Reading about connections between theory and practice in teaching, metaphors for learning, and academically-supportive friendships

We recently ran a round-table discussion on “How to teach students who are not “mini-me”s (and don’t want to be)” at the Lund University Teaching and Learning conference last year, and now I am trying to write a conference paper on what we discussed there. So naturally, I am starting out by re-reading the literature suggestions we gave, as well as some other interesting articles.

The premise of our round-table was that we as university teachers are teaching more and more students that might not identify with us as role models, and might not want to. So one interesting aspect is how much a university teacher’s career path should be the same as the one of the student they are teaching?

Forster et al. (2017) discuss the “decoupling and recoupling of practice and theory” in engineering education, which I find really interesting. Traditionally, engineering and construction have been taught in a master-apprentice type way, where apprentices learned experientially, hands-on, from an expert or experts, and could take on more and more responsibilities over time until they themselves became masters. At university, engineering is still a fairly new topic. But this shift from “training” to “education” introduced new challenges: At universities, engineering is often taught by “career academics” who might have limited practical experience. This makes it difficult for them to bridge the gap between what they are teaching about and practical relevance. Thus, universities might educate more academics rather than more people that are actually trained for practice, or the transfer of theory into practice is left to the students. On the other hand, maybe a lot of the knowledge and skills required in engineering today are of a kind that is better taught at university than hands-on. So how can theory and practice be meaningfully brought together again? Forster et al. (2017) describe engineering education as at a crossroad between research excellence, teaching excellence, and graduate level apprenticeship (i.e. employees splitting their time between a workplace and university), but their main suggestion seems to be making sure that university teachers have sufficient practical experience to adequately bridge the gap.

But if the main lever to bridge the gap are hiring decisions, i.e. hiring teachers who are already bridging the gap themselves, are we then not just hiring “maxi me”s so students can again be “mini-me”s? And what do we actually mean by “teaching”?

Wegner & Nückles (2015) discuss metaphors of learning in higher education. I’ve written about Sfard (1998)’s acquisition (knowledge as something we can possess) vs participation (knowledge as something we do) before, and Wegner & Nückles (2015) expand it into four different categories: acquisition becomes transmission (we can receive it) and construction (we actively build it), participation becomes apprenticeship (we can help students develop expertise) and community growth (we can co-create). Wegner & Nückles (2015) interviewed almost 40 teachers and analysed where their answers fell both on the four categories of metaphors of learning, and mapped that with teachers’ conceptions of teaching, and namely teacher-oriented, student-oriented, or co-construction. I find this study really interesting because it stresses again how we should carefully consider what type of metaphors we use because it does not only shape our own thinking, but also obviously that of others that hear us speak in a certain way.

Thinking about communities etc, we often focus on what teachers / universities can do for student sense of belonging and ultimately retention. One aspect that I haven’t focussed very much on is the social aspect outside of university.

Wilcox et al. (2005) investigate students’ first-year experiences in higher education. Classically, the main concepts used to explain them are students’ academic and social integration, but Wilcox et al. (2005) additionally found social support, the functional quality of student integration, as significant a significant theme contributing to student retention: Making the transition from the “old family” at home to a “new family” at university that can act as support network. Strong ties with family/partner/friends at home lead often to repeated travel home to maintain those relationships at the cost of making/improving on new ones in the new place. Living arrangements play a large role in forging the new relationships: the way student social life is supported, and especially how accommodation is designed, can make it much easier or harder for students to develop supportive friendships.

What kind of friendship networks students form does also depend on other factors, and the type of their network can have a big impact on their academic success.

McCabe (2016) looks more deeply into “friends with academic benefits”: friends can be supportive while at the same time not being academically helpful. They identify three types of typical networkers: tight-knitters (who have one big, close friend group, where everybody is friends with everybody else), compartmentalizer (who are part of two to four clusters which are in themselves tight-knit, but not connected to each other except by the compartmentalizer themself), and sampler (who have unconnected friends). These different types of networks can have different impact on academic success:

  • thight-knit networks can be, but don’t have to be, academically supportive, they might also move everybody more towards the average and reproduce inequality based on race or class. They might also be too dominant in students’ live, thus becoming a distraction from studies. “All behaviors — negative and positive — were quite contagious within tight-knit networks”.
  • compartmentalized networks usually consist of clusters with different functions, social (also helping with specific aspects like race or class-based marginality) or academical, which ideally balance each other.
  • samplers oftentimes don’t feel social support from their friends and oftentimes feel, and remain, isolated, even though the total number of friends might not be lower than for the other two types. Academic support might primarily come from family or pre-university friends.

The networks are not only important for time at university, but also constitute the foundation of later networks. However, samplers often become tight-knitters after their time at university. Since friends can have such a large impact — both positive and negative — on academic success and feeling of belonging/isolation, it is important to be aware of this as teachers, and also to raise awareness of it in students.

And lastly, as teachers we can not only make students aware of this, we can also influence what kind of networks they form, at least to some extent.

In her doctoral dissertation, Fjelkner Pihl (2002) discusses “building study-related relationships” and suggests a “strategic framework for group formation” that consists of the two dimensions “teacher vs student assigned” (the constant discussion both with students and with teachers!) and then “low- vs high stakes assignments”. She recommends that students work in teacher-assigned groups for low stake assignments to facilitate interactions, and to mix groups in ways that people actually meet new people of different gender, age, nationality. Working on high-stakes assignments in teacher-assigned groups is that the group work is grade relevant, so there might be more pressure and unequal contributions might lead to a lot of resentment. Working on low-stakes assignments in student-selected groups is quick and easy, but does not help build new relationships. Working on high-stakes assignments in student-selected groups seems to be desirable for students again, and also the quality of the outcome seems to be best here for student-selected groups. But all of this also depends on the stage the students are in — the earlier in their studies, the more important it is to build new connections. Later on, they should hopefully already be well set up for successful studies.

So that’s the summary of today’s reading! :-)

Fjelkner Pihl, A. M. (2022). Building study-related relationships: How student relationships and readiness affect academic outcome in higher education. PhD thesis. Center for Engineering Education, Faculty of Engineering, Lund University.

Forster, A. M., Pilcher, N., Tennant, S., Murray, M., Craig, N., & Copping, A. (2017). The fall and rise of experiential construction and engineering education: decoupling and recoupling practice and theory. Higher Education Pedagogies, 2(1), 79-100.

McCabe, J. (2016). Friends with academic benefits. Contexts, 15(3), 22-29.

Wegner, E., & Nückles, M. (2015). Knowledge acquisition or participation in communities of practice? Academics’ metaphors of teaching and learning at the university. Studies in Higher Education, 40(4), 624-643.

Wilcox, P., Winn, S., & Fyvie-Gauld, M. (2005).“It was nothing to do with the university, it was just the people“: the role of social support in the first-year experience of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(6), 707–722.

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