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David Andrew: Psychology, Coaching, Higher Education

Starting from different positions, ‘Where’s the theory’: the experience of science students on a Business course.

Working paper
Starting from different positions, ‘Where’s the theory’: the experience of science students on a Business course.

David Andrew, John Clark and Miriam Green: The Business School, London Metropolitan University, (at the time of writing).
This paper describes part of a series of reflective research on the teaching of a Business School module ‘Organisational Analysis and Design* (OAD). This element of the research looked at the experiences and difficulties faced by a group of students who take the module as a compulsory module in a science faculty degree. The study uses David Kolb’s model of the experiential learning cycle to understand differences in teaching strategy and learning processes. In the context of modular degrees, it raises issues about the difficulties of moving from one academic discipline to another, and questions what information we should be providing to students about the teaching strategy of modules.
The study was the result of second year students on the Food and Consumer Studies Degree (F&CS) in a science faculty raising issues about the OAD module in their Board of Studies (the student consultative meeting), the OAD module is a core module on the F&CS degree and is located within the Business School. They felt they were at a disadvantage in relation to the Business School students taking the module and that they were having unnecessary problems understanding the subject. The module tutor suggested doing some collaborative work to explore the nature of the difficulties they faced and ways of addressing them. As a result, the two module lecturers, Miriam and John asked David, who did not teach the module to join them to form a research team to look at the module. As a result, three projects were started, one using action enquiry groups, one looking at the conceptual understanding acquired by the students and this project which looks at the specific experiences of the F&CS students.
This paper traces though the research activity chronologically to show the various stages, and will then discuss Kolb’s theory and finally the implications for educational practise. David’s original strategy that the team discussed was to use the students who had done the module in the previous year (then in their final year) to discuss issues about learning on the module with the students who were about to take it. However due to timetabling problems this was not possible, so David’s role was to act as the channel by which the experience of the previous students would be passed on to the new students.
At the beginning of the academic year a meeting was held with some of the final year students who had just returned after the vacation, and following some work experience. Partly due to the timing and difficulty in communicating with the students only 3 students attended, however the meeting was very positive. The students repeated some of the points that had been raised in the Board of Study meeting, that they felt disadvantaged by not having studied the subject before, but that when they began to see the relevance of the subject later, and became familiar with the terminology and concepts they did enjoy the module and could relate it to their work experience. The ability of those three students to discuss the value of being able to apply organisational analysis of their work experience was impressive and demonstrated that the learning outcomes of the module were being achieved. The students were interested in pursuing issues about learning, both because it would be an interesting project and because it would help them to learn more effectively.
The next meeting held with the final year students occurred after one of their lectures, so a larger number of students were present, between twenty and twenty-five. We reintroduced the project to ask for their assistance, explaining that we wanted to look at students learning styles and strategies in relation to learning the subject. The reception was initially hostile and an informal spokesperson made three main points. Firstly, that the module class was too big, they found the lectures intimidating and the diverse nature of the student group disadvantaged students with less previous experience of the subject. Secondly that the learning styles of the students was not the issue, that they had no difficulty with the subject once they had overcome the initial problems, and finally that the problem was the teaching style of the lecturers and their assumptions of the students’ previous experience and level of knowledge. These issues were not raised in the seminars because the F&CS students felt intimidated by the other students. However, at the end of the discussion five students did express an interest in discussing the learning issues more, and another meeting was arranged.
There were clearly a number of issues involved in the situation which we could have explored. On the question of the differences in previous experience of the subject the tutors were convinced that was not the significant factor. The social psychology of the situation was interesting with strong indications that the F&CS students saw themselves as a distinct group in the module. Much of the work of the module is done in small groups and it emerged that most of the F&CS students had worked in teams with each other (the membership was self-selected). One student who worked in a mixed team did not share the feelings of intimidation by the otter students so there may well have been a social dimension to the different perceptions of the module. However, it was decided to keep within the original plan for the research and a further meeting was arranged to talk about learning strategies.
The final meeting with the final year students was attended by eight students. The plan was for there to be a general discussion and then we would present some models of learning from which they would select the ones which applied to their learning approaches. In fact, the discussion developed into a useful analysis which clearly related to Kolb’s learning cycle which was adopted as the model for the analysis. We were able to clarify points that had been made at the previous meeting and felt that the discussion was a good summary of the students’ experience.
Their initial response to the module was that they felt lost, they did not understand the title of the module, did not know what the module entailed and also did not regard it as being as important as their other modules. Added to this they felt intimidated by the lecture format, partly because they were unused to large lectures, and parity because the teaching style was different. They then began to grasp some of the concepts and that this made them feel more confident, although they felt that some of them concentrated too much on some of the early concepts. David had a sense that the need to acquire the concepts had a psycho-dynamic rather that purely a cognitive function, that they were transitional objects in the transition into the new subject, providing security in the hostile world of the large lecture and the intimidating seminars. However, as had been said in the previous meetings, once they overcame the initial problems they had enjoyed the module and dearly had learnt a lot from it. David then asked them to compare the module with F&CS modules. The said the F&CS modules tended to be more practical, with clearer stepping stones and framework. The structure of the teaching they were used to was a lecture which introduced an element of theory, a practical session followed by tutorials. Rather than exploring learning strategies in general David then introduced Kolb’s learning cycle as a way of exploring the differences in teaching styles between OAD and F&CS.
David Kolb’s model of the experimental learning cycle has become an established framework for management development teaching and business education in general. The model states that in order to learn effectively from our experience we go through the following stages:

