.
  7. Identifying resources and support.
  8. Validating effort rather than achievement.
  9. Finally: exploring uncertainties and lack of skills.

(Boniwell, 2003 cited in Simpson, 2008)

Whilst Boniwell suggest some means to facilitate these conversations between staff and students should be enabled by institutions, the reality is many faculty would find such empathic discussions difficult.

Work by Vansteenkiste resulting in a “self-determination theory” identified that students performed best when they felt autonomous in their study choices (Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Deci, 2006), whilst evidence from the Open University UK that students who have a choice of study material and participate three options have the maximum student retention (Tresman, 2002). Most programmes of study however have been designed with deadlines, fixed content and rigid assessment processes make such findings difficult to implement in most institutions. Other theoretical models that explore notions of students self-identity include “achievement goal theory” in which one of three goals identifies students self orientation namely 1) mastery goals – to reach genuine competence, 2) performance goals – to demonstrate competence to others, 3) performance avoidance goals – to ensure avoiding perception of inadequacies (Skaalvik, 1997). Other researchers have concluded that there are complex social motivational factors involved and that there are reasons to pursue strategies that support performance goals as well as mastery goals (Harackiewicz, Barron, Pintrich, Elliot, & Thrash, 2002).

Vansteenkiste and colleagues carried out empirical studies that have shown that intrinsic goal framing (relative to extrinsic goal framing and no-goal framing) produces deeper engagement in learning activities. These orientations also ensure better conceptual learning and higher persistence at learning activities (Vansteenkiste et al., 2006). Within certain highly competitive disciplines and understanding of student motivation within this theoretical construct might prove valuable. Similarly work by Pajares also argues that self-belief and self-comprehension are important determinates in study success but such conceptions are frequently faulty (Pajares, 1996). Empirical studies examined students awareness of their own relative competence or incompetence and identified that whilst 60% of students had a realistic expectation of their own competence 20% had excessively unrealistic of their competence and 20% a negatively soft judgement regarding their competence (Pajares, 2004 cited in Simpson, 2008).

Study skills have become associated with an add-on provision based on an historical assumption that students enter university already equipped with the appropriate skills in order to undertake higher learning (N. Bennett, Dunne, & Carre, 2000). In an environment in which study skills are framed as remedial provision for students who arrive without the assumed skills, notably international students and ‘non-traditional’ students, are immediately disadvantaged (Cottrell, 2001). Most UK universities provide, usually provided by specialist study support centres situated within learning and teaching centres or within library services, opportunities for students to undertake writing enhancement programmes and individual tuition. Ursula Wingate argues that separating study skills from subject content and the process of learning is ineffective and that study skills should be more fully integrated within modules and programmes (Wingate, 2006). There is an argument to suggest that a full range of literacies should be integrated into the learning experience so bad in the knowledge driven world universities can prepare individuals to be ‘fully literate’.

“…literacy can be taken from a wealth of dimensions other than reading and writing ability or numeracy: media literacy, active citizenship empowerment, financial literacy, basic technological skills, social and values (ethical) literacy, intercultural dialogue aptitude, health literacy, to mention just some.” (Carneiro & Gordon, 2013, p. 476)

Unless as institutions we opt to educate to the syllabus without ambition we must surely consider the ways in which plural literacies in our disciplines should be framed. I have elsewhere argued that effectively designed learning outcomes using a full range of educational objective taxonomies should enable all the full range of higher education skills, a full range of literacies, to be acquired within modules and programmes if appropriately designed (Atkinson, 2013).

Bibliography

 

Atkinson, S. P. (2013). Taxonomy Circles: Visualizing the possibilities of intended learning outcomes. London: BPP University College.

Barrios, A. A. (1997). The Magic of the Mind (MOM) Program for Decreasing School Dropout. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED405436

Bennett, N., Dunne, E., & Carre, C. (Eds.). (2000). Skills Development in Higher Education and Employment. Buckingham England ; Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press.

Berger, J. B., & Braxton, J. M. (1998). Revising Tinto’s Interactionalist Theory of Student Departure through Theory Elaboration: Examining the Role of Organizational Attributes in the Persistence Process. Research in Higher Education, 39(2), 103–119.

Boniwell, I. (2003). Student retention and positive psychology. Presented at the Open University Student Retention Conference.

Burk, D. T., & Bender, D. J. (2005). Use and Perceived Effectiveness of Student Support Services in a First-Year Dental Student Population. Journal of Dental Education, 69(10), 1148–1160.

Carneiro, R., & Gordon, J. (2013). Warranting our Future: literacy and literacies. European Journal of Education, 48(4), 476–497. doi:10.1111/ejed.12055

Clifton, D. O., & Anderson, E. “Chip.” (2002). StrengthsQuest: Discover and Develop Your Strengths in Academics, Career, and Beyond (First Printing edition.). Washington, D.C.: The Gallup Organization.

Cottrell, D. S. (2001). Teaching Study Skills and Supporting Learning (First edition. Paperback edition.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Pintrich, P. R., Elliot, A. J., & Thrash, T. M. (2002). Revision of achievement goal theory: Necessary and illuminating. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(3), 638–645. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.94.3.638

Jelfs, A., Richardson, J. T. E., & Price, L. (2009). Student and tutor perceptions of effective tutoring in distance education. Distance Education, 30(3), 419–441. doi:10.1080/01587910903236551

Kelo, M., & Rogers, T. (2010). International student support in European higher education needs, solutions and challenges. Bonn: Lemmens.

Pajares, F. (1996). Self-Efficacy Beliefs in Academic Settings. Review of Educational Research, 66(4), 543–578. doi:10.3102/00346543066004543

Pajares, F. (2004). Self-efficacy theory: Implications and applications for classroom practice. Presented at the International Conference on Motivation “Cognition, Motivation and Effect,” Lisbon, Portugal.

Powell, C. B., & Mason, D. S. (2013). Effectiveness of Podcasts Delivered on Mobile Devices as a Support for Student Learning During General Chemistry Laboratories. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22(2), 148–170. doi:10.1007/s10956-012-9383-y

Simpson, O. (2008). Motivating learners in open and distance learning: do we need a new theory of learner support? Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 23(3), 159–170. doi:10.1080/02680510802419979

Skaalvik, E. M. (1997). Self-enhancing and self-defeating ego orientation: Relations with task and avoidance orientation, achievement, self-perceptions, and anxiety. Journal of Educational Psychology, 89(1), 71–81. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.89.1.71

Symonds, R. J., Lawson, D. A., & Robinson, C. L. (2007). The effectiveness of support for students with non-traditional mathematics backgrounds. Teaching Mathematics and Its Applications, 26(3), 134–144. doi:10.1093/teamat/hrm009

Thomas, L. (2006). Widening participation and the increased need for personal tutoring. In L. Thomas & P. Hixenbaugh (Eds.), Personal tutoring in Higher Education (pp. 21–31). Trentham books. Retrieved from http://repository.edgehill.ac.uk/62/

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press.

Tresman, S. (2002). Towards a Strategy for Improved Student Retention in Programmes of Open, Distance Education: A Case Study From the Open University UK. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/75

Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Deci, E. L. (2006). Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the Quality of Academic Motivation. Educational Psychologist, 41(1), 19–31. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4101_4

Watts, A. G. (1999). Watts, A.G.: “The Economic and Social Benefits of Career Guidance”. , No. 63, 1999. Educational and Vocational Guidance Bulletin, 63, 12–19.

Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with “study skills.” Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469. doi:10.1080/13562510600874268

 


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