1; concrete experience, the event from which we will learn whether in normal work, or specific educational experiences,
2; reflective observation, reflecting on the event from various perspectives,
3; abstract conceptualisation, forming a theoretical understanding of the event, hypothesizing causality etc,
4; active experimentation, testing that understanding, either objectively by trying a practical experiment, or as a thought experiment, or often in educational settings attempting to talk to someone about the subject, this generates a new experience and completes the cycle. (Kolb – see above).

It seemed to David that the students were reporting that their learning experience in science generally started with the third stage of the cycle. The theory was presented in lectures and textbooks as the starting point from which the student learns by the practical application, on which they reflect through writing up and presenting the results in a tutorial. OAD, on the other hand, was taught on the basis of their experience, moving Kolb’s cycle in the way that he originally presented, an exploration of an aspect of experience, reflection on that experience, introduction to theoretical concepts to explain the experience. The position of theory in the two approaches is therefore fundamentally different. Coming from a background where nothing can be done until the theory is established and understood, the students were engaged in a learning process in which theory emerged from the exploration of experience.

The students agreed that this was a useful way of looking at their experience which helped them to understand it, and it was adopted as the model which would be presented to the students who were just starting the module.

David then met with John, who had not been involved in this research up to this point to talk about the teaching of OAD, and a colleague from the F&CS degree staff; both of whom confirmed the different approaches. The conversations started with the question of the relationship between the students’ experience, theory and the application of theory within the subjects and the way they taught.
In David’s discussion with John the first issue to emerge was the difficulty in determining the students previous experience; particularly in the lecture, “it is unknowable”, however the lecturer would use their common experiences in the university and assumptions about their participation in popular culture which provides experiences to draw on. During the lecture the lecturer would make comments “which they may find tiresome” – about what is happening in the lecture, for example in the lecture on power he would start by exploring the power and identity issues involved in getting a large number of students to be quiet at the beginning of a lecture, which would be followed by some reflective questions on that before introducing some concepts on power would be related to that experience. “The lecture needs to be entertaining and based on their experience, but using a conceptual framework.” When asked about what assumptions he made about students’ prior knowledge John answered in terms of their experience rather than knowledge. When asked about his objectives in teaching his answers included ‘sensitivity to organisation processes’, ‘examining the taken-for-granted’ and when confronted with the suggestion that the F&CS students had difficulty in identifying the theoretical basis of the model, he responded that he thought his approach was highly theoretical.

The F&CS lecturer described the degree programme as largely technical and “basically instilling knowledge” and emphasised the need for modules to cover the theoretical elements of the subject as the modules built on each other. In contrast the business modules the students take, including OAD do not have such a clear progression of knowledge. The emphasis and relationship between knowledge, theory and experience was fundamentally different. In F&CS the task of the lecturer was to cover the theoretical content and to reinforce the students learning through the practical work. The emphasis on progression in developing a subject based knowledge gave the students a clearer perspective on their current learning in relation to previous and future modules, and the OAD module did not fit into that progression.

The developing research model was then presented to the F&CS students currently taking the OAD module. They reported similar problems to the previous students and responded to the project in similar ways with some students claiming that the module was just badly taught and complaining of various practical problems. The model was presented and an interesting discussion emerged. One new issues which came up at this point was the texts, recommended for the module. Interestingly a particular complaint was made about a new text book which was particularly recommended for them to read in preparation for the module, Jackson, N and Carter, P Rethinking Organisational Behaviour. The tutors had felt that this was an interesting and easy entry into the subject, but is in fact a series of stories about the authors experiences in organisations and how they develop their organisational analysis through reflecting on experience. Not only were the students having difficulty in finding the theory in the lectures it was hidden in the books too. While that text is an extreme example many Organisational Behaviour texts share a similar approach to the subject, very different from a science text book. The students comments overall reflected the usefulness of the model in exploring students difficulties in getting into the subject.

Some comments from evaluation sheets completed at that session:
“I find it quite difficult to relate theory to real life situations and hope the teaching methods will be more direct. Applying my own experience seems to be vague.”
“Quite difficult to find theory. Don’t seem to get much from lectures or books …. Now think I understand about the different way of learning.”
“The first impression of the lectures was one of ‘lack of substance’. I understood that a certain amount of time would be given to the induction but was concerned that during the 2nd lecture more information was not given. Therefore it is useful to know that the substance may be just a lack of the usual ‘concrete theory’.”

This final comment seems to summarise the students’ difficulties. Both Kolb’s model and the traditional approach to science education agree that the students leaning experience needs to be but on a concrete base. For Kolb, and the OAD staff that base is concrete experience, for the F&CS staff and students the base is concrete theory. The issue is not just an epistemological issue of the construction of theoretical understanding, but for the students provides the transitional process into competence